- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) - Volunteers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks teamed up on Dec. 18 to participate in the Audubon Society’s 116th Annual Christmas Bird Count at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Aberdeen.

The event was originally slated for Dec. 16, but last week’s winter storm that iced over area roads forced event organizers to postpone, the Aberdeen American News reported (https://bit.ly/1VdNkRz ).

“It was pretty short notice when we decided to reschedule, and most of our volunteers couldn’t make it,” said Allen Olson, the wildlife biologist at Sand Lake who helped organize the event. “It went pretty well, though. We ended up with 11 participants, so we had a pretty good crew, thanks to our partners at GFP.”

Olson said the Sand Lake Christmas Bird Count was one of several in the area last week. Huron and Waubay also had counts on Dec. 15 and 17, respectively. The Aberdeen area also had a count on Dec. 19 that was organized by the Northeast South Dakota Bird Club.

The small sampling of local and regional counts are a microcosm of the overarching Christmas Bird Count, which the Audubon Society helps conduct worldwide between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

“Typically, the birding clubs across the state or in our country, or even just people that are interested in birding or birds in various cities, set up counts,” Olson said.

Olson said volunteers count everything from songbirds to raptors to migratory birds and those in between during the count.

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Count history

The National Audubon Society is a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1905. However, smaller state and local chapters began forming as early as 1896 in New England, and the first official Christmas Bird Count took place in 1900, according to the Audubon Society’s website.

Today, the count is widely recognized as the longest-running wildlife census, though it can actually trace its roots back to a holiday hunting competition.

The Audubon website said hunters engaged in a holiday tradition prior to the turn of the 20th Century known as the Christmas “side hunt.” In those days, hunters would choose sides, and whichever team killed and compiled the biggest pile of feathers and fur would win.

The website also notes that conservation was in its beginning stages at that time, as folks were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day in 1900, Frank M. Chapman, an ornithologist who would eventually become an officer in the fledgling Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition - a “Christmas Bird Census” during which those involved would count birds rather than hunt them.

“Instead of hunting, these guys would put away their guns and see what they could find for birds on Christmas Day,” Olson said. “The count ballooned from there, and this is all over the world now. It’s a really good resource, even for things such as climate change because on the day of the count, we keep track of a number of things, including weather conditions. Now, a lot of different organizations will go to Audubon and request the bird-count data.”

In North America, count data collected over the past century has allowed researchers, conservation biologists and wildlife agencies to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across the continent. When combined with other population surveys, it helps provide a picture of how North American bird populations have changed in time and space over the past 100 years.

Conservation and wildlife officials value the the long-term perspective the count provides because it helps form strategies to protect birds and their habitat. The data collected also helps identify environmental issues and the possible implications for people, as well.

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Counting birds

Olson has worked at Sand Lake for 18 years, but this was his first year organizing the Christmas Bird Count.

“At Sand Lake, the count is set up on a 15-mile-diameter circle that’s drawn around a specific point that was put in place decades ago,” he said. “They basically took a string that covers a 7.5-mile radius around that point, and everything inside that circle is counted.”

Olson said the circle is broken into four equal parts with specific boundaries. The center of the circle is a little more than a mile north of where state Highway 10 bisects the refuge from east to west.

“We needed to come up with a way of keeping people from counting the same birds, so we set up a grid line, or crosshairs, if you will, that divided the circle into four quarters or quadrants,” he said. “Some years we have up to 20 people counting, and we try to keep the data we send to Audubon as pristine as possible.”

Olson also said the count’s arbitrary boundary goes outside the refuge in some cases, crossing into private land.

“We try to get permission from various landowners where we’ve seen a variety of birds in the past,” Olson said. “Feed lots are good places to look - anywhere someone is throwing some kind of grain out for animals that might attract birds.”

Olson said the count at Sand Lake recorded 32 species of birds, although several others were seen the week of the count, but were not included in the totals submitted to Audubon.

He also said the 11 volunteers drove roughly 363 miles, logged 27 hours of time counting and tallied 1,753 birds.

Olson said he learned that the Aberdeen-area count registered 46 bird species.

Current data on Audubon’s website said 63 Christmas bird counts have been completed this year, accounting for upwards of 596,000 birds. The running total will increase as more counts are submitted and verified by Audubon officials.

Olson said last week’s storm not only had a dramatic impact on how many volunteers showed up, but that it also significantly reduced some local bird-count numbers.

“We probably would have had a record number of waterfowl counted a day before the storm last week, along with lots of the other smaller species, too,” he said. “I was still pleased with the result. It was a challenge to get enough people here and to get it done, but that’s kind of the spice of life, especially in the wintertime for us conservation types.

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Information from: Aberdeen American News, https://www.aberdeennews.com

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