A holiday tradition for citizen scientists

by Sam Wilson
Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Commonly known as the bluebill, the greater scaup, along with the closely related lesser scaup, is a duck species that often takes a rest in the Cape Fear region during its annual winter migration from the Arctic Circle. 

With both populations in decline throughout the past several decades, citizen scientists will be keeping an eye out for them, along with hundreds of other bird species during the Audubon Society’s 114th annual Christmas Bird Count.

“This is the longest running citizen science project in the country, and the information we are gathering is basically giving us an early-winter snapshot of who the birds are and where the birds are,” said Andy Wood, director of the Coastal Plain Conservation Group. “Wilmington’s count, and the Southport count, they’re often the highest [in the state], and that’s because of the habitat diversity. The greater your habitat diversity is, the greater your plant, wildlife and bird diversity will be.”

The 2013 Christmas count will begin Dec. 14 and run until Jan. 5, with organized groups targeting certain areas on specific days. In New Hanover and Pender counties, a geographic circle including Lea-Hutaff Island, Holly Shelter Game Land and points in between will be under close observation by birders, both new and experienced, who will take in the sights and sounds of avian fauna in their assigned areas and record their observations on Sunday, Dec. 15.

Marlene Eader, a volunteer with the Cape Fear chapter of the North Carolina Audubon Society, said she participated in the bird count in 2012 and was also impressed by the diversity of bird species she encountered.

“Last year I walked Lea-Hutaff Island,” Eader said. “It’s pretty intense, because it’s also done during the winter, so sometimes it’s very cold. There’s a specific day you have to be out, almost from sunrise to sunset, so it’s a long day and you’re recording almost everything you see.”

But the reward for all that hard work is one of the most comprehensive datasets of wildlife in existence. 

Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina, said the bird count began in 1900 on Christmas by the Audubon Society’s Frank Chapman, an ornithologist who wanted to supplant the Christmas tradition of bird hunting competitions in light of declining populations from overharvesting. 

Since then, it has evolved into a global exercise that in 2012 brought more than 70,000 people into natural areas, sighting more than 64 million birds from 2,296 species.

“I think there are about 120 species or so that people could expect to encounter in coastal North Carolina,” Addison said. “People could see red-cockaded woodpeckers, piping plovers, large flocks of dunlin, American oystercatchers and even a small number of red knot, which have just been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. … One of the neat things about the coast is the diversity of birds is so great.”

Anyone interested in participating in the Christmas Bird Count, or in finding more information about it, can contact Andy Wood at 910-742-2675 or awood@coastalplaincg.org

email sam@luminanews.com

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