Fifty Shades of Green: Birders, Come to Your Census

Glenn Jochum

“ I’m sure this is a yellow-bellied sapsucker. What else could it be? It’s got a yellow belly and it was sucking sap.”

Thankfully, bird identification methods these days are more sophisticated than this method employed by nature-challenged sewer worker Ed Norton on the popular sitcom “The Honeymooners.”

In fact, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, begun in 1900 by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, which attempts to account accurately for the presence of birds throughout the United States, is considered the oldest and most beneficial citizen science project in the world. The count got its start by Chapman, an early officer in the then newly formed (1886) National Audubon Society, as what was proposed as a census aimed at counting birds instead of hunting them.

Since then, it has spread throughout North America and takes place within the two weeks prior to or following Christmas day. Each count entails a 30-mile mapped radius in which birds are tallied by the public and the results are reported to a central database, where the information is recorded both by species and by total number of birds.

Four Christmas bird counts are scheduled for Eastern Long Island this year.

“The long-range data provide an invaluable view of the changes in bird numbers and distribution for ornithologists and other scientists,” said Pat Hanley, compiler for the Orient Christmas Bird Count.

Orient’s first bird count took place in 1904, established by renowned naturalist Roy Latham. Mr. Hanley said it is one of the longest-running counts in the country. Local environmentalist Paul Stoutenburgh originally mapped the area in the early 1960s and was succeeded by birder/naturalist Mary Laura Lamont, who took over the compiling duties for two decades before passing it on to Mr. Hanley.

The scheduled date for the 2017-2018 Orient count is December 30 and runs from early morning (to spot owls) until sundown. In the past few years, the snowy owl, bald eagle and harlequin duck have been sighted. To volunteer, contact Mr. Hanley at 631.312.0824 or at pat@mattpres.com.

Compiler Steve Biasetti, director of environmental education for the Group for the East End, will lead the Quogue-Water Mill count, which dates back to 1949. Mr. Biasetti said that he usually gets anywhere from 25 to 35 participants for the 10-plus-hour day. In the 24 years he has been compiling, Mr. Biasetti has reported between 109 and 124 bird species every year, including the Pacific loon (East Moriches), brown pelican, normally a warm-weather dweller (Sagaponack), and red crossbill (Hampton Bays). The count will take place on December 17. Let him know if you are interested in helping out at sbiasetti@eastendenvironment.org.

For those of you in the Riverhead, Calverton and Westhampton areas, the Central Suffolk Bird Count (which includes the Pine Barrens) on December 27 is the one for you. Nine teams of new and experienced birders will fan out all the way west and south to Bellport and Yaphank, covering parks, ponds, beaches, marshes and roadways, according to compiler Eileen Schwinn, who has been heading up this count since 2008. The count made its debut in 1954, peaking in the early 1980s, when there were as many as 72 volunteers.

“I’ll be able to place a new volunteer with an experienced birder or two for the day, hopefully not too far from the volunteer’s home,” said Ms. Schwinn.

“A few years back, a mountain bluebird was discovered in our count circle,” she said.

Sign up to volunteer at beachmed@optonline.net before December 20.

The Montauk Christmas Bird Count covers an area notable for abundant sea ducks, loons and other coastal birds, but also turns up the occasional rare songbird, such as the ash-throated flycatcher. Angus Wilson and co-compiler Karen Rubinstein have been leading this count since 2012.

One of the nation’s oldest Christmas bird counts, the Montauk event dates back to 1920.

“Because of the varied habitat, the count often produces one of the highest species totals for New York State, said Mr. Wilson. Sign up for the Montauk count, December 16, at www.nybirds.org/ProjCBC.htm.

No matter the weather, volunteers head out for the counts. “We have only postponed the count once, after a major snowfall when the roads were impassable and hazardous to travel on,” said Ms. Schwinn.

What are the requirements to participate in the count and how should volunteers prepare?

“They should have some familiarity with local birds, must have binoculars, should bring food and beverages for the day, and dress appropriately for forecasted weather conditions,” said Mr. Biasetti.

“The purpose of the count is to get a snapshot of the same geographic area and compare information from previous surveys,” said Ms. Schwinn.

Prior to the electronic collection of information, these surveys were important data sources. Now, with many more birders out in the field and the use of eBird, a program developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, real-time bird sightings are entered into more elaborate data banks.

“But the need for the citizen science component is still real — it’s not only for the collection of data — it’s the camaraderie and visibility in the public eye that make the Christmas Bird Counts as valid today as they were 115 years ago,” said Ms. Schwinn.

Glenn Jochum

Glenn Jochum grew up in Huntington, grew up more in Montauk, saw the world with the U.S. Navy and retreated to the last unruined paradise on Long Island, the North Fork. He’s written for the Navy and many Long Island newspapers, and was the managing editor of the Traveler-Watchman. He has written more than 200 songs, six CDs and is one-half of the folk-rock outfit The Earthtones.

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