The longest-running citizen scientist effort in the world

Burrowing owl (photo by Larry Smith)

Sometimes it seems that the holidays have completely taken over the month of December. And while those annual rituals do have their place in our lives, there are other traditions this time of year that also provide the chance to get together with friends and family, and satisfy the need to do something meaningful at the same time.

Every year from December 14 through January 5, tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas (and some Pacific islands) take part in the annual Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running citizen scientist effort in the world. This year’s event is the 113th held. Armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists, individuals and families go out on a mission to take part in an adventure that the Audubon Society says has now become a family tradition among generations. The data collected are used by Audubon and other organizations to assess the health of bird populations, and to help guide conservation action.

Locally, there will be two such events: On Saturday, December 15, participants will record activity at the Mohonk Lake/Ashokan Reservoir count circle. On Wednesday, December 26, participants are sought for the Ulster/Dutchess count circle, centered in Glasco and including portions of Ulster, Dutchess, Greene and Columbia Counties. Reports from feeder-watchers in the count circles are also desired.

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Each count area is a 15-mile-diameter circle divided into sectors, with each sector assigned a field party to census for the presence of birds in that defined area. Participants typically contact the coordinator in advance of the count day to receive an assignment to one of the field parties, says Steve Chorvas, organizer of the December 15 count. Most of the assignments to field parties on December 15 have been made at this point, but there’s room in the December 26 count circle. Chorvas likes to know in advance of the count day how many participants he’ll have available, in order to make assignments that result in the best coverage, with at least one person knowledgeable in bird identification assigned to each field party.

Most field parties start at dawn and count all day until dusk. Some field parties start earlier, says Chorvas, to census for nocturnal owls during the predawn hours. There used to be a $5 participant fee to offset costs, but beginning this year – the 113th for the Christmas Bird Count – the fee has been eliminated, although Chorvas says that Audubon is now relying on voluntary donations to help defray costs associated with organizing and compiling the count data.

Mark DeDea is coordinator of the December 26 effort. Readers may contact him for assignment to a field party that day, but can also help by counting the birds at their feeders if they live within the count circle. “There are a wide variety of habitats and bird-rich locations within the circle that promise to make this an exciting day in the field,” says DeDea. “Last year’s count netted a very respectable 83 species, and over 26,000 individual birds.” A compilation dinner to follow the count will be held at the stone building in Kingston’s Hasbrouck Park.

Christmas Bird Count, Wednesday, December 26, dawn-dusk, free/donations welcome; (845) 339-1277, forsythnature@aol.com, schorvas@verizon.net, www.christmasbirdcount.org, www.jbnhs.org.