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Counting Crows and Other Species
a print article by Felicia Waynesboro
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A pair of gorgeous Redheads was spotted swimming in the frigid waters of Harvey's Lake earlier this month, their breasts cutting two perfect V-shapes along their paths. There was no danger of their catching a cold from the icy dip, though.
These Redheads were ducks.
They were among the species sighted in the Back Mountain Area Saturday, Dec. 16 by a party of local bird watchers participating in the National Audubon Society's 96th annual Christmas Bird Count. This year's count continues through Tuesday, Jan. 2.
The Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) are used throughout North America (and in parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and Pacific islands) to monitor the whereabouts of birds in the last weeks of each year.
Scattered about the globe, more than 44,000 volunteer bird watchers descend on natural habitats and backyard feeding stations. With binoculars in hand, they count the number of species and individual birds to be found in a 24-hour period within a 7 1/2 mile radius of a location designated by the Audubon Society.
No captive birds are counted, even if they have escaped into the wild - no barnyard fowl, no pets, no zoo birds. Only birds that have come to a region naturally, under their own power, become part of the study. The count is part hobby, part sport; it is fun, a test of skills and endurance and it is good science.
"Christmas Bird Counts are the best method we have for gathering interesting and scientifically useful information on the distribution patterns of various bird species and the overall health of the environment," says Geoff LeBaron, head of the CBC at the National Audubon Society headquarters in New York City.
"Birds capture people's passion and the most knowledgeable birders tend to be people who are doing it for recreation, not ornithologists."
Bird watching carries much of the same stimulation as hunting - being wily enough to find the prey.
The challenge of solving the mystery of identification is a game. Calls, behavior, field markings, size and silhouette all become clues.
Every year since 1958, Ed Johnson has led the Luzerne County CBC group.
Johnson, director of Student Teaching at Wilkes University, took three volunteer birders under his wing on Dec. 16. One of three groups, they set out at 4am to cover their 15 mile circle in the Back Mountain.
On this day, the birders were joined at 7am by a married couple venturing out on their very first CBC. Misty daylight revealed a potpourri of waterfowl on Harvey's Lake: Coots, Canvas Back Ducks, a Hooded Merganser, Ring Necked Ducks, Widgeons, Horned Grebe, Scaup (the question of whether Greater or Lesser Scaup sends even the veterans to the field guides which are kept close at hand), Common Goldeneye, lots of Mallards and the two Redheads. By afternoon, taped and vocalized owl calls caused alarm in land birds and a flock of about 25 Chickadees swarmed in, collecting in the trees down the road from the Dallas Veterinary Clinic to see what the excitement was.
Bill Reid, a Wyoming County Commissioner, is one of the most experienced birders in Pennsylvania. Reid compiles information for the Greater Wyoming Valley Audubon Society's Bird Hotline (717-825-BIRD), a recorded source of information year-round on the hottest birds recently seen in the area.
Reid led the Bradford County Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 23, as he has done for the last 45 years. Though not on a Christmas Count, about five years ago he was among the birders who sighted a Hawk Owl in Wayne county - a bird that had not been seen in Pennsylvania in 100 years. His life list is now 500 species long.
Carol Renna, a Remedial Reading Specialist in the Wilkes-Barre Area School District who has been birding for 15 years says, "I really like mammals better but they're tough because they are under brush and everything. I like wildflowers but they stand still. So I went to birds."
Bob Wasilewski, a math teacher in the Northwest Area, thinks there is a connection between his desire to teach and his desire to hone his considerable knowledge and skill regarding birds.
Johnson hoped his three Luzerne County teams would find 60 species; by the hunt's end they recorded 66 species and 3,312 individual birds. This data will be printed in a special annual book-sized edition of National Audubon Society Field Notes magazine, though it can take a year for all the data to be compiled and the results to be published. Numbers from the other Northeast Pennsylvania counties are still trickling in.
"Birds stay warm," according to Helen Hays, an ornithologist whose office at the American Museum of Natural History keeps abreast of the Christmas Bird Count, "because of their extremely high metabolism, because their feet and legs require very little blood supply and because they have the ability to fluff their feathers to create air insulation."
People do not. So when the CBC counters of Pennsylvania stand for hours each year in the holiday season's frozen air, their self-imposed task is not strictly for the birds; it is a kind of gift to the ongoing human effort to understand our complex relationship with nature.
© 2008-2017 Felicia Waynesboro
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