South Bergenite Column: Christmas Bird Count


Jim Wright, who keeps this blog for the Meadowlands Commission, writes a twice-monthly nature blog for the South Bergenite. His latest is on the upcoming 114th annual Christmas Bird Count. You can read it here:

This Sunday, I will awaken long before dawn so I can join a few fellow bird-watchers as they roam  the wilds of Kearny, North Arlington, Lyndhurst, Rutherford, East Rutherford and Carlstadt to see how many birds we can find in a span of roughly 12 hours.

Folks who would rather be shopping at a mall or watching the NFL in their den may find this a dreadful way to spend a December Sunday, but there are few places I’d rather be than touring the Meadowlands   in search of birds both rare and common.

This will be my fifth Christmas Bird Count (CBC) with New Jersey Meadowlands Commission naturalist Mike Newhouse in the past six years. We have found that it’s a great way to visit our favorite parks and natural areas as well as a former landfill or two — which can be great spots to see winter migrants not found elsewhere in the region.

Our “target” birds include rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls, snow buntings and horned larks, but most of all we’ll be looking for a snowy owl. There have been a couple of brief sightings of this charismatic bird in the Meadowlands already this season, and we have never seen one on a count here.  

On my first Meadowlands Christmas count in 2008, one of the highlights was spotting a bald eagle perched in a tree by a Carlstadt marsh.

These days, bald eagle sightings are common occurrences across the region, and we even have had a pair of bald eagles nest successfully in Ridgefield Park, just to the north, for the past three springs. If we don’t see one on Sunday, I’ll be surprised.

The year’s CBC, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, is the 114th annual count. The first event took place on Christmas Day 1900. Legendary ornithologist Frank Chapman, a Bergen County resident, proposed counting birds instead of hunting them — as was then the common practice for the holiday.

To say that the idea caught on is an understatement. Our local count is part of a larger nationwide effort to conduct an annual census of North America’s bird populations  in late December or early January. Last year, for example, a record 71,531 bird-watchers counted 64,133,843 birds  in North America and beyond.

National Audubon has assembled quite a database over the 113 years. The information is used to gauge the health of bird populations and to determine population trends — and to then incorporate that information into future conservation efforts.

I know from experience that these counts can be challenging.  Twice we have had to deal with snowfalls that made foot travel exhausting and the birds harder to find.

But those sorts of challenges are part of the Christmas Bird Count tradition. If everything went smoothly, it would not be half as much fun.


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