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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Merry Christmas, and Happy Birding

Well, it's that time of year again. It's a time of orchestrated chaos for those living in the city, when you begin to feel like everyone around you has lost their wits (and that you may soon join them). For those living in small coastal communities, it's a time when the weather is slightly worse, the days are slightly shorter, and some people simply decide to hibernate until conditions improve. At Living Oceans, it's a time when we wind down for a couple of weeks, so this will be the final blog post for the year.

It is also the time of year when when otherwise sane and rational human beings spend hours out in the bitter cold, counting birds. That's right, the season of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is upon us.
The tradition of the CBC was started on Christmas day, 1900, by Frank Chapman of the early Audubon Society. Instead of hunting birds, which was a popular yuletide tradition at the time, Chapman organized a census on the same day in many locations. The tradition caught on, and today tens of thousands of dedicated birders (and armatures like myself) take to the back roads and waterfronts all across North and South America between December 14 and January 5.
Long-Tailed Duck
 This past Saturday, I joined a small but dedicated group of birders in the 19th annual Melcolm Island Christmas bird count. Aside from the frigid 30-40 knot breeze, it was a fine day (meaning that it wasn't snowing horizontally, as in previous years). We split into groups and peered into sheltered bays, behind breakwaters, at the tops of pilings, and even into farmers' fields in search of birds. Three to four hours effort resulted in sightings of over 1400 individuals of 39 species. The highlight for me was several sightings of Long-Tailed Duck, which are occasional winter visitors to BC coastal waters.
But the CBC is much more than an festive (albeit frigid) pastime for birders. The data that has been collected over the past eleven decades has allowed ornithologists to witness trends in bird populations and identify those in decline. In the 1980s, CBC data showed the wintering populations of American Black Duck to be in decline and conservation measures were put in place as a result. In 2007, the Audubon Society released a list of common birds in decline,  which includes a wide variety of sparrows, water fowl, and the ever charismatic Rufous Hummingbird. Last year, Audubon also published an analysis of birds and climate change, which shows how bird populations have shifted geographically over a forty year period due to warmer temperatures.
So if you need a break from the madness of holiday consumerism, and want to make a contribution to citizen science, pick up you binoculars and find a bird count near you. And for goodness sake, remember to dress warmly!
From all of us here at Living Oceans, have a very merry Christmas.

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