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Counting birds is a Christmas tradition

While many Whidbey Island residents were out shopping for Christmas presents in overheated malls and stores, some folks braved the cold and spent an entire day tromping around the island’s wild and tamer areas.

Armed with binoculars and spotting scopes, the 49 men and women started out at 8 a.m. last Saturday to pursue their quarry — birds of all different feathers. When it was over eight hours later, they had tallied a total of 20,392 birds from 119 species.

It was the 19th year of the Whidbey Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. By taking part, the bird counters are participating in a 106-year-old event that has become the world’s largest science project. Thousands of birders from Canada to Central America count millions of feathered friends each year.

Steve Ellis, a Coupeville resident, coordinated the count on Whidbey. It covered a 15-mile diameter circle centered at the intersection of Monroe Landing Road and Highway 20.

He said the counters had found some good news, some bad news and some surprises in the bird world.

While nobody saw any turtle doves, the most “Christmasy” bird was actually spotted a few days after the count. Ellis saw the large, snow-white owl with feathery feet a few days later. The birds are normally found in the Arctic, possibly around Santa Claus’ home.

The snowy owl was a great example of irruptions — the incursion of birds that don’t normally winter in the area. It is exciting for bird-watchers, though it may mean a lack of food in normal wintering grounds for the birds.

The sighting that caused the greatest stir was a flock of western bluebirds. Gary Piazzon’s team spotted nine of the small, beautiful birds searching for insect eggs in the earth on Grasser’s Hill

“As far as I know, this is the first time we’ve seen them in the Christmas count,” he said. His team also saw a rough-legged hawk, a raptor from the far north, for the first time in three years.

Bob Merrick’s team saw a northern goshawk, a large bird-eating raptor, on the Navy base.

The teams spotted 3,240 western grebes, a graceful diving bird; 1,138 mallard ducks; five different owl species — barn, great horned, short-eared, barred and snowy; and one lonely Anna’s hummingbird.

Ellis noted that the were 2,409 starlings. The number of the non-native “flying weeds,” Ellis said, are down from a 19-year average of over 5,000. That’s good news since starlings out-compete native birds, like bluebirds and martins.

The number of Canade geese continues to skyrocket. Piazzon said people keep planting lawns and geese eat the grass, so they are doing just fine.

The bad news is in the populations of seabirds, especially those that eat invertebrates like clams and crabs. Only 61 white-winged scoters, an ocean duck, were spotted, plummeting from a 19-year average of 1,100. The number of American wigeon, another duck, were 874, down from an average of 3,253. No common murres, a puffin relative, were tallied.

Both Piazzon and Ellis say it’s unknown exactly what’s causing the decline in seabirds. Scientists with the federal government are in the process of studying the problem, but a likely factor is the loss of habitat.

While Piazzon admits that the Christmas bird count isn’t the most scientific of studies, it does give bird experts and novices a valuable insight into the world of birds, and by extension, the natural world. People can see trends in bird populations — especially sudden changes — by looking at the numbers over time.

Ellis said the bird count is done in the weeks surrounding Christmas because that’s the time of the year when bird populations are most stable. It originally spawned, however, from an 18th-century tradition on Christmas day, according to the Audubon Society.

During the Christmas day “side hunt,” people would shoot as many birds and other animals as possible. The person with the biggest pile of carcasses won the day.

But 106 years ago, an Audubon ornithologist started the more humane practice of counting the birds instead of killing them. In spirit of the holidays, the practice caught on.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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