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Counting birds for Christmas

Howard Garrett, Anna Swartz, and Robin Clark stay on the lookout for birds as Joe Sheldon marks down recent sighting. The group was participating in the Whidbey Audubon Society’s 24th annual Christmas Bird Count. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Howard Garrett, Anna Swartz, and Robin Clark stay on the lookout for birds as Joe Sheldon marks down recent sighting. The group was participating in the Whidbey Audubon Society’s 24th annual Christmas Bird Count.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and six people are huddled in the doorway of a public bathroom at Ebey’s Landing trying to escape gusts of freezing wind and rain.

Two are from Coupeville but most are from South Whidbey, some as far away as Clinton. They’re bundled up in mittens, wool hats, scarves and rain jackets, and each has a pair of binoculars hanging from their necks. Each is also wearing a strange grin that stretches from ear-to-ear.

“You have to be wondering who these crazy people are,” said Joe Sheldon.

They’re bird watchers with varying degrees of expertise, ranging from those with decades of experience to beginners. Each showed up to the Tyee motel and restaurant in Coupeville at 6:30 a.m. to be part of the Whidbey Audubon Society’s 24th annual Christmas Bird Count.

Being excited about getting up this early in the morning on the weekend, and in this kind of weather, just to glimpse a few feathered beauties is admittedly a little cuckoo, said Sheldon with a laugh. But it’s worth it.

“It’s one of the most important tools there is in monitoring bird populations on a global scale,” Sheldon said.

According to Janet Hall, event coordinator for the Whidbey Audubon Society’s Oak Harbor circle, the annual bird count has been held on Whidbey every year since 1986 but has been going on nationally since 1900. It has grown to include bird watchers from over 17 countries in the Western Hemisphere. In 2010, that totaled 60,753 observers.

“As far as I know, it’s the longest running citizen (non-science) data gathering in the world,” Hall said.

The count is coordinated over a three-week window, with groups being assigned coverage of geographical circles 15 miles in diameter. On Whidbey Island, more than 50 people on 15 teams covered an area from the north side of Ault Field to south of Admiral’s Cove.

The object is simple; count every bird you see. The goal is to get a snapshot of bird populations. Boiled down, it’s a wildlife census and the results not only provide statistics about avian numbers but the information, once complied, is used to help guide conservation efforts on large scale.

For example, efforts on Whidbey have revealed a startling drop in Western Grebe populations. According to Hall, it wasn’t too long ago that counts revealed up to 1,000 individuals. The count this year was just 39. While no one can explain the decline, just knowing that it’s happening allows study and recovery efforts to begin before it’s too late.

“It’s really valuable data,” Hall said.

Clinton resident Robin Clark, who participated in her third Christmas Bird Count this past weekend, was once an avid bird watcher but has only recently gotten back into it. It’s fun because it’s something that can be done anywhere, even from your back porch, she said.

But the holiday count is something special. Getting out and seeing your favorite birds in their natural habitat is cool, but getting to do that while also contributing to the greater body of knowledge is a good feeling. As for the weather, well that’s just life in the Northwest.

“There is no such thing as bad weather in Washington, just inappropriate clothing,” Clark said.

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