For over twenty years, Rick Ernst and his wife, Kathy, have ventured out near their home in Trapper Creek to count birds around Christmas time. They’re joined by other counters in the Upper Valley and across multiple countries as part of the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.
“In this area, this is our twenty-first official year…though the first one was done by only two people, Kathy and myself. This is the 114th Christmas Audubon Bird Count.”
The number of participants in the Christmas Bird Count has grown dramatically in 113 years. When the first event was held in 1900, there were just 25 “circles” that were counted, each 15 miles in diameter. Today, that number is 2,369. Participants now total over 70,000, stretching from Alaska and Canada to South America. In places like Ecuador, those circles can contain over 400 species of birds. In Alaska, there’s not nearly that sort of variety.
“Prudhoe Bay had a circle one time. They got six ravens…one species. That’s it.”
Rick Ernst says that as you get away from the Arctic Circle, there are more species that stay for the winter.
“Fairbanks might have a dozen, Denali National Park the same. We have our eighteen to twenty. Palmer will have up to twenty-five or thirty…. You go to Anchorage and you have maybe forty or fifty. As you go further south, you have more species and more numbers.”
In the Upper Valley, Black-Capped Chickadees and Common Redpolls are usually the most common species. observed. There are also the ubiquitous magpies and ravens, as well as four species of woodpecker. Rick also keeps a list of the species that have only been seen once or twice in the winter, such as robins, some birds of prey, and one very confused kingfisher.
The bird count is not simply a recreational activity, however. Rick Ernst says that scientists can access the data gathered by the Audubon Society to study bird population and species distribution.
“Twenty of the more common species in the Lower 48 have really taken a drop in population in the last forty years, up to fifty percent. That kind of information gives the scientists some kind of a grip on the numbers. What the cause is, they may not know, but at least they know the numbers are going down.”
Rick says that a number of factors play into decline of bird species, including birds flying into man-made structures like windmills and skyscrapers. He says that the trend is much more noticeable in the Lower 48 than Alaska. Birds that migrate from South America are diminishing due to factors like habitat destruction, where development and farmland take over where forests once were. In Alaska, the numbers have been more stable, and a warming climate often means birds, such as robins, are actually finding more livable space, as other species, like seals and polar bears, are losing it.
“Climate change is making a big difference in how far north some of these birds extend. Some of them seem to extend a couple miles every year as the climate gets warmer….I believe the robins are all the way up to Barrow at this point.”
Many of the participants in this year’s count will be venturing out into the winter weather on January 4th for the count. Rick Ernst says that you can participate without strapping on your boots, however.
“Our bird count does consist of a feeder count and of the field count, so if you do not want to go out into the field, you can watch your bird feeder. That counts, also.”
The event begins at midnight, and runs 24 hours until January 5th. For more information, you can visit the Audubon Society website, or contact Rick Ernst directly.