by LAURA HAYES
Can you spot a tufted titmouse or a red-shouldered hawk? Whitewater State Park needs bird enthusiasts to help with its annual Christmas Bird Count when participants drive or hike the area to identify birds.
“There are a lot of bird enthusiasts in the area,” Naturalist Sara Holger said. “Birds are everywhere. No matter where you live, you’re going to see them and attract them to your yard with feeders and landscaping … They’re everywhere.”
The bird count began in the early 1900s when ornithologists and bird enthusiasts were concerned about declining bird populations. “Birds were disappearing because of over harvesting and loss of habitat,” Holger explained.
According to the National Audubon Society, on Christmas Day in 1900 an ornithologist named Frank M. Chapman proposed a “Christmas Bird Census” when instead of hunting birds, people would count them. The data is then used by organizations, such as Whitewater State Park, to examine the population of birds that visit the area during winter.
“It’s a great way for people who enjoy birds to come out and help with citizen science,” Holger said. “Average citizens — you don’t have to have a degree — can help collect real, meaningful data that biologists and other resource professionals will use.”
It’s been interesting to see the trends in bird populations with climate change, Holger continued. “We’re seeing more birds stay around in the winter that used to move south. There’s some really cool things that they can glean off this data,” she said.
At Whitewater, Holger said that staff members seen more robins and red-winged blackbirds stick around the area during the colder months. “In the summertime, we’ve seen birds come up that usually don’t come to this region,” she added. “I think there’s some powerful ways to use this data in terms of climate change.”
Holger said that the data can also be used to assess the habitat of the birds — where are birds found and what can scientists do to help those populations flourish. “It comes in handy for a lot of different purposes,” she explained.
The country is divided into various survey circles, and one of the survey circles for the Christmas Bird Count surrounds Whitewater State Park, which has been participating in these studies for the past 21 years. Whitewater State Park and the surrounding valley is then divided into eight routes. Some of the routes are accessible by car, and Holger said that participants can pull off the side of the road and watch for birds from their vehicles. Other routes cut through the state park itself and can be accessed by foot.
When participants arrive at the park, Holger assigns them a specific route to drive and gives them a clipboard with various bird species. “[Participants] will note the different types of species, and how many of each species they see while driving along,” Holger said. Two teams will stay in the park and hike the trails.
Last year, 30 people participated and drove a collective 372 miles and walked a collective 24 miles. Participants reported seeing 2,872 birds and 39 different species. Holger said that last year, participants saw different types of raptors including golden and bald eagles and different types of hawks. Some of the birds such as the snow buntings and horned larks come from the arctic. “Just because we do these counts, it doesn’t mean that we see every bird in that area. It’s just what we happen to see at that time we were out in that location,” she said.
Holger advised not to worry if someone is new to bird watching. She works to partner new birders with experienced bird enthusiasts, who can give helpful tips and advice. “Bring a camera,” she advised. “If you take a picture, we can always identify them when you come back to the building.”
She also advised participants to be conscious of where they’re birdwatching and avoid trespassing onto private property or disturbing the birds’ habitats or activities.
The Christmas Bird Count will take place on January 1 from 8 a.m. to noon at Whitewater State Park. The count is free and open to the public. To sign up, email Holger at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 507-932-3007, extension 226.