Nature Rambles | Observations from the 119th Christmas Bird Count

MIKE MILLER

MIKE MILLER

Each year, bird enthusiasts look forward to taking part in the longest running “Citizen Scientist” event in existence –– the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. This last CBC marked the 119th year that birders have been involved in documenting winter bird populations. The count is set up with teams in the field monitoring for bird activity within a 15-mile diameter “count circle” on a particular day from mid-December through early January. This takes place throughout the western hemisphere. Count circles are as far-flung as Baffin Island in the north, Paraguay to the south, the island of Guam to the west, and the island of Bermuda to the east. In all, there are over 2,500 count circles, and close to 77,000 volunteers are involved in conducting the count.

Data from the CBC has been used in hundreds of scientific studies and is now an important part of our understanding of how climate change affects bird populations. In National Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report, the 100+ years of CBC data was used to predict the plight of 588 species of North American birds. By combining climate models with population data, scientists predict that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080. You can view this interactive report online at http://climate.audubon.org.

Closer to home, there are three count circles that are coordinated by members of the Peoria Audubon Society; Peoria, Chautauqua and Chillicothe. Collectively, these three circles documented 99 different species of birds. Close to 79,000 individual birds were counted. There were 43 volunteers that logged over 1,000 miles along roadways and walked close to 75 miles on trails. Here are a few highlights of the three counts.

The Peoria Count took place on Dec. 15. Eight teams covered territories that included both sides of the Illinois River in portions of Peoria, northern Tazewell and southern Woodford counties. There were 72 species and 9,991 individual birds documented by the observers. In many ways, this was just an “average” year. Weather conditions were good, but the count took place not long after a particularly windy “blizzard” that likely dispersed a lot of birds from the region. One highlight was the documentation of the Black Scoter. It was the very first time that this species has been observed during the long history of the Peoria CBC. The Black Scoter is an ocean-loving diving duck that sometimes makes an appearance in the upper Great Lakes during migration. Perhaps the recent blizzard blew them off of their normal migratory path. There were three birds that were hanging around the Illinois River and observable from the RiverPlex. Several birders from throughout the state made the trek to the Peoria riverfront to get this species on their regional life-list. It was nice that they stuck around and made an appearance on the Bird Count.

The Chautauqua Count took place on Dec. 22. Six teams covered territories that included both sides of the Illinois River in Fulton, Mason and southern Tazewell counties. There were 83 species and 62,507 individuals. The Chautauqua Circle covers some pretty amazing habitats including the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area and portions of The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve. With these great habitats, it’s no surprise that waterfowl numbers really boost the number of individual birds observed. Over 40,000 Snow Geese were observed, as well as 3,770 Greater White-fronted Geese, and 4,577 Mallards. While that number of Snow Geese might seem huge, the actual high-count record dates back to 2014 when 186,613 were spotted. This year was a high count for Trumpeter Swans with 969 being counted. If you recall the story I did last year about this species, it was once wiped out in the Midwest. It is nice to see them making a steady comeback. However, these high numbers in our parts might be a fleeting thing. According to National Audubon’s predictions, this species will likely lose 67 percent of its current winter range by 2080. By that time, this species will likely not need to migrate as far south in the winter and will not be regularly observed as far south as Illinois. As if a premonition of what’s to come –– this year was the first year that a Great Egret was spotted on the Chautauqua count. This species is normally well south of here by this time of the year and usually spends its winter along the gulf coast. Mild winters are causing shifts of migratory habits of several species. Hopefully this fellow decided to move further south before the late January cold snap froze his feeding areas.

The final count in our region was the Chillicothe circle that took place on Jan. 5 and covered areas on both sides of the Illinois River in portions of northern Peoria, Woodford and southern Marshall counties. Six teams observed 62 species and counted 6,331 individual birds. It was also the first year that the Great Egret was spotted on this count.

Individually, these counts offer us a snapshot of the wintering bird populations in a defined area. Collectively they offer us a larger view of bird populations in the western hemisphere. Over time, they show us population trends. With 119 years of observations dating back to 1900, it is one of the deepest data sets on earth. In order to know where things are going, it’s a good start to know where they have been. To find out more about the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, visit https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.

Mike Miller



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