Citizen science is on the rise, perhaps no place more dramatically evident than in amateur birdwatching circles, where nonprofessionals conduct scientific research and report their findings to local and national birding organizations. In our region, spotting and counting bird species are done year-round by individuals, many of whom then report their findings directly through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird app. Additionally, a large, organized effort is made each year in late December/early January called the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Small groups of birders are assigned 15-mile-diameter areas to count birds from before sunrise to after sunset, all on one designated day. Data from this nationwide count are collected by the Audubon Society to be used for species tracking and research. The Society depends upon the efforts of multiple parties of observers all over the country. A final count total is compiled, which can be compared to totals for the past 115 years to understand changes in bird populations.
Does this sound like an intriguing thing to do? Local participants in this longest-running citizen science effort in the Western Hemisphere – we’re talking tens of thousands of people across the land – will be divided into small groups and assigned places within the Ulster/Dutchess count area. You’ll join a field party that moves about by car or serve as a feeder watcher from one spot in the designated area. Familiarity with bird species is desired, because the whole point of the exercise is to recognize birds and compile usable data, so the CBC is not a leisurely day in the out-of-doors. Birders should be prepared for a full, fast-paced morning and afternoon – up to 12 hours – to get the job done.
Naturalist Mark DeDea explains the logistics of the bird count: “The circles are broken down into sectors that have defined borders. We try as best we can to duplicate sightings. The first bird count was conducted in 1900. It’s a global event, really. It’s become such a popular hobby, there’s a count in New York State every day in that three-week period.
“The first bird count was organized by ornithologist Frank Chapman. The tradition in the Victorian period was to go out and have these contests on Christmas Day: Whichever team killed the most birds was the winner, and they built up an appetite for the Christmas meal. Chapman said, ‘Let’s put away the shotguns and take out the opera glasses and identify the birds, rather than just blowing them away.’”
In Ulster and Dutchess Counties, the count is held by the John Burroughs Natural History Society (JBNHS), with DeDea heading the operation. Organizing a CBC requires making a lot of moving parts happen on a single day, with up to 40 to 50 individuals out in the field. DeDea and his Society associates line up volunteers and determine who in each group has the skills and proficiency of sighting and so on. I asked how birders know that they’re not counting the same bird more than once. Do birds generally stay in their areas, for example?
“On a given day, say I’m in a swampy area looking for a swamp sparrow that would be found in that habitat,” says DeDea. “The likelihood is high that that bird is going to remain in the count area and not move to the sector south of me. Many of the birds – we might see 70 different species, between 15 and 20 thousand individuals in a day – are not migrating as they might be in May, so that sparrow will only be counted once. Snow geese, moving high above, might be counted in more than one sector, but we compare notes and determine if a flock has been accounted for already. Having the count on a specific day each year helps us to compile data over time that’s basically consistent. Having it on different days each year would make for wide variables.
“Data from throughout the Western Hemisphere are collected to look for trends that we might not see locally. People submit their data in real time on eBird, and we’re able to see what’s changing from year to year. It might speak to the way climate change is affecting data, for example. An isolated event, like an ice storm, is tallied, too, to see how that affects things; how property and land management is considered. There’s definitely a global impact on which birds stay farther north all year long. This year we’ll probably see a bird that we call ‘half-hardy’: a bird that can eat seeds, is tolerant of mild conditions and could get by sticking around without snow cover in upstate New York. That bird might be the star sighting, but we know it’s a unique situation. It’s not really the reason we do the count. It’s more about how many crows and geese we see, for example.”
DeDea was born in the Town of Ulster and lives in Kingston. “This is another thing I love to almost brag about: I’m a college dropout. I was studying to be an art teacher and got bitten by the birding bug. It made it hard to go to any other class after being in the field.” He was greatly influenced by professor Heinz Meng, who was an active member of the Society. A SUNY-New Paltz teacher of Field Ornithology, Meng was considered one of the most significant conservationists of the 20th century. “He was responsible for reintroducing peregrine falcons to the Northeast. He caught his first peregrine falcon with his bare hands by lying in the sand dunes on Long Island. He became a breeder and rereleased them.” DeDea says that all the eyries of peregrines that you see now on the Shawangunk Ridge are no doubt descendants of Meng’s original falcons.
You might recognize DeDea if you’ve ever visited the Forsyth Nature Center in Kingston: He’s the self-proclaimed “zoo doo shoveler” who manages the care of the birds and animals living in Forsyth Park. This job pays the rent, he says. His other job, entirely volunteer and leisure-time-consuming, is to preside over the Society and its various activities, which go well beyond monitoring wild birds. The 2016 list of more than 60 field trips include walks at Slabsides and Wilson State Park, among many other outdoor spots featuring a wide range of subjects: tree identification, migration viewing, butterfly watch, moth and owl nights, fern and mushroom walks and too many others to list here. Flower identification, geology, insects, herptiles and, of course, more birdwatching fill out the year’s agenda.
Organized in 1950 by a group of scientists and educators, the Society serves as a source of information about the flora, fauna and natural history of Ulster County. The organization was named for the great writer/naturalist because Burroughs lived most of his life in the county. In 1964, the Society was incorporated as a non-profit educational organization. Over the years membership has increased and a widening scope of activities has been made available, all of which are free to the public. The Society also reaches out into the community with lectures and a newsletter called The Chirp.
“We’re all volunteers: college professors, electricians, UPS drivers, all kinds of personalities and professional backgrounds that lead our field trips and our groups. We’re all-in and passionate about it. I think that enthusiasm is conveyed to people who come on our field trips. The county is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and we have all the habitats you could ask for: the Catskills, the coastline of the Hudson River, Ashokan Reservoir. We’ve identified 289 species of birds just in Ulster County. We’re blessed to be in an area with so many different habitats – and so many people who embrace the outdoors, too.”
Volunteers already assigned will be counting in the Mohonk Lake/Ashokan Reservoir areas this Saturday, December 19, headed by Steve Chorvas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (845) 246-5900 for information about another count on Saturday, January 9. Contact DeDea at email@example.com regarding details about the New York Ulster/Dutchess count next Saturday, December 26, and the compilation get-together afterward, plus submission of records and possible weather postponement information.
Photos by Peter Schoenberger