By Bill Sherwonit
There are many reasons to give thanks for birds. One that comes immediately to mind as we approach the winter solstice is this: they enliven what is largely a dormant natural landscape during the depths of a far-north winter.
This fact is recognized and celebrated by those who place bird feeders in their yard to attract a variety of songbirds (and sometimes woodland raptors, drawn by the seed- and suet-eating passerines) during our darkest and harshest season. It is also one reason that scores of Anchorage area residents participate in a long-standing holiday tradition: the annual Christmas Bird Count.
Organized by conservationist Frank M. Chapman, the first count occurred on Christmas Day, 1900. Twenty-seven participants in twenty-five locations tallied 90 North American species, mostly in the continent’s northeastern region.
This year marks the 119th CBC, making it the world’s longest running “citizen science” project. That is, it incorporates the observations and data-collection efforts of “ordinary” folks who don’t necessarily have a scientific background, but who do pay attention to wild nature and have the necessary knowledge to contribute to a larger, science-based study.
To quote the National Audubon Society, which organizes and manages this annual event, “The data collected by observers over the past century (and more) allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America (and beyond). . . . it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space.
“The long-term perspective made possible by the Christmas Bird Count is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat—and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.”
From its humble but inspired beginnings, the Christmas Bird Count has evolved into a grand event that includes much of the Americas and several Caribbean and Pacific islands. Last year’s CBC included a record 2,585 distinct count areas (1,957 in the U.S.) and 76,987 individual counters. The great majority of those participants went “afield,” while more than 10,000 monitored their feeders. Together, they counted more than 59 million birds belonging to 2,673 species, amazing numbers for the “dead of winter.”
Here in Anchorage, the Christmas Bird Count can be traced back to 1941, when a high school senior named Clayton Pollard learned about the national census and decided to do his own accounting of local birds. Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Dec. 27, Pollard observed 3 magpies, 6 ravens, 10 long-tailed and 6 Hudsonian chickadees (now known as black-capped and boreal chickadees, respectively), 7 pine grosbeaks and 59 common redpolls, for a total of 6 species and 91 individuals. Pollard would eventually become recognized as one of the world’s great birders, with a life list of 7,350 species (which once was among the 10 top lists ever compiled).
Nearly two decades would pass before the next Anchorage CBC was organized, on Jan. 2, 1961. Central to that effort was Pete Isleib, widely recognized as an extraordinary birder, maybe the best ever to reside in Alaska.
Except for a couple of gaps in the early sixties, the Anchorage count has occurred every year since and in recent years has been organized by the Anchorage Audubon Society.
For much of its history, Dave DeLap painstakingly compiled the city’s annual count results. Though he officially retired as compiler in 2003, DeLap continued to keep meticulous records of both the Anchorage and statewide annual CBC results, which are now stored at the UAA/APU Consortium Library.
Last year, 155 people participated in the Anchorage count (the local record is 179, in 2016). They observed 48 species (the record is 52, in 1984) and 20,427 individual birds (the record, set in 2008, is 30,606, more than 22,000 of them bohemian waxwings, the most ever counted in Anchorage by far).
In all more than 100 species have been observed over the years in Anchorage’s holiday counts, including several species seen just once.
The 2019 Anchorage Christmas Bird Count will take place this coming Saturday, Dec. 14. Those who haven’t participated before but would like to give it a try are encouraged to contact the local Audubon chapter; though the count teams have largely been set, it’s likely that enthusiastic late-comers will be added to the mix.
Birding expertise is not a requirement; novice birdwatchers will be paired with experienced counters. Counters usually begin looking for birds between 9 and 10 a.m. and end by 3 or 4 p.m. (depending on the weather and quality of light). Results from each of the Anchorage’s five sub-areas is then reported and compiled at a “fabulous chili feed and tally party” (to quote local organizers) led by local Anchorage Audubon board members.
More detailed information, including a map of the Anchorage count area and contact information for the area leader names and compiler, can be found at the Anchorage Audubon Society’s website, www.anchorageaudubon.org.
Anyone having trouble with the website or reaching an area leader is encouraged to contact Anchorage’s CBC compiler and coordinator, Louann Feldmann, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.