Holiday bird count 'A game and a scientific endeavor'

Bundled in a thick coat and gloves, Gene Scarpulla raised his binoculars and peered out across the Chesapeake Bay. He spotted a great black-backed gull, the largest type of gull in the world, and yelled out.

“Oh, how exciting,” a fellow birder said, and did a little dance that seemed motivated by both delight and Sunday’s frigid temperatures.

Bird enthusiasts around the world gather each year in the first few weeks of winter to take stock of the avian population in their regions. More than a century old, the National Audubon Society’s “Christmas Bird Count” is now one of the country’s largest citizen science projects.

The Anne Arundel Bird Club has sponsored a bird count in conjunction with the Audubon society since 1954. Dozens of people join together around Annapolis and Gibson Island on a December day to tally the different species flying around. This year’s count took place in the 24 hours leading up to the New Year.

All bird counts this season will take place between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. More than two dozen were scheduled in Maryland this year.

Once the data is collected, researchers can use the early-winter bird census to track wildlife trends. Bird count data has inspired more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, and cities have used it in land-use and zoning decisions.

It can help identify species that might be endangered or threatened by climate change, too.

“Adding observations to more than a century of data helps scientists and conservationists observe trends that will help make our work more impactful,” said Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director.

Marcia Watson, Scarpulla’s wife, doesn’t need to look at the statistics to know there’s been a change in the number of birds soaring across Anne Arundel County.

The 65-year-old Bowie woman has participated in bird counts since 1990. She says the skies and marshes near Sandy Point State Park, where she and other birders gathered Sunday, are emptier than they were when she started.

“It has been shocking to me that in the time I’ve been doing the counts, how big the changes have been — and not for the good,” Watson said. “Bird numbers are down. The habitat has been lost left and right as developments have moved in. It’s really been kind of shocking.”

Still, on this cold Sunday morning there were a variety of birds overhead. Scarpulla and his fellow birders spotted three bald eagles before 10 a.m., along with dozens of bufflehead ducks, hundreds of Canada geese and a few different types of gulls.

Dave Mozurkewich said he counted 5,934 cormorant birds, which often nest in the Bay Bridge, on Sunday morning. There’s a technique to counting so many creatures in motion, he said. He likes to tally them five at a time.

“I might be off by a few,” Mozurkewich said, and laughed.

Scarpulla keeps track of the birds using pen and paper — “I’m old-school,” he said. But Watson has upgraded to the iPhone application eBird. It’ll likely take a few weeks for the bird count compilers to submit final numbers to the Audubon society.

Last year, more than 2,500 groups participated in the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. Each count focused on a circle 15 miles across. Together, they surveyed about 5 percent of North America and counted more than 56 million birds representing thousands of different species.

The tradition began in 1900, in response to the practice of hunting for birds for Christmas.

The Christmas Bird Count is an alternative that’s “much less consumptive and good for conservation,” Scarpulla said. “We’re not killing birds for Christmas, but instead counting them.”

Hal Wierenga has taken part in the tradition since he was a child, often tagging along with his father, who was an active bird watcher. More than six decades and two artificial knees later, the 73-year-old Arnold man said he plans to stick with it for as long as he can.

“Some people go shopping for Christmas,” he said. “A bunch of bird watchers do Christmas bird counts.”

Cold weather and winds limit bird watching, and Sunday wasn’t short on either. The wind chill stayed in the single digits for much of the day’s count.

For Wierenga, what makes a bird count successful is the number of different species the group comes across. It’s also enjoyable to find birds who are out of place in the Chesapeake.

“I’m generally not too impressed by the total number — all it takes to skew that is someone walking into a big flock of blackbirds,” he said. “You have to be careful being too exuberant over a whole lot of birds or too depressed over not too many.”

At the end of the day, many of the birders gather at a local diner to warm up and discuss the day’s tally, trading stories about interesting finds.

“It’s both a game and a scientific endeavor,” Wierenga said.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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