Mid-Columbia bird lovers invited to join annual count

By Dori O'Neal, Tri-City HeraldDecember 28, 2012 

Members of the Audubon Society will conduct their annual Christmas Bird Count on Saturday and the community is invited to tag along.

And before you smirk, yawn, sneer or write off the invitation as uninteresting, you might want to learn exactly what the bird count means to the Tri-Cities, as well as the rest of North America.

"When bird populations are healthy, we have an indication that the ecosystems we depend on to maintain life are functioning sustainably," said Ed Rykiel, a past president of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.

And like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the Christmas bird count helps provide a better understanding of how the life support system works that most people take for granted, he added.

His reference to the canary comes from coal miners who kept canaries in the mines while they labored so they could escape should a methane gas leak erupt. The gas would kill the birds.

"The Christmas bird count is the oldest wildlife survey in the world and it is an indicator of the health of nature," Rykiel said. "In addition, the (count) is one of the few ways amateur birders and other non-scientists can contribute to a major scientific activity and have fun doing it."

The Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society will conduct its bird count starting at 7:30 a.m. Saturday from three Tri-City locations: The fingernail stage at Howard Amon Park in Richland, the Chiawana Park boat ramp off Road 88 in Pasco, and the Audubon Nature Trail parking lot off Edison Street in Kennewick. There is no cost and all ages are encouraged to participate.

"Our local count (has indicated) 95 to 110 bird species spend the winter with us every year," Rykiel said. "When we pay more attention, we learn that health of the natural world is reflected in the health of bird populations."

Some of those birds wintering over in the Tri-Cities include an increasing number of Canada geese.

"We have also seen an increase in fish-eating birds such as the double-crested cormorants, American white pelicans, great egrets and others," he said. "The increase could be due to the dams and the related abundance of fish in the pools created by the dams. But we've also see increases in tree-loving birds such as red-breasted nuthatches, yellow rump warblers and downy woodpeckers."

The Christmas bird count started in 1900 when orthinologist Frank Chapman proposed the count to counteract the traditional end-of-year festivities among gun enthusiasts at the turn of the 19th century who would spend the time hunting as many furry and feathered beasts as possible.

Since conservation was in its infancy back then, the count wasn't quite as popular as hunting with guns but it has made its mark in the 21st century.

According to the National Audubon Society's website, data collected from the Christmas Bird Count helps conservation biologists and other environmentally concerned citizens get a good look of how the North American bird populations have changed during the past 100 years.

Groups meeting at each Tri-City site will split into smaller teams, each led by an experienced bird watcher. Participants should dress warm and bring binoculars. Those planning to take part all day should bring a brown bag lunch and water.

Local bird watchers say the number of birds seen of each species during the daylong count will be tallied and forwarded to the National Audubon Society, which has the largest wildlife database in the world and is vital for determining the status of expanding and declining bird numbers.

"We have been conducting the (the Christmas Bird Count) in the Tri-Cities for more than 50 years," said Dana Ward, bird count chairman. "We are seeing shifts in the number of species sighted and the numbers of birds sighted. This is lending information to the local dynamics of the bird populations and how they are surviving or thriving."

The Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society also offers a number of educational programs throughout the year. More information is online at www.LCBAS.org, or call Ward at 509-545-0627.

Participants in Saturday's bird count also are invited to a potluck dinner after the count starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Columbia Grange No. 938, 6300 Court St. in Pasco.

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