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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Partridge In Pear Tree

One... two... three...
Well, not exactly. The Buncombe County Christmas Bird Count would have been a lot more exciting if we had seen a partridge in a pear tree. Still and all, Sue and I had a great time participating in the Audubon Society's 111th attempt at censusing all the birds in North America and points beyond.

How many chickadees was that?
Of course, that's not true either. Such an undertaking would be impossible. The Christmas Bird Count is in fact hundreds of smaller censuses held across the country, with many more in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Each individual census consists of a circle with a 10-mile radius. On the chosen date, regardless of (most) weather conditions, teams of birdwatchers scour the circle and tally up everything they see and hear.The 24-hour counts take place during a 3-week window around Christmas to eliminate the vagaries of migration that could skew the data.

The resulting data are a snapshot of the bird life in the area. Scientifically speaking, comparing two, five, even 10 years of such data has limited value. Number of participants, their level of skill and effort, and weather all have a dramatic affect on the result. When you consider 30, 50, 100 years of censuses, however, you're talking about an invaluable cache of information that shows population trends.

Given the rapidly changing nature of the environment on this continent and others, such trends indicate the health of the ecosystem and allow researchers and conservationists to focus their efforts where they are most-needed. It's citizen science at it's finest.

It's also a wonderful tradition, embraced by thousands of birders with as much enthusiasm as kids on Christmas morning. I've been participating in the Christmas Bird Count since I was 7 or 8 years old. Back in Massachusetts, Dad and I would try to do five or six counts a year. Many of those, like the Quincy count, the Newburyport count and the Nantucket count have been around for decades and come with traditions as cherished as those of any deer camp's. The potluck dinner, roaring fire and dozing birders at the end of the day compilation of the Quincy count is one of my happy places.

Song sparrow
What of the Buncombe count you ask? The weather was damp and cold last Saturday as Sue and I left the house in the semi-darkness. The area we'd been assigned was a long, east/west section of the US 40 corridor between Black Mountain and Asheville. On the surface, the habitat was depressingly urban - strip malls, warehouses and trailer parks, but just behind those lay a hundred little oases where birds can thrive.

We started the day in a RV park next to the highway - a more unlikely looking place you'd be hard-pressed to imagine. But, as would happen time and time again that day, we were amazed at the adaptability of feathered life. The park had been planted in fruiting trees, and so, the fruit eaters were there. Nearly 100 American robins, 65 cedar waxwings and 20 European starlings draped the trees as they shook off the hunger from a cold night. Along the brushy hillside, white-throated and song sparrows, eastern towhees, northern cardinals, Carolina wrens, a brown thrasher and others flitted about.

In the creek next to a ragtag driving range, a great blue heron stalked its prey where a culvert emptied under Hwy 70. A pair of mallards dabbled there, while a mixed feeding flock of tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets foraged in the kudzu-covered banks.

Down at the only spot in our territory where we could see the Swannanoa River, Sue and I spotted a pair of pileated woodpeckers, a belted kingfisher, a flock of house finches and a half-a-dozen field sparrows.

The clouds threatened rain but you would have thought we'd seen a double rainbow when we saw an adult red-shouldered hawk on the side of the road. Our species list was growing with every stop - 38 in all by the end of the day. It's not the largest Christmas count list I've put together by any stretch. These mountains are a tough place for birds to live during the winter months and so diversity is nothing like what it would be on the coast. We birded hard though. We covered our area thoroughly and we saw what there was to see. Did some birds get by us? Of course. Two people simply cannot effectively census flying creatures across 38 miles of road and 3 miles hiking. Our tally sheet will be added to those of the other teams that worked Buncombe County that day and there will be another data point to solidify our understanding of bird life and what needs to be done to protect it.

Just as important for Sue and I; we saw our new surroundings in a different light. The Blue Ridge Mountains are rightly known for their beauty and opportunity for those who love the outdoors. When we started the day, I admit I was more than frustrated to be surrounded by such wilderness, yet stuck down in the asphalt desert by a map that highlighted our search boundaries in mocking yellow highlighter. By the end of it though, I was once again reminded of the tenacity of nature. Wildlife finds a way to survive even when the world is not wild, but I worry about how many straws there are before the camel's back finally breaks.

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