Friday, December 23, 2011

Some Thoughts about Christmas Bird Counts

Some Thoughts about Christmas Bird Counts

Every year I participate in at least two Christmas Bird Counts, generally one close to home, and one farther afield. I go with birding friends, and it makes for a pleasant social as well as a scientifically worthwhile day.

Christmas Bird Counts have been around since 1900, when the first bird census takers came out on Christmas Day to present a pacifist alternative to the traditional killing binge in which Americans went into the woods on that day to shoot as many birds and small animals as they could.

Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, CBCs serve the purpose of annually monitoring non-migratory bird populations. Each team is assigned a “count circle” and is furnished with a checklist of birds that are likely to be found in that particular area. The CBC checklist is different from most other kinds of birding checklists in that numbers of individuals, as well as individual species are recorded. This is done so that bird populations can be assessed and studied. Hours spent in the field, as well as miles covered in a vehicle and on foot are also tabulated. Results are submitted to NAS, and are sent out to all participants later in the year.
It takes a certain level of commitment to do a CBC. For one thing, at Christmastime the weather can be nasty. We were lucky this year on both of the days I participated. Not too cold, and not snowing or raining, though we’ve had doses of both in the past.

On my first count, on Saturday, December 17, I went with two birding friends, Bill and Lynn, on the local count. We started out at a pond in Oreland, PA at 7:00 AM to survey geese and ducks before they headed out to feed. We counted hundreds of Canada Geese, as well as a few Mallards, three Hooded Mergansers, and a few American Coots. Bill was disappointed that the Ring-necked Ducks he had seen in the same place the day before did not make an appearance. That’s birding for you.

From there we drove to several local habitats including the two sections of Fort Washington State Park. We had all noticed, from monitoring our own bird feeders, that bird populations are down in our area this winter. So we were a bit pessimistic about what we would find.

For me, one surprise had to do with American Goldfinches. At our home feeders, Nyger seed, which goldfinches favor, has been pretty much untouched this fall. I’d been concerned about this. Were goldfinch numbers seriously declining? However, on our CBC, in one locale, we found big numbers of goldfinches eating seeds from the prickly balls on Sweet Gum trees. I’d never realized they’d go for those. Live and learn.

We were out until 2:30 PM, when we had finished covering our designated area. We finished up with 37 species and 2785 individuals. We covered 33 miles in the vehicle, and walked 7 miles.

The next day, Sunday December 18, Bert picked me up at 3:15 AM. We collected the rest of our group, Connie, Ann and Mike, at our regular meeting spot and headed for Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware. We arrived at the gates, which had been opened early for us, at 5:00 AM and drove straight to the owl barn. (We’d gotten advance permission to go there). Two Barn Owls flew out of the barn and a third perched on a cross beam to have his (?) picture taken. Awesome. Our next bird was a Barred Owl which came into our owl noises and perched on a branch. Another photo-op. We also counted four Great Horned and Eastern Screech Owls by call only. We’d peaked early. We knew it would be hard to beat those sightings, and we didn’t.

Then it was time for a brief rest at daybreak before we began birding our designated part of the refuge, Bear Swamp, for passerines, waterfowl and any other birds that might be around. We finished up just before noon, and handed in our tally. We’d found 51 bird species and a total of 916 individuals, not counting the thousands and thousands of Canada and Snow Geese. Some highlights were 11 species of waterfowl, a couple of Bald Eagles, some falcons and hawks, two sandpiper species, three species of woodpecker, both kinglets, chickadees, titmice, lots of Eastern Bluebirds, several sparrows including Fox Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark. We covered 25 miles in the vehicle, and ¾ mile on foot.

This type of birding activity has nothing to do with building a big list, or striving for a “Big Year” as portrayed in the recent movie. It has more to do with conservation; more to do with seeing the big picture. Every person who participates in a CBC has contributed something to foster the health of bird populations.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Winter Solstice - December 22, 2011

Winter Solstice Meditations – December 21, 2011

Call me a pagan, but, to me, the Winter Solstice marks the most significant part of the holiday season. It has signified hope for the future for many cultures throughout the ages. It is no coincidence that winter religious holidays coincide, quite consistently, with the Solstice. This year, in our home, we’ll be celebrating tomorrow’s Solstice quietly with our little Christmas tree lights, window candles and Menorah all going at the same time to remind us that, finally, with the onset of winter, the sun is coming back.

To wax technical for a moment, the Winter Solstice occurs exactly when the axial tilt of the Earth’s polar hemisphere is farthest away from the Sun that it orbits. In other words, Winter Solstice occurs on the shortest day and longest night of the year.

Several years running we had a Winter Solstice party here at our house. Everyone was assigned a culture’s rites and celebrations to describe for the rest of us. I always chose Druids and stories about mistletoe. I think that’s because Sir James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (aka mistletoe) has always drawn me in.

For many of us, equipped with electric lights, a good heating system (when the power stays on) and also a relatively new essential, the Internet, the changing of the seasons may have little significance beyond gratitude that the days are getting longer. How often have you heard, “I hate these short days!”

But in ancient times, the sun’s progress through the seasons was an important component of survival. Astronomical events controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests. So, at the Winter Solstice, when the days finally began to grow longer, people celebrated in many different ways. Various cultural mythologies and traditions have emerged around it. Many of these rites and customs have made their way through the ages to our own celebrations.

Of course, Christmas, with its religious services; music, both sacred and secular; elaborate decorations; and commercialism dominates our contemporary culture here in the United States. Now, in many places, it starts right after Halloween, skips right over Thanksgiving, and continues until the New Year.

But, along with Christmas, cultures around the world celebrate at the time of the Solstice in many different ways. Hanukkah, The Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century, BCE. The eight-day lighting of the Menorrah symbolizes this event. In ancient Greece and Rome the Solstice was celebrated with the Saturnalia, a time of revelry and feasting. In the Inca Empire they celebrated with the Inti Raymi, or Festival of the Sun. (In Machu Picchu there is still a large column of stone called an Intihuatana, or “hitching post of the sun.”)In the Persian calendar, Shab-e-chelleh is celebrated on the eve of the first day of winter, when family and friends get together. In Scandinavia, a girl dressed as St. Lucia, with a wreath of candles around her head, “brings the sun back.” The Druids celebrated the Celtic Midwinter with ceremonies involving rites with mistletoe. During the Viking Age, there were celebrations while the Yule logs burned, sometimes for 12 days (“The Twelve Days of Christmas”).

No matter how people observe the Winter Solstice, it marks a time of hope and celebration.