First posted on 01-06-2012
Despite a rudimentary knowledge of bird species, I looked forward to participating in a Christmas Bird Count. Here was an opportunity to do something outdoors during a festive season when many people are putting away Christmas decorations, and trying to find room for all the presents they acquired.
We met for coffee at a McDonald’s in Hollister. A little caffeine, breakfast for some and a chance to plot the day’s count. I anticipated a walk in the woods, binoculars in hand, camera looped across a shoulder, but we were headed into Branson instead. I drew a car with Charley Burwick and Linda Ellis, both of whom I knew from the Master Naturalist chapter. Charley is also a member of the Audubon Society, and knows birds well. Linda is a botanist and has learned a lot about birds along the way. I was in great company.
Charley and Linda took the pilot and shotgun seats. I shared the backseat with a spotting scope, binoculars and several bird books. And one of Charley’s golfing score cards, where I discovered he has a very respectable handicap. We were hoping to find some exotic species, and also run into a few cedar waxwings. A lack of berries was likely to affect the waxwing population this season.
Our first stop was the parking lot on the north end of Branson Landing, an outdoor shopping complex built along the banks of Lake Taneycomo. We stepped out of the vehicle for a walk along the lake, and it didn’t take long to find birds. Dozens of Canadian geese rested below tall trees and mallards flew by, some landing in the water, others following us with high hopes of a snack. We also spied a few crows and several songbirds.
Then it was back to the cars for a ride under the bridge and into a trailer park. Black vultures perched everywhere here, along with more mallards and a few coots. About 15 black vultures took roost on the roof and deck of a house across the lake. “I’d hate to have to clean up that mess,” Linda remarked. I would, too.
I expected the day to consist of short rides to parks and way points, but much of the count was taken from inside the vehicle. We cruised Highway 76, with several jaunts into residential areas just off the strip, counting whatever birds we saw along the way. Charley and Linda had great success, while I spotted a few birds from the back of our vehicle.
Surprisingly, most bird feeders were empty. Not of birds, but of food. I suppose that’s to be expected for a seasonal community with a population that ebbs and flows as music shows open and close. But many of the homes looked occupied, even at this time of year.
A prevailing theory is that feeding birds in winter puts them at risk for dying from exposure to harsh winter weather. Some people perceive that feeding birds too long prevents them from migrating south. But bird travel is keyed by waning sunlight and colder temperatures, not the presence of food supplies. Many birds winter here and many others need plenty of calories when they do travel. Keeping the feeders full year round helps birds maintain good health.
We did make a couple of stops to observe and count near creeks and woods, and I spoke with a couple of guys whose truck we were blocking at the edge of a gravel drive, right at the “no trespassing” sign. The drive led to a creek Charley said usually produced good bird counts, but travel trailers indicated a small, temporary community had sprung into existence. When the driver asked if he could help me, I told him about the count and the creek. He told us we were welcome to drive into the encampment and look around.
At the edge of the makeshift town is also where I spotted several cedar waxwings resting in a tree top, and felt I finally contributed something successful to the process.
Most of this Christmas Bird Count was spent covering ground in a car. Still, it was a great experience in wonderful company. It doesn’t matter what technique counters employ to discover birds—on foot, by auto, looking out the back door—the important thing is that the count occurs every year about the same time. Cornell University compiles all the numbers from across the nation to sketch movement patterns and check in on bird population increase or decreases.
For a day, I got to be part of that bigger study, a citizen scientist collecting data in the field, even if that field was paved. And I’ll be right back there to participate again next near.
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