By Rich Landers
Numbers aren’t the only focus of the annual Christmas Bird Count.
The event was founded in 1900 in New York to urge a change in what was then a socially accepted practice of killing birds — all kinds of birds — as a way of seeing what species are out there, or were.
The idea of a count brought people together with binoculars instead of guns.
Organized by the National Audubon Society, the 117th CBC will kick off this week across the country and beyond, with numerous single-day count outings scheduled by local birders in the Northwest.
Snohomish County’s Pilchuck Audubon Society’s Edmonds and Everett-Marysville counts are two of about 40 in Washington.
All of those eyeballs scouring the landscape through binoculars turn up something new every year on local counts as well as rare sightings, according to reports filed by group leaders.
Washington Audubon chapters have scheduled programs this week to help birders understand birding trends and to identify and understand birds that frequent this region in winter.
They also invite newcomers to join groups of birders that survey 15-mile diameter circles on designated days between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
A colossal database has been compiled in 116 years of number keeping by compulsive birders as interest in the annual event has spread.
The 2016 Christmas Bird Count set overall records for turnout — 76,669 volunteers participating in 2,505 group counts across North America, Latin America, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands.
They tallied a total of 58.9 million birds, down from the record 68.8 million birds counted in 2015. But diversity in the count was up in 2016, with 2,607 species tallied — roughly one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna.
The Northwest is rich with bird species, but the CBC helps put the numbers in perspective.
The 125 participants in the 2016 Everett-Marysville Christmas Bird Count listed 140 bird species, the second highest of all Washington state counts, according to local compiler Scott Atkinson.
“We recorded a significant number of record-high individual counts for 17 species, while tying for the record-high on five more, so the total individuals were well above average,” Atkinson wrote in the report. “These are as measured within the current positioning of our CBC circle, which is now 21 years old.”
A large group of birders contributing to the Kootenai County, Idaho, “big year” count work 12 months to identify about 210 species.
But a single 2016 Christmas bird count in the important December habitat of Yanayacu, Ecuador, tallied 509 species. That count reinforces the importance of critical habitat in specific locations, experts say.
Group leaders who file data also report details that help researchers monitor trends.
Last year’s severe, long-term El Niño event wreaked havoc in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, with warm ocean temperatures altering the food chain for marine creatures and resulting in huge die-offs of seabirds, especially common murres. Storm after storm pummeled the Pacific Northwest coast, affecting birds and bird counters.
Regardless of the weather, Northwest birders plan to be out in the thick of the action again to help scientists get a snapshot of winter bird distribution.
“Scientists tend to be more interested in the trends rather than the numbers and species of a single count,” said Atkinson, an avid bird watcher who has participated in Washington bird counts since 1974.
“Although you don’t want to take any one number too seriously, especially for the larger birds that move around like the bald eagle, at the same time the counts have gotten more effective over time.”
Because the circles that are surveyed aren’t moved once they’re established, surveys over decades help chart trends in those circles, such as the impacts of urbanization, he said.
For example, ducks that dive for mussels and other shellfish, such as the white-winged scoter, appear to be declining in the Everett count, he said.
Meanwhile, the black-capped chickadee, the downy woodpecker and Anna’s hummingbird are doing better, indicating that they are better suited to tolerating the urban development that’s fragmenting habitat in the survey area.
“Ten to 15 years ago, our count of Anna’s hummingbirds would be in the single figures,” Atkinson said. “We’d get maybe two, maybe four. As more and more people seem to be putting out hummingbird feeders and keeping them out in the winter, now those counts have not only increased in numbers, we’re in the triple figures. We hit an all-time high last year.”
While trends intrigue the scientists, the thrill for the counters boils down to being out there counting ducks and robins and knowing that you have a shot at seeing a rare bird that will stand out on a life list.
Most of all, Christmas Bird Count veterans say, the annual census that gives experienced birders a platform to involve newcomers in citizen science.
It’s a social event centered around the beauty and conservation of birds, which most counters agree is as important as the numbers.
“We continue to see growing involvement locally and increased interest in birds,” Atkinson wrote. “It seems there has never been so many people feeding birds from home. As far as participation, the feeder-watchers continue to be our biggest opportunity for growth.
“Some folks start with feeders, and then expand to cover their neighborhood — or more.”
The Pilchuck Audubon Society has sponsored the Everett-Marysville count since 1974 and the Edmonds count since 1984. The 15-mile circle counts are divided into sections to be surveyed by groups of birders.
The Edmonds Christmas Bird Count is centered west of Martha Lake in Lynnwood. It includes all of Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mukilteo, south Everett, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace and Maltby and Brier, as well as much of Bothell, Woodinville, Kenmore, Lake Forest Park and Shoreline.
The Everett-Marysville Christmas Bird Count, centered west of Quil Ceda Village in Marysville, includes all of Marysville, the Tulalip Reservation, north Everett, Smokey Point, Hat Island, and parts of Camano Island, Arlington and Lake Stevens.
Herald Writer Sara Bruestle contributed to this article.
Join the counts
Edmonds/south county: Dec. 17; Rick Taylor, email@example.com; 425-214-2764
Everett-Marysville/North County: Dec. 26; Scott Atkinson, firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-210-2716
Skagit Bay: Jan. 1; Lee Barnes, email@example.com; 206-365-7316
South Whidbey: Dec. 31; Govinda Rosling, firstname.lastname@example.org.