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Christmas Bird Count

By Donald Attwood


On December 27, volunteers will count the birds in our area, hoping to see (among other winter visitors) a Snowy Owl or two.

Last December I joined the Hudson Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for the first time as a field participant, a roving observer by car and on foot. This year I’ll do it again – the new count is scheduled for Sunday, December 27. Volunteers are needed, both mobile observers and stay-at-home feeder watchers.

Two years ago, I began as a feeder watcher. Having received instructions by email, I got up early one Sunday to watch my backyard feeders. Several times that day I counted the number of species and birds that visited. Simple, but well worth doing.

The CBC is probably the oldest, largest, and most important example of citizen science in action, providing large-scale, long-term data on environmental change and the well-being of hundreds of species. It started in 1900 with a census of 25 locations in the USA and Canada. A recent CBC involved more than 70,000 observers, mostly volunteers, in over 2000 locations in Canada, USA, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The count has long been conducted in Quebec by Bird Protection Quebec; this year will be the 80th count in Hudson.

Due to the coronavirus, protocols have been modified. Last year, I shared a car with an expert from out of town. This year, I’ll follow the experts in my own car. When we stop to look, we’ll wear masks and keep a safe distance.

For much of the day, we’ll drive around checking sites where birds are known to congregate. In some cases, these will be sites where birdfeeders happen to be placed in view of the road. In other spots, we’ll walk on woody trails.

Last year two big studies revealed how important such citizen-science projects can be. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology released a landmark assessment, ‘Decline of the North American Avifauna,’ in the eminent journal Science. Looking back 50 years, this study compiled data from many sources to estimate population changes in North American bird species. Of 529 species counted, 303 were found to be in decline. Total numbers have dropped by nearly 3 billion birds, or about 30 per cent of the birds that were living in 1970. This study was made possible by data from Christmas Bird Counts among other sources.

Also published last year was the Second Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Southern Quebec, comparing recent counts of breeding birds with counts for the first atlas, done in the 1980s. The second atlas provides information about the populations of 251 species, including, in far too many cases, the causes of their decline. Fieldwork for the second atlas began in 2010 and involved nearly 2000 observers, mostly volunteers, who put in more than 100,000 hours counting birds, finding evidence of breeding, and gathering data on species at risk.

This year should be rewarding for Christmas birdwatchers. Many species from the north are expected to visit here, including colourful winter finches, such as Evening grosbeaks, Common redpolls, Pine grosbeaks, and Purple finches. Flocks of Bohemian waxwings have been seen lately, and Snowy owls might reappear (a couple have already been sighted). More on these winter visitors in another column.

As before, the Hudson CBC covers a circle 24 km in diameter, including most of Hudson, Saint-Lazare, Vaudreuil-Dorion, Les Cèdres, Saint-Clet, and Coteau-du-Lac. The fieldwork will be divided among 17 teams, each with a specific zone to cover. Observations will begin at about 8 a.m. and continue all day, with a break for lunch – eating drive-through food or bag lunches in our cars. There will, alas, be no post-game party to compare the results of different teams.

I urge anyone interested in birds or nature to join this project as a feeder watcher or field participant. The CBC is open to people of all ages and levels of experience. To be a feeder watcher, you look out the window and keep a careful list. To be a field participant, you need to have a car and walk around a bit; most teams drive along specified routes, getting out here and there to look for birds. Neophytes will be paired with experienced observers. Another pair of eyes is always helpful, and you will learn a lot.

To participate in the Hudson CBC, contact Jean Demers at cbchudson2@gmail.com.