On December 16, dozens of local conservationists and bird lovers will spread out across the Charlottesville area, armed with binoculars, cameras, and bird guides. Camped out under trees or near creeks, they’ll spend anywhere from a few morning hours to the entire day watching and listening for nearby birds, collecting information to later give the National Audubon Society for its national Christmas Bird Count.
According to local bird enthusiast Jennifer Gaden, the count began in 1900 as a counterpoint to another holiday tradition, which involved shooting as many birds as possible for sport.
“People who began to be a little bit conscious about conservation and bird matters decided to start a different tradition,” said Gaden, who’s been involved with the count for 12 years and is the area’s data compiler. She said about half a dozen people turned out for the first Christmas Bird Count 113 years ago, and it has grown to be a time-honored tradition for bird lovers and their families.
Gaden said she’s been interested in birds since she was a little girl, and grew up gazing at the backyard bird feeders with her mom. She’s retired from the Virginia Natural History Museum, and has given lectures and workshops in the public school system about nature and conservation.
The yearly count provides essential numbers and information for conservationists and bird researchers, Gaden said, which is part of why she participates.
“It’s not just about counting birds,” said National Audubon Society spokesperson Delta Willis. “What we’re doing is really taking a pulse of the ecosystem that we share with birds.”
Willis said birds are early indicators of environmental transitions. Back in 2009, she said, the Christmas Bird Count data went toward a report about birds and climate change, which described how birds were already shifting their migration ranges north an average of one mile each year. National and state agencies like the Department of Fish and Wildlife use the data in efforts to preserve endangered species, Willis said.
“So not only am I interested in birds, but I am very much invested in their conservation, particularly given how many things are happening on Earth right now and how quickly things are disappearing,” said Gaden.
This year, 20 small local groups are signed up for the count. The teams are spread out, covering a 15-mile radius, with Ivy in the center. The best spots to quietly sit and listen are those with a variety of habitats, including water, marshland, grassy fields, and wooded areas.
Darden Towe Park, land surrounding the Rivanna Trail, and even cemeteries with mature trees are where groups will get the best results, Gaden said. This year, she’s hoping to come across an Evening Grossbeak, a black and yellow Canadian finch that has all but disappeared from the area in the last decade or so. Her group spotted one during last year’s count, and Gaden said she’s excited to potentially see another.
Gaden said newcomers are always welcome as long as there’s space, but she warns amateurs that it is “not a social event.” Counters must be willing to sit quietly and take direction from the leader, and groups should be no larger than five or six people. For more information on how to get involved in the Christmas Bird Count, check out http://www.virginiabirds.net/cbc.html.