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Christmas Bird Count Blues [Censusing]

January 1, 2011

I’m going to try a new type of post: I’m going to start it, and I’m asking you to finish it. Not quite a Mad Lib, I can supply the nouns, verbs, and adjectives. I need you to round out the content. In doing so, you’re going to (hopefully) help me get some birding mojo back.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

The start of the new year means, among other things, we’re nearing the end of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season. If you weren’t already in the know, now you understand the heavy tilt towards CBC-oriented posting on bird blogs over the past couple of weeks. Today I completed the second of my usual two local counts, and during one of them I asked myself a question I haven’t been able to answer. Why do I bother?

OK, let me back off: I had a fun time doing the Elmira, NY count today. I went out owling for an hour just after the ball dropped in Times Square (nothing responded, except a pack of coyotes that edged closer and closer — kind of eerie in the darkness). I spent the morning hiking my assigned nature center properties counting woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches, I spent some of the afternoon cruising my “neighborhood.” We live in the boonies, so that entails walking stretches of rural roads flushing juncos, American Tree Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows, counting perched raptors, and guesstimating how many flippin’ crows live around here.

It’s the other count that makes me want to throw in my bins altogether.

Three weeks ago, as I wound my way through my section of the Corning, NY count circle I rediscovered the most common sight you encounter: yellow signs tacked to every fifth tree warning you not to leave the road. “POSTED,” they read, followed by a litany of things you’re not allowed to do: hike, hunt, trespass, spit, covet stuff, commit idolatry, cross your eyes. From what I can tell the only thing you’re allowed is to bleed after they exercise their right to plant a boot in your nether regions should you ignore the signs. Every so often, as I got out of my car to walk some portion of the road, I’d think about slipping into the expanses of woodlands, or follow a creek meandering through hemlock groves, or walk the edge of an old field. Then, after a volley of gunshots from those areas (warning shots, I began to suspect) I’d bail on my plans to even walk the road. I mean, I love birding, but I’m kind of attached to living, too.

This year seemed particularly bad. In past years cars would often stop while I’m trying to get a bead on some chip note from a roadside ditch or count the starling flock passing overhead, and once we got past the “why’re ya starin’ at my land?” phase the landowners were amicable to letting me look at their property. Not encroach on it, mind you, but at least I had permission to stare at their cows, corn stalks, and/or rusted appliances. Some offered suggestions on finding the “bunch of birds” they “always see” in the area. Not this year. This year the cars that stopped weren’t even interested in giving the, “You’re counting birds? Whatever you’re into, wackjob” brush off. No, each pick-up truck politely informed me my ass would be gettin’ a beatin’ if I didn’t move along . . . NOW, kid! Or at least some variation of that. Frick, dudes, I’m seriously not interested in your damn meth lab.

Now add in the social aspect of birding. CBCs, in my mind, are essentially a Big Day, just don’t forget to keep adding up the individuals of each species you find throughout the day. Like a Big Day, a team gets together and plans a strategy and a route for their section of the count circle, they scout the most active locations or to keep tabs on an unusual bird, they finally spend the day together racking up the numbers. The team may be two or six or somewhere in between, multiple eyes and ears and minds help find, identify, and track the birds. I also believe that comradarie of birding with friends is what keeps the momentum going. Birding by oneself, especially after being hassled by landowners, can start to drag. Our group that covers the entire Corning count circle is stretched thin so I’ve always birded by myself. In some years I’ve covered two sections since volunteers were scarce. Hmmm, at least, that’s the reason I’m given, maybe I should check my deodorant.

Traditionally Reina accompanies me on the first half of the day, luckily I’m able to keep our birding on public lands (a park with a playground, a path along the Chemung River) for those morning hours. And this year, after we ate our traditionally early lunch and Donna rescued her from what would prove to be a slow afternoon of unfulfilling car birding, I found my self getting more and more depressed as I drove on back roads trying not to make eye contact.

The Elmira count, which happens on January first, has the allure of starting off your year list, all birds — even House Sparrows and starlings – are “new.” The Corning count kicks off around 350 days into the year, so there’s very little chance of finding something you haven’t already seen.

But here’s why I’m going back next year . . . .

