By Gene Bullock
In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman and a group of Audubon friends decided to remake an old Christmas Day tradition.
Sportsmen competed in what was called the “Christmas Shoot” to see who could kill the most birds and small game in a single day. Instead, Chapman decided to count birds in a given area.
The new tradition took root, and the annual Christmas Bird Count has been an Audubon tradition ever since. Today, thousands of bird watchers participate each year in some 2,000 count circles throughout the western hemisphere.
On Dec. 14, Kitsap Audubon will host its 40th annual bird count as more than 50 volunteers in eight field teams flock to designated areas around the county for this annual census of winter birds.
Kitsap Audubon’s assigned count circle is 15 miles in diameter and stretches from Manchester north to Poulsbo, and from Bainbridge Island west to Seabeck. These annual counts are part science and part social. It’s a great way for new birders to hone their skills, learn more about birds and share the pure joy of seeing the amazing variety of marine birds that winter here.
Many of our songbirds head for the tropics as the days get shorter and temperatures dip. But for many birds that breed in the Arctic and the northernmost forests of Canada, Washington is tropical enough. Mild winters keep our waterways ice-free all year. Sheltered bays and estuaries offer protection from harsh weather and provide endless food for nimble divers, dabblers and waders.
The protected bays along Kitsap County’s 250 miles of saltwater shoreline team with marine birds from November to May. Flocks of American Wigeons, Surf Scoters (sometimes referred to as “skunkheads”), Red-breasted Mergansers, Barrows and Common Goldeneyes, Greater and Lesser Scaup, four kinds of grebes, and up to four species of loons mingle happily with such year-round residents as Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets and Marbled Murrelets, providing exceptional viewing opportunities all winter long.
The best viewing times depend more on tidal activity than the time of day. Upwelling nutrients churned by the tides stimulate the forage fish and other life forms that marine birds feed upon. High tide and dead low tide are siesta breaks for feeding birds and a good time for birders to go elsewhere and have a cup of coffee.
The annual bird count may be fun, but it’s also serious citizen science. The data is compiled and entered in the National Audubon database, where it’s used to monitor migration patterns, population trends and the health of individual species. It’s also used to measure the effects of climate change. As weather patterns moderate, some species extend their ranges further north. In Kitsap County, Western Scrub Jays were considered rare just a decade ago. Now they’re known to nest as far north as the Yukon.
Collared Doves are another newcomer that is becoming more common. While wintering flocks of Western Grebes have declined in Washington, they’ve increased along the California coast, and nobody is sure why.
Winter birding is for the hardy and adventurous. It may not be for everyone. But the rewards can be soul-satisfying for people who love Nature and savor those fleeting glimpses of living color and beauty.