Annual bird count canceled

12/16/2020

For the first time in 50 years, local chapters of birders will not complete the Christmas bird count. 

The worldwide effort by the National Audubon Society feeds one of the longest-running citizen science datasets, serving as the foundation for vital climate change research. Inverness resident George Curth, who compiles the data from the Point Reyes count, decided to cancel the event in response to the recent stay-at-home order. 

“How could we move forward with a citizen science project pretending that all the science flowing to us from over the web was nonsense? We did a risk analysis and decided it would be better to cancel it, looking forward to next year when everyone will be safe.” 

The local count is sponsored by Point Blue Conservation Science and the Marin Audubon Society. Across the Western Hemisphere, the tradition is in its 121st year, and involves tens of thousands of volunteers. Some counts will proceed, though the decision was left up to each local compiler, said Audubon spokesman Nicolas Gonzalez. 

Around Point Reyes, some participants headed out by 4 a.m., recording owls by sound. In total, around 150 volunteers each year covered 30 areas across northwest Marin until sundown on one December day, recording every species they found. A similar effort took place in the southern portion of the county. A concluding celebration is usually held at the Dance Palace Community Center. 

Mr. Curth, who has participated in the count for a decade, said the Point Reyes chapter typically sees around 200 different species, ranking as high as fifth in the country for the most species observed. December marks the middle of a migration period for birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway, and many species stop to feed and rest in Marin. The Pacific route, which extends from Alaska to Patagonia, is one of the nation’s three major migratory routes.  

Data from the Christmas count has been used in more than 300 peer-reviewed articles, including a study published last year that found there are 3 billion fewer birds than there were in 1970, primarily as a result of human activity. Last year, the world saw a record-setting 2,646 counts, with 1,992 in the U.S., and the remainder in Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands. 

Observers tallied more than 42 million birds representing more than 2,500 species—around one-quarter of the world’s known species—which represented around 6 million fewer total birds than the year before. 

Dr. Tom Gardali, the director of Point Blue Conservation Science’s Pacific Coast and Central Valley work, said the count was a great source of data but just one element of ongoing climate change research in the region. Although some of Point Blue’s research was put on hold by the pandemic, most of its ongoing field work and monitoring has persisted. 

“I find that it is the responsible move to not have the Christmas bird count, as unfortunate as that is for the data. It’s also an effort that gets people out into nature and contributing to what we know about nature, and the type of community that comes with that,” Dr. Gardali said.