Up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a bird, it’s a bird.
It’s another bird.
It’s the Whidbey Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
For two Saturdays, Dec. 16 and Dec. 30, Whidbey’s bird nerds will be out in force counting tens of thousands of birds for the National Audubon Society’s annual tally of bird species.
They’ll be craning their necks inside a designated 15-mile wide circle, identifying species and adding up numbers of birds.
Whidbey’s two circles join some 2,500 other bird-counting circles in the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s a fun day but it’s also contributing to science,” said Ann Casey, who plans to participate in both island counts. “The data is used all over the world. It’s a good feeling to know that.”
North Whidbey’s count is Dec. 16. Two weeks later, South Whidbey birders will be scouring their woods, shoreline, lakes and backyard bird feeders, tracking every bird they see.
Every single bird.
From Red-breasted sapsuckers and Western Sandpipers to fidgeting flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, bushtits, sparrows, robins and Varied Thrush to chattering chickadees, they all must be counted.
Last year’s North Whidbey tally, led by 44 humans, counted a total of 20,860 birds representing 118 species.
For South Whidbey, 42 participants counted 19,281 individual birds and 105 species.
“This is a way to take an active role in keeping Whidbey Island the special place that it is,” said Govinda Rosling, coordinator for the South Whidbey circle. “Long-term studies like this are important to track for conservation efforts, to get a pulse on long-term bird population trends.”
Notebooks in hand and binoculars at the ready, members of the Whidbey Audubon Chapter work in teams as spotters and recorders. The day lasts from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Some birders go out earlier, listening for the hoot of owls.
Now in its 118th year, the Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count is considered the largest and longest-running citizen science project in the world.
Annual counts can spark preservation efforts, explained Jay Adams, North Whidbey bird count coordinator.
“It’s one good source of quality data about whether a species’ number is increasing or decreasing, or whether a species is moving from one place to the next,” he said. “It helps understand the relation between birds and where they live and habitat changes.”
Whidbey Island lies in the middle of the Pacific Flyway — the route birds migrate north and south along the West Coast. Birds have their pick of habitats here, including wetlands, woods, shoreline, lakes and endless acres of farm fields.
Earlier this year, the Whidbey Audubon Society released a revised “Birds of Whidbey” checklist based on the island’s changing population.
It includes 230 different species, Adams says.
He should know because he’s one of those who keep a Life List tallying up every bird on every outing in every place, every time, every year.
“But I also keep a year list and I find that useful for comparisons,” he said. “I think I’ve seen 193 species on Whidbey so far this year.”
Whipping winds makes for a difficult day for birds and bird watchers alike.
“Wind is really hard on song birds, chickadees and such, so if it’s windy all of us are really looking and listening for them,” Adams explained.
Stormy weather? Of course. But the count goes on.
Crockett Lake and Deer Lagoon offer the challenge of a dizzying number of ducks suddenly deciding to duck out.
“Those places are fantastically wonderful for shorebirds and raptors,” Casey said. “But there are hundreds and hundreds of ducks there now.”
Spying an unexpected species always makes for a good story at day’s end when the bird counters gather for food, hot drinks and data discussions.
“It’s always kind of interesting, now and again we will see an osprey during the Christmas count,” Casey said. “They’re usually here April to September and then go south to Central America.”
Last year, Trumpeter Swans, sanderlings, and ring-billed gulls made the South Whidbey Christmas count for the first time.
A brown pelican was spotted on the Clinton ferry dock during the 2013 count, perhaps an indication its species is pushing further north.
At Deer Lagoon, white pelicans again took up residence for the second consecutive summer. However, the rare, fair beauties won’t make the Christmas count.
Months ago, they winged out of Whidbey bound for warmer climes.
Unless, of course, some stuck around.