OK, don’t leave me hanging. I’d like to continue the count, but my motivation is at an all-time low. What strategies should I use to have a better CBC experience? How do you perform your counts? How do you keep you motivation high? Seriously, I’m looking for advice here! Please leave notes in the comments, or write a blog post about your methods and let me, and others, know.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2011 11:35

    I know in the 2 counts I do on a regular basis, there is some friendly competition to help keep it lively. You don’t want to come to the compilation dinner without some sort of good bird, so there is that motivation.

    On the Albany County count, my territory is much like you descirbed, nothing but private land with many angry land owners. In fact one year, we actually had a guy chase us down and force us off the road after looking at his neighbors feeders. He accused us of plotting to steal his snowblower… seriously. But after years of doing it, we’ve just learned to ignore land owners, they don’t own the roads, so we bird.

    But I think the reason I keep doing CBC’s each year is because like anytime you go birding, you have a chance to find something special. That alone can be a powerful driving force.

    • January 2, 2011 19:57

      @Will – on the plus side, I’ve never been directly accused of something specific, but to be accused of generally doing some undefined thing is kind of annoying — hard to talk your way out of that. I agree that finding something special would be awesome, especially because it goes to a national database for others to ogle, but first I need to find places to find that unusual bird. Last year on the Elmira count I found the first saw-whet owl ever reported (which surprised me, since we get them calling all the time around our place — within the circle!). Perhaps off-season scouting around Corning and meeting “the locals” so I became a sporadic fixture on their roadways would help.

  2. Peg Welles permalink
    January 2, 2011 11:59

    I just completed my first CBC yesterday. I was part of a group that counted along the coast and inland a few miles in Southeastern Connecticut. I didn’t have to contend w/ any irate rednecks, but we did have to pass inspection by the security team at a nuclear power plant which sits right on the shore. The security guards protected our nation by refusing to allow any cameras, which was a bummer since we saw a peregrine perched in an intake vent, and a razorbill just off the rocks.
    All in all, the day was very cool for me – added 2 species to my life list!

    • January 2, 2011 20:02

      @Peg – congrats on participating on your first count, and picking up lifers to boot! Hopefully it was addictive enough you’ll be a regular, and on multiple counts in the future. Sounds like your group had an amazing section in spite of nuclear security folks and lack of cameras for the Razorbill and Peregrine. In fact, I’m completely drooling about the Razorbill, what a great bird anytime, especially on a CBC! Thanks for sharing your story, hope you have great experiences in the future, preferably with camera.
      -Mike

  3. January 2, 2011 13:05

    On the Queens count this year I was in a new count sector but the guys I was with bemoaned the fact that so many access points to the bay have been cut off over the past couple of years by big fences with “No Tresspassing” signs. I was the volunteer fence-squeezer who wiggled through what holes were available to count what could be counted. Next year, we need to recruit a very small person for that task.

    I keep counting because if one does not do a CBC one can’t call oneself a birder, at least in North America. Period.

    • January 2, 2011 20:08

      @Corey – maybe next year I will slip into the verboten lands of rural Corning and risk the hunters and other peripheral 2nd amendment fans. Not sure if I’m that gutsy, and if I did, should I wear camouflage to go unseen, or orange to ensure not getting shot accidentally? It’d have to be deliberate, right?

      I’m trying not to care about labels, so if bailing on Corning makes others rescind my “birder” status, I’m cool with that and will proudly wear my scarlet letter. I will still eBird, contribute to local counts, and enter Big Day competitions, so I think I’ll be happy. Besides, I’ll always have Elmira. (One day I’ll move up and participate in Ithaca with all the birders in the Cayuga Lake Basin.)
      -Mike

  4. January 2, 2011 16:31

    I always do my home count (for me, it’s the Raritan Estuary CBC) and other counts in places that are likely to be enjoyable for birding. I don’t think I’d want to do a count with the constraints of the Corning CBC. My motivation is that I’m helping birds by contributing to a long-term sightings database and that I spend the day birding with other good birders. I also like the challenge of birding an area thoroughly and trying to make the numbers as accurate as possible.

    • January 2, 2011 20:15

      @John – you nailed the reasons I’ve always been excited about CBCs: the challenge, the scientific use, the socializing. My first CBCs in Arkansas and other NY sites met those criteria, but the Corning one removes the challenge (limited access) and the socializing (limited birders). My ideal would be pairing up with another birder (or more) and feeling free to bird wherever looked good without the dread of having to talk down an irate landowner.

