"26,455 birds, but who's counting?"

"Braving Saturday's howling winds and cold rain, 49 members of Whidbey Island's chapter of the Audubon society spent the day identifying every bird they could find as part of the society's annual Christmas Bird Count. Since Whidbey's first year in 1987, the count has averaged 111 different species and 26,455 individual birds. This year there were 111 species but only 19,578 birds, which is about 30 percent less than the average. Merrick said he assumes the low count is mostly due to the bad weather conditions.Weather, especially the sea conditions, really pushed numbers down, Christmas count organizer Bob Merrick said. When you get a day like Saturday, with 20 to 30 mile an hour winds and rain, the birds take cover.Participants ranging in age from 17 years old to almost 80 spread out over the 15-mile diameter counting area, which was centered at the intersection of Monroe Landing Road and Highway 20. The circular count area, which spans from just north of Ault Field Road to just south of Coupeville around Race Road, includes Fort Ebey, Fort Casey and Ebey's Landing. The group split up into 15 different counting zones within the circle from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.Weather seemed to keep many species hunkered down. The sea was so rough that counting seabirds was near impossible, Merrick said.Surf scoters, which are a sea duck, were counted at 904, which is down about 30 to 40 percent lower than the average count. The white-winged scoter was down by over 50 percent, with a count of 393. The double-crested cormorant was down by over 60 percent, with a count of 23.We are seeing fewer water fowl, ducks, than we have seen in past years, Merrick said. I wouldn't say they are dying out, but the numbers have declined.Though the numbers are dropping for some species, they are rising for others.European Starlings are thriving here on Whidbey Island. The count resulted in 3,196 of these small, purple/black/green birds this year. Starlings were originally brought over from Europe as exotic birds, but some made their way to freedom and the species has prospered.They've multiplied astronomically, Merrick said. They can pretty much live on anything, and some bird watching circles like to call them 'skyrats.' Canadian geese are also doing really well at 1,015, up from 395 last year. Though some think they are visually pleasing, Merrick said these geese are becoming an urban problem. They tend to get together in large flocks, graze and then leave a mess. We've taken their natural habitats, so they've spread into some of our areas like golf courses, soccer fields and parks and they leave large amounts of droppings all over the place, he said.Besides the annual Christmas count, the Whidbey Audubon Society also works on habitat preservation, education programs with local schools, a series of classes about birds and goes on field trips. In the spring Audubon has a one-day bird count/fund-raiser called the Bird-A-Thon to help fund its program. To find out more about the Audubon Society contact Tom Campbell at (360) 341-6387. "

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