One of my favorite days of the year is the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.
New Jersey Meadowlands Commission Naturalist Mike Newhouse and I, along with a couple of other bird-watchers, get to spend 12 hours roaming the wilds of Kearny, North Arlington, Lyndhurst, Rutherford, East Rutherford and Carlstadt to see how birds — and how many species of birds — we can find that day.
Our efforts are part of a larger nationwide effort to do a census of North America’s bird populations in late December of every year — In 2010, 2,215 groups counted more than 59 million birds.
For Newhouse, part of the attraction to the count is “Being a part of history. This count was started on Christmas Day 1900 by Frank Chapman who proposed doing a bird census instead of hunting them. This year will be the 112th Christmas count.”
National Audubon has assembled quite a database over that time. The information to assess the health of bird populations and to determine population trends, and to then use the data to help plan future conservation strategies.
For example, New Jersey data showed increases in red-shouldered hawks and peregrine falcons, two raptors that appear to be rebounding after earlier long-term population declines. In contrast, American Kestrel numbers were up slightly but still less than 20 percent of the numbers recorded in New Jersey in the 1970s.
This year’s count will be my fourth in the Meadowlands. If previous years’ highlights are any indication, we should be in for some treats.
In 2009, for example, our best birds included barn owl, eastern meadowlark and horned lark. A year ago, we saw great horned owl, barn owl, snow bunting, horned lark, common raven, kestrel and great cormorant.
I mention all these cool birds because they serve as a reminder of how many amazing species are out there, even in the winter. All you have to do is to look for them.
I realize that in many cases, it’s easier said than done. The early morning part of the count can be tough, especially during a December cold snap. It typically takes about an hour for one’s toes to thaw.
Two years ago we started the day with a thick blanket of snow — beautiful to behold but tough to navigate when you are lugging spotting scopes, tripods, cameras and binoculars.
The previous year before produced Newhouse’s favorite Christmas Bird Count memory. “We started the morning on top of the Erie Landfill with a gorgeous sunrise,” Newhouse recalls. “Then we saw several species of birds that are not usually seen. We recorded Snow Goose, Horned Lark, American Pipit, Snow Bunting, and Rough-legged Hawk that morning. It was a great start to the day.”
And that’s part of the fun — you just never know what the day will bring.