Last weekend, while many folks were at the malls wrapping up their holiday shopping, 45 volunteers spent the day walking forest trails, scanning beaches and peering through binoculars...

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Last weekend, while many folks were at the malls wrapping up their holiday shopping, 45 volunteers spent the day walking forest trails, scanning beaches and peering through binoculars.

Their mission: to identify and count every bird in a 177-square-mile “count circle.” After dark, they met to sip hot cider, compare stories and tally their results.

It’s all part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, an annual census of birds sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Data collected help scientists track the movements and welfare of birds in the Northern Hemisphere.

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“It’s an old saw,” said Mike Blackbird, the president of Snohomish County’s Pilchuck Audubon Society, “but birds tell you how your environment is faring. They’re the canaries in the coal mine.”


Pilchuck Audubon sponsors two count circles. An Everett-area effort, held Saturday, turned in a record count of 133 species. An Edmonds-area tally, held the next day in rain and high winds, came up with a preliminary number of 90 species, well below last year’s record 125 species.



Information



Christmas Bird Count:

Results from 1900 to the present can be found at www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.


“The weather contributed to a low species count,” explained Jan van Niel, a retired biology instructor who coordinates the Edmonds-area tally with his wife, Sally, also a retired biology instructor. High winds and rain grounded a team that usually goes out in a boat to count seabirds.

The Audubon count takes place each year between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. This year’s count, the 105th, includes more than 50,000 birders in 2,000 count circles in all 50 states, as well as Canada, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda and the West Indies.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

This American robin was spotted in a tree at the Narbeck Wetland Sanctuary in Everett.

The rules are simple: Each group counts birds in a 15-mile-diameter circle in a 24-hour period. Normally, the circle is divided into sections, with teams of one to five birders taking each section. Participants check parks, ponds, fields, forests, wetlands, back yards, power lines, even parking lots. People who live in the count-circle area may call in the birds they see at their feeders that day.

The count began as an alternative to the traditional Christmas Side Hunt. In the hunt, teams would go out and shoot as many birds and other small animals as they could find. But on Dec. 25, 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman organized teams to count, rather than kill, the birds they found.

Today, hardly anyone rings in Christmas by killing birds, but for thousands of birders, the Christmas Bird Count has become a tradition.

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Chuck Webster of Lake Forest Park, taking part in his first bird count, remains vigilant.


“It’s a holiday activity for me,” said Susie Schaefer, 64, a co-vice president of Pilchuck Audubon, who took part in both local tallies last weekend. “The bird count is just always on my schedule. It’s like some people always go sing ‘The Messiah.’ “

Schaefer has done bird counts in the Marysville area since 1981, returning each year to “as many of the same places as still exist.” Over the years, she’s seen the numbers of Townsend’s warblers, kinglets and related birds drop as farms and forests have turned into subdivisions.


“I don’t get as many of the little forest birds as I used to,” she said. “I do get concerned about the numbers that are falling.”

According to the Audubon Society’s recently released 2004 State of the Birds report, almost one-third of the 654 bird species native to North America are declining in numbers, most as a result of habitat destruction.

“It’s not just a bird issue, a habitat issue or wildlife issue — it’s a human-health, human-safety and quality-of-life issue,” said John Mauro, the director of Pilchuck Audubon’s Smart Growth program. “It’s often framed as [a choice between] jobs or the environment, people or birds, but that’s a faulty polarization. With a little creativity, you can have development and still protect the habitat and environment that birds and people need.”

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A female bufflehead, left, floats along at the Narbeck Wetland Sanctuary — another tally for the bird count.


Counting birds isn’t an exact science, organizers note. Results can vary with the weather and the skill of the observers. Still, the bird count provides one of the most reliable sources of long-term data on bird populations.

“If we’re aware of the problem, we can turn things around, and help birds survive and expand in numbers,” said Sally van Niel, 68. “That’s one of the advantages of the Christmas Bird Count. We can see what happens to the population of any given bird.”

Contributing to scientific knowledge is just one of the attractions of the count, local birders say. It’s also the thrill of the hunt, the wonder of nature and the camaraderie with other birders that keep them coming back.

“It’s for the birds, but it’s also connecting with friends,” said Jon Baker, 46, a high-school science teacher and co-vice president of Pilchuck Audubon, who scoped out a wedge of the Edmonds-area count circle Sunday with his family and a friend.

“It’s just fun being around people with like minds. … You’re contributing to this incredible set of data that goes back more than 100 years, which is pretty impressive.”

Mary Teesdale, 53, who coordinates the Everett-area bird tally, got up at 3 a.m. Saturday to look for owls — she was rewarded with a rare northern pygmy owl — then spent the day in the field.

“I never get tired of watching birds fly,” she said. “I’ve seen 10,000 broad-winged hawks in one thermal in Veracruz, Mexico. I have seen and heard half a million northern fulmars in the Bering Sea.

“These are wonders of the world. But I get the same thrill when I watch one hawk soaring or one crow playing in the wind. They are the descendants of the dinosaurs, still with us today.”

Christine Dubois: snohomishcounty@seattletimes.com