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Audubon Christmas Bird Count gives scientists vital population data

Karl Schneider
Naples Daily News

As 2020 comes to a close, the National Audubon Society’s massive cohort of volunteers gathered their binoculars and notebooks and headed outside to participate in the 121st Christmas Bird Count.

The annual event helps inform Audubon scientists with hard data to determine bird populations across North America and parts of the Caribbean and South America.

“These people are more than just volunteers, they are community scientists,” said Renee Wilson, spokeswoman for Audubon Florida. “They are providing a very important research component to scientists who are trying to understand bird population trends.”

Wilson also works with Southwest Florida’s Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples.

Volunteers count dozens of species

There, 45 volunteers gathered on Dec. 19 for the daylong count. One group of four saw 1,097 birds from 56 different species. The most prevalent bird were tree swallows, which form large flocks. The group was stationed near the northern end of the sanctuary.

Wilson said it’s quite something to watch a large flock descend on a stand of wax myrtle.

This winter’s bird count runs through Tuesday, but so far, the volunteers have identified slightly more than 2 million birds in 188 separate counts, according to the Audubon’s website. The complete totals won’t be ready until the group’s regional editors review and confirm the data.

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Last year, more than 80,000 volunteers produced 2,600 counts that identified more than 42 million birds, according to an Audubon news release. The 2019 bird count showed a drop of 3 million birds over the previous year.

“One cannot help but wonder what’s going on and what may be causing it,” Geoff LeBaron, director of the count, wrote. “We plan to do a future analysis of long-term CBC results, looking at species groups, numbers of birds, and the total effort each season, to look into where the largest declines seem to be happening.”

Climate change could imperil birds

Earlier this year, Audubon released a report chronicling the effects climate change had on 389 bird species. The report says that about two-thirds of species in America are threatened with extinction due to the changing climate.

“Like canaries in the coal mine, birds show us the real threat posed to us by climate change,” Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida, said in a news release tied to the report. “What affects birds affects us all — if we act now, we can avoid the worst impacts, to birds and ourselves.”

Wilson said the wide-ranging Christmas Bird Count is an important tool for scientists to use when investigating these types of population events.

“This is one of those places where this kind of data is needed,” she said. “We can’t just take one survey; we need a lot of data collected over a long time to be accurate. That’s why it’s so important to count birds in so many places.”

Coronavirus changed some protocols

And as with most things this year, the coronavirus made the count a little bit different, but didn’t stop the efforts.

“It used to be that we would rely on carpooling, but we had to make sure we did not encourage that this year,” Wilson said. “Some counts didn’t take place because you need a boat and there have been some extra concerns that we managed to overcome with our count this year.”

To see the locations of local counts nearby, the Audubon’s website has an interactive map. It also identified count coordinators for the area, so those interested in participating next year can find out who to talk to to sign up.

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk.

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