      Really, your phrase “enjoyable for birding” sums it up exactly, and that’s the feeling I realized was missing. By mid-afternoon I was wondering out loud, “I’m not enjoying this, so why am I here?”

      Now, my most important question is, “Why should I go back next year?”
      -Mike

  5. January 2, 2011 20:20

    @All – thanks for the great comments and relaying your experiences. Sounds like you all bird in groups, is that right? I think one approach I want to try is to work with the count coordinator and ramp up the volunteer base for next year. There must be more folks out there interested in the experience, but I see very little advertising or traffic on the local listserves encouraging participants. I wonder how many folks in the area know about the Corning CBC. That may help with the socialization side.

    Regarding access to private land, what do you all do? And do you all scout the areas in the week (or more) before the count? I feel I waste a lot of time in places that aren’t productive and spend too little time in places that I didn’t adequately monitor. Have you met people in the area and asked permission to wander their land? Or stick to the roads and shrug off the people giving the ol’ stink eye while you bird?

    Again, thanks for the great comments and discussion!
    -Mike

  6. Carolyn permalink
    January 2, 2011 20:57

    I just finished my 4th CBC for this season, four different places. Today was around Geneva, NY. I had never been there so we scouted a few days ago. There are wineries in our section (with bathrooms!!) so we made a point to go in and ask to speak with the owner. Both places said yes we could walk their land. We also bought lunch at one winery and a growler of root beer at another. On count day we went back and the winery on the lake produced a warrior peregrine attacking a red tail, a soaring adult bald eagle and we found it’s nest down the road. A reliable Mockingbird had stayed around for us to count. But the most unusual find on the property was in the woods: a bundle wrapped in plastic, tied with bungee cords and placed on a sled. I jokingly suggested it was a body. The two men in my party examined it and said yes it is the body – of a goat. Now we have no idea what this was about but we had fun imagining the answer. Perhaps a neighbor’s goat got loss and was wreaking havoc on the vines and paid the price! Here are my suggestions for a successful count:
    1. You should always count with someone. It is more fun and safer.
    2. Definitely scout an area. The Mockingbird was there on scout day and we knew right where to look for him.
    3. Make contact with owners and locals. Offer them some birdseed if they have feeders.
    4. And it doesn’t hurt to buy something especially if you use the facilities.

    • January 3, 2011 11:41

      @Carolyn – Thank you for your very insightful comment. Your four point summary is going to serve as the beginning of my “How to Have a Successful CBC” template (fifth point: bird in an area with wineries!), as they hit the main source(s) of why the Corning count was so un-fun. Sadly, I lived in Geneva for five years (four for college, one working at the Ag Station) but never participated in the count there. Perhaps next year I’ll join a few throughout the Finger Lakes to experience how other areas run the event.

      And regarding the goat: that is just weird. I’m glad I didn’t stumble across that while out by myself, it’d make a freaky Blair Witch moment.
      -Mike

  7. January 4, 2011 09:39

    “By mid-afternoon I was wondering out loud, “I’m not enjoying this, so why am I here?””

    Shame, shame.

    For the science of it, dearheart, for the science.

    • January 4, 2011 12:00

      @Laura K – You know, I toyed with that reasoning and it didn’t hold up. I freely admit that while the CBC is a worthwhile scientific pursuit that’s not the main reason I like participating, there are other factors that come into play. In fact, because there is so little access to most of the habitat in the sections I’ve done over the years (and this year I heard the same complaint from several other counters), the “inventory” is probably a worse estimation than many (most?) other counts. Doing the same thing year-after-year, of course, standardizes it a bit, but since I’ve shifted sections that’s not even standardized.

      No, the main reasons for me are the challenge of bird-finding and -counting, and the thrill of trying to rack up a big “day list” (species wise and numbers), especially unusual birds, in places I don’t normally frequent. It’s an excuse to get out and bird for a day, a luxury I don’t afford myself often enough, and more importantly an excuse to get my daughter excited about nature and challenges, at least for the couple of hours she joins me. But there are better opportunities for a more gratifying experience.

      And worst of all this year? to maximize participation the count took place on 11 December, three days before the official CBC start date. So the results will go to The Kingbird (our state ornithological journal) but not to Audubon. So technically the science doesn’t even enter into it this year!

      Not shamed at all,
      Mike

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