Despite sub-freezing temperatures and several inches of snow, some birdwatchers not only contributed to citizen science but made a little local history, doing the Christmas bird count in a circle based in Canton for the first time in 70 years.
Many of the 38 brave souls who covered the Canton area set out before dawn Dec. 17, walking miles of trails and rugged terrain while looking — and listening — for birds. Their data will be added to that of thousands of birders in the Western Hemisphere who report their counts to the National Audubon Society.
“Our team of volunteers tallied 92 species on the count day, which is above average for the state, and really good for what is essentially a new count,” said Jon Cefus, East Central Ohio Regional Director of the Ohio Ornithological Society, who managed the Canton-area count as the official “compiler.”
Some of the hardworking volunteers went to scout their assigned areas weeks before the official count, he said. Birds that are spotted within three days before or three days after the official count day are also recorded by the Audubon Society, bringing the Canton circle’s number to 97 species.
“Again, a really terrific number,” said Cefus, who works as a clinical mental health counselor when he’s not birding.
Bringing it back
He’s the one who brought the Canton circle back to life. Volunteers in that circle did the Christmas bird counts between 1908 and 1950; no one seems to know why they stopped.
Circles are 15 miles in diameter, and Cefus wasn’t sure there was room for another between the circles that exist today. He was hoping to include Lake Cable to the north, as well as a landfill near Bolivar to the south where gulls can often be found during winter months. The circle he proposed would also include Middlebranch Trail, the Hoover Connector Trail, and the enormous acreage of Sippo Lake Park, all parts of Stark Parks system.
He submitted the paperwork early in the year, but it wasn’t until two months ago that he got the go-ahead. That approval came with an added bonus: “Since it had existed in the past, it provided us with historical data,” Cefus said.
In terms of sought-after species, the Canton-area birders struck gold early in the day with a long-tailed duck spotted at Lake Cable. Soon after came a common raven, which had disappeared from Ohio but is making a comeback in eastern and southeastern parts of the state.
Cefus and others had great luck at the landfill in southern Stark County, spotting four different species of gulls: ring-billed, herring, Iceland and lesser black-backed.
While lakes and ponds are often iced over in December, the amount of open water on the 17th provided more opportunities to spot waterfowl, which include ducks, geese and swans.
“We were able to tally 20 species of waterfowl including a white-winged scoter, which had been present at Meyers Lake for some time before count day,” Cefus said.
The group found three Merlins, a small-but-fierce falcon that was rarely seen in Ohio during winter months, but which has become more common in recent years. “We also had one of downtown Canton’s resident peregrine falcons, the world’s fastest bird in flight,” he said.
Armed with electronic calls, some birders went “owling” in the predawn hours. They succeeded in finding four species of owls, including a long-eared owl whose species is in decline.
To top off the day, observers found several species of “half-hardy birds,” which are “species that might linger in our area during the winter and might survive if the conditions remain relatively mild, but would likely perish in a very harsh winter like the one we experienced in 2015,” Cefus explained.
The half-hardy species spotted included ruby-crowned kinglet, eastern bluebird, hermit thrush, American robin, fox sparrow, gray catbird and brown thrasher, he said.
Counting, not killing
In the 1800s, some people participated in a bizarre tradition called “side hunts” on Christmas Day. It was basically a shooting contest to see which group could kill the most birds, regardless of species, rarity, or whether the meat could be used. In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of the publication that became Audubon magazine, proposed counting birds instead of killing them.
The bird count started on Christmas Day of that year with 27 observers counting in 25 places, one of which was in Darke County, Ohio. Since then, the count has evolved into an annual census of birds that takes place from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 and spans the United States, Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands.
The 120th count last year set records in terms of numbers of volunteers and count sites, but the results were disturbing. Fewer than 43 million birds were reported, six million less than the previous year. It remains to be seen how many volunteers stay away from this year’s count because of COVID, and how that might affect the final tally.
The volunteers in the Canton circle soldiered on while maintaining social distance. They ranged from folks with more than 60 years of bird-watching experience to “those who are brand new and just do it as an occasional hobby,” Cefus said. Volunteers not only count the birds they see, but also those they don’t see — if they can recognize the bird’s call. And that’s where experienced birders have an edge.
One technique used in the bird count is to listen for the black-capped chickadee’s “chick-a-dee-dee-ee” call, or the male’s whistle of “fee-bee.” Well, that’s if you’re north of a line that runs roughly through Mansfield. South of that line, which is the glacial divide, Christmas bird counters might be listening for the Carolina chickadee, Cefus said.
If observers hear the chickadee, odds are they will also hear — or see — the other birds that like to hang out with it, like the tufted titmouse, the white-breasted nuthatch and the downy woodpecker.
“They’re the chickadee’s allies,” Cefus said. “They all nest here and spend the winters here, foraging for berries, seeds and other things.”
That clique of birds often attracts the attention of others. “If there’s a rare bird around, it might show up with them,” he said.
In each circle, the compiler assigns volunteers to specific areas. For some, that means walking miles of park paths, trails or rural roads, while others are told to keep an eye on bird-feeding stations, like the ones at Sippo Lake Park. After spending the morning walking or watching, the birders then get into their cars and cover areas around the paths, as well as some residential neighborhoods.
In addition to their counts of birds, volunteers record the times they started and stopped, and the number of miles they walked and drove. They give that data to Cefus, who sends it to a compiler for the state of Ohio, who sends it on to the national Audubon database. It will then become part of the final data for the 121st Christmas bird count.
That and other counts, like the Great Backyard Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Count, plus ongoing counts on sites like eBird, a joint project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, give scientists worldwide a better idea of what’s happening with bird populations.
To learn more about birding, find your favorite species in Ohio, even participate in international birding tours, check out the Ohio Ornithological Society’s website, Ohiobirds.org.
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