Time again for a count of feathers and fins


Critter counts. We've been doing them since Howdy Doody was a 2-by-4, from swans a-swimming and geese a-laying to Dr. Seuss' red fish and blue fish.

This year is no different. Hearty bands of volunteers will be tromping around this season, sizing up the populations of bird species and taking stock of the traditional spawning grounds of yellow perch.

Both groups could use a couple more boots (and waders) on the ground.

Tuesday starts the 105th annual "Christmas Bird Count" sponsored by the National Audubon Society and billed as the nation's oldest and largest citizen-run science project.

Between the start and Jan. 5, as many as 2,000 groups will fan out over carefully marked survey areas to see how many feathered friends we still have. Some groups consist of a handful of longtime friends, others are more of a come-one, come-all holiday party with nature.

Either way, it's a one-day commitment and a chance to do some good while learning something about birds from folks who have been scanning the skies for years.

Close to home, there will be bird counts at Baltimore's harbor, Annapolis, Elkton and the Triadelphia Reservoir (you can check out the complete list and get contact information at www.audubon.org).

The count in southern Dorchester County will be led by Chandler Robbins, one of the world's foremost authorities and a Maryland resident. The Ocean City count will be led by the sharp-eyed Jay Sheppard, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official and Trout Unlimited stalwart.

Now, you might be asking yourself, "How can a rag-tag group of experts and amateurs be expected to provide quality information for scientists?"

Well, I did.

"It's not fair to call them rag-tag," said Geoff LeBaron, the Audubon guy who oversees the count. "They have varying backgrounds. The key is it's literally the same people doing the same thing in the same place at the same time every year."

While it may sound like the ornithological equivalent to the move Groundhog Day, the count is well-grounded in science.

By using the same survey grids, scientists can pick up on population shifts and, sad to say, habitat loss.

"We're not looking for rare sightings or unusual occurrences. The meat and potatoes is the common bird," LeBaron said.

For example, on Dec. 27 last year, the 15 volunteers at the city's harbor counted 92 species, with unusually high numbers of cormorants, Canada geese (now, there's a surprise, eh?) and black scoters. The latter was a two-fer, both unusual for the area and in larger numbers than might be expected. The other unusual sightings were a single long-tailed duck and 10 Forester's terns.

The field reports are screened and analyzed by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center - where Robbins works - and the Boreal Songbird Initiative. The finished work, "The State of the Birds Report," will be published next fall.

As an aside, the Audubon Web site lets you call up the counts from any of last year's 1,996 reports from around the country. You can see who participated, what they saw and how many they saw. The site even has some cool maps. Some day this winter, when cabin fever has you approaching Jack Nicholson's The Shining performance, you'll thank me for supplying that potential diversion.

And just in case you're worried that you won't be as experienced or eagle-eyed as others, LeBaron said not to worry.

"We welcome beginners," he said. "No one is out there alone. We pair beginners with an experienced person. It's a treat. Who knows who you'll be paired with?"

Meanwhile, anglers are checking their waders and hip boots for leaks in anticipation of the four-month Severn River yellow perch project that begins in January.

It's no secret that in some Chesapeake Bay tributaries, especially in the mid- to lower bay, perca flavescens have become about as scarce as an Ehrlich administration Christmas card in a Sun employee's mailbox.

We love these fish because they are among the first we see in the new year - when we see them.

The Department of Natural Resources and Anne Arundel County are determined to find out why yellow perch are having such a tough time of it in the Severn. So volunteers, led by Trout Unlimited's Jim Gracie, will walk the streams to assess habitat and blockages that inhibit spawning runs. They'll collect eggs and larvae for study. The final step is taking measurements for dissolved oxygen and water levels.

"When it's all over, we should know which of the streams yellow perch are using and which they aren't," Gracie said. "That will provide the framework for action."

Sign up by e-mailing him at yellowperch@brightwater.com.

Least you think this column is work, work, work for y'all, let me end by reminding you of some fun, fun, fun (with apologies to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys).

My Montgomery County recreation department flier just arrived and I see the Chesapeake Bay fishing seminar series is being offered again. Speakers include "Walleye" Pete Dahlberg, Richie Gaines, Tom Hughes and George Prenant.

If you missed the previous offerings or got shut out because of the 48-person registration cap, now's the time to act. This eight-week fishing tutorial is worth the drive and the $95 course fee for those of you who aren't residents of the People's Republic of Montgomery.

Think of it, what bay angler wouldn't pay $20 - weekly cost, plus gas - to hear these guys talk? Besides, how else are you going to get through the winter?

Call 240-777-6840 or www.montgomerycountymd.gov for details.

And last but not least, the Maryland chapter of Trout Unlimited is having its fishing tackle exchange on Dec. 21 in the main building at the Gilman School.

The chapter has 800 members, so the swapping, buying and selling possibilities appear limitless, or until exhaustion sets in.

The boost to the local angling economy begins at 7:30 p.m.

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