May 21st, 2024

Annual Christmas Bird Count a tradition of citizen science

By Dale Woodard - Lethbridge Herald on December 18, 2021.

Herald file photo by Ian Martens Ken Orich, seen here during a past year while out with a group of bird watchers, will again be organizing and compiling this year's Christmas Bird Count.

On Sunday, some keen bird watchers will keep their eyes on the skies.
Or their bird feeder or wherever else they may need to.
No matter where the feathered friends are perched, a century-plus tradition will take place with the 122nd annual Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in North America.
On the local front, more than 70 birdwatchers will be out within a 24 km (or 15-mile) diameter circle anchored by the water tower on Mayor Magrath Drive and 3 Ave. South, picking out as many species as they can in an assigned area.
“I have the city divided into 39 count areas and that’s based on subdivisions. Some of it is two subdivisions put together and other times it’s just one,” said coordinator Ken Orich. “The radius goes out to the southeast a few miles beyond the research station and Fairfield Gardens and as far south as the airport. You go up north almost as far as Diamond City and over to Coalhurst and over to the northeast part past the dump and out by the Sunnyside area. So there are seven country areas to count, too.”
Once the birders are assigned their area, they can start whenever they like, said Orich, adding the count has to be done between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
“All I ask is they try to cover the area that is assigned to them, whether they slowly drive the areas or walk the back alleys and the streets, and you count the birds you see. At the end of the day they fill out a tally sheet and they either email me that tally sheet or they bring it to me.”
The tally sheet is the total number of birds of each species the birders see plus the effort they put into it, said Orich.
“(For example) how many kilometres did they walk and how much time did they spend walking? Also, it’s how many kilometres they drove and how much time they spent driving. The people in the country will definitely be driving. Some of the areas in the city, the participants will drive part of it and then walk part of it.”
Whether they’re on foot or driving, there is a science to the count.
“If you’re looking at your backyard feeder and you see 10 house sparrows in the yard, you count (them),” said Orich. “If a half hour later you look out and there are 12 house sparrows, you don’t know if there aren’t 10 that are the same. So your number would be 12, not 22. You take your highest count. If you think it’s a possibility it’s the same bird, you don’t count. You take your highest count at one time, but if you know they are different birds, you keep on adding to your total.”
Past bird counts have produced roughly 1,000 magpies and a couple thousand house sparrows, said Orich.
“We’ve had 35,000 Canada geese,” he said. “We get some big numbers because with that open water on the river below the sewage treatment plant we get a lot of geese over winter.”
Orich said the birding averages around 25 or 30 bald eagles a year. 
“They go up north to breed in lakeland country, but when they come south some of them stay here because of all the ducks and geese who stick around. So they’ll dine on ducks and geese. So their needs are being met, so they don’t go any further south.”
Orich said the local birders have averaged 43 different species a year going back to 2003. 
“Last year we, because we had more birders, we ended up getting 58 species. So we went way above our normal. We got a few new species, but also some that don’t necessarily get counted every year.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has actually led to an increase in birding,” said Orich. 
“With restrictions on social interactions they got outside more and became more aware and got interested in birding. The thing about birding is you can do it by yourself or you can do it with friends and family. You can bird anytime. You can be riding on a bus and see a bird you’ve never seen before. Birding is kind of like a treasure hunt, because you never know what you’re going to find. (It could be) a bird that day that nobody has seen this year or you find a bird you rarely see.”
Records show Lethbridge has been taking part in the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count since 1983.
“My participation has been pretty good the last few years,” said Orich. “This year I’ve got approximately 74 participants. Having that many participants, you might think we have all the areas covered, no problem. But sometimes it’s a family or a group of friends birding an area. So there might be as many as five or six people working in one area. In other cases there might be only one person counting an area.”
In addition to the 74 birders are eight more backyard feeder counters.
“They want to be involved, but they don’t want to go out birding. They’ll just watch their backyard bird feeder and they count the total number of birds they see,” said Orich.
Birds Canada is involved in cooperation with Audubon, said Orich. 
“All of the information that is recorded goes into a central database through Audubon and it’s accessible to anybody. You can pick up trends and things like that and different people who are involved in conservation and different aspects of the bird world. It’s a way people can be involved in contributing to science.”
As the local coordinator and compiler, it’s up to Orich to crunch those numbers.
“Once I get all their data in I put it together in a format that Audubon wants, I submit it and it all goes into the Audubon database.”
As with any event taking place outdoors in December in Alberta, there’s also one more important factor.
“The weather forecast is looking pretty good,” said Orich.

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They explained how to count with your backyard feeders (if you count 10 the first time, then 12 a bit later… you give your highest count of 12) so you don’t keep adding the same birds. But wonder how they do say a flock of geese that pass threw one area, and then further down the grid another counter see’s the same flock and counts them too? Perhaps each group registers the time? Then decipher if the same flock? Yeesh, makes my head spin just thinking about it lol. Good luck to you all!