For thousands of birders worldwide, Christmas began Dec. 14. That was opening day of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which runs through Jan. 5.
During those three weeks, birders will take to the field for a full day of counting birds and collecting bird population and distribution data. It is the longest-running citizen science program; this year marks its 115th anniversary.
Participants fan out within a 15-mile diameter circle from a predetermined center to census all the species they encounter. Over the years, the data has proven valuable for researchers studying changes in populations and population shifts. By Jan. 5, more than 50 counts will have been conducted across North Carolina. This weekend, counts are on tap in Raleigh Saturday and in Chapel Hill Dec. 21.
This isn’t a casual stroll through the woods and fields looking at birds. This is an intensive effort where the mission is to find birds. That means getting off trail, walking through thickets, wading through marshes and swamps, getting in the field before sunup and staying after sundown. The count goes on rain or shine, cold or warm, wind or calm. I have done all-day counts in the freezing rain, deep snow and single-digit wind chills. This is serious business.
What’s the payoff? I get to spend all day with enthusiastic birders; I will see lots of good birds; there’s the potential to find a real local or state rarity; I know the information collected will go into a database that is constantly being tapped; and there is a free tally-up supper at the end of each day.