- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) - Avid birder Peter Scott stood amid the grass and trees of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods and pressed binoculars to his eyes when he saw a bird flying a few yards away.

“Oh, beautiful,” he said as the bird flew to a branch nearby.

As he walked around the woods Saturday, accompanied by Jim Sullivan and Sullivan’s niece, Allison Bayless, Scott not only spotted the birds, but also was able to identify its species. Armed with a spotting scope, cameras, binoculars, bird guides, a checklist, and call of the species recordings, the group spotted about 25 different bird species by 11 a.m. after visits to various sites including Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Dewey Point and a levy road along the Wabash River.

The group was only one of several scattered Saturday in different parts of Vigo County for the Terre Haute Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the Wabash Valley Audubon Society. The count, which began before dawn and ended after dark, is organized locally by Scott and fellow birder Dan Weber.

The objective of the one-day Christmas Bird Count is to count birds, identify the species found in the area and record the numbers. It is also a conservation effort that produces a knowledge-base of the bird species common in the winter for the area.

“Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations - and to help guide conservation action,” according to the National Audubon Society’s website.

Early in the count, Scott’s group saw a variety of birds including Red-tailed Hawks, Carolina Wren, Cardinals, Red-shouldered Hawk, and an adult Red-headed Woodpecker, which is one of the less common woodpeckers, Scott explained. The enthusiasm and excitement were great among the birders as they did the count. At one point, Scott even stopped mid-sentence for a Pileated Woodpecker, which he explained was the fourth most common of the woodpecker species.

But their “big discovery” that morning was the Winter Wren, which was somewhat rare and “hard to find,” Scott said. Knowledgeable about birds, he has been watching these winged creatures and has been participating in the bird count for 50 years.

“It’s secretive” in its behavior, he told the Tribune-Star (http://bit.ly/1JIkggz ) of the Winter Wren. “It’s just a very shy bird.” He said they had to play a bird recording for 10 minutes before it appeared. And even after it appeared, it was still very careful, he added.

At The Woods, the group played recordings at various times to attract the birds. At one point, 15-year-old Allison Bayless held an amplifier that expelled the sound of a Screech owl. After a few minutes, several birds started flying around the tree’s branches.

It was Allison’s first time to participate in the Christmas Bird Count.

She was there to “just gain the experience and have fun,” she said.

According to Scott, 35 people - divided into parties of one to four - participated in the local count, conducted within a 15-mile circle of the Vigo County Courthouse. It covered the area from Sky King Airport southward to the former Pfizer plant, and from the Illinois state line eastward to Tabortown Road.

“It’s a community effort and also a friendly competition,” Scott, who has been participating in Terre Haute for 18 years, said. “I enjoy the whole process of spending the day trying to see as many birds as possible,” he said later.

It is a competitive sport because the local group compares its results with Christmas Bird Count groups from other communities in Indiana. The Indiana Audubon Society compiles information from more than 50 counts throughout the state; thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas take part in the annual Christmas Bird Count, normally held within two weeks of Christmas.

The activity began as the conservationist response to another holiday tradition that people engaged in during the 19th century: Christmas “Side Hunt.”

“They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won,” according to the National Audubon Society’s website.

“Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a “Christmas Bird Census”-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them.”

“So began the Christmas Bird Count.”

This year’s count was the 55th for the area. It was dedicated to the memory of avid participant Dr. Henry Tamar.

When the local count began in 1960, participants found around 50 different species of birds, according to a database provided by Scott. Over the years, the totals have ranged from 78 to 91 species. Participants counted 91 in 2004 and 2006. Last year, the total was 85.

“Birds prominent in winter include ducks and geese, hawks, woodpeckers, chickadees, sparrows, cardinals, blackbirds and finches,” according to Scott.

If each participating party in the Terre Haute group can find a rare bird, “then it’s a good count,” Scott said.

“Doing it with friends as a community effort makes it a lot more fun,” he said.

___

Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com

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