Earth Journal by Gary Pendleton

 Vol. 10, No. 1
January 3 - 9, 2002 
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Karyn Molines, Tom Feild and Leo Weignat help in the annual Christmas Bird Count.
photo by Gary Pendleton

Counting the Birds at Year’s End

At 7:30am on December 30, as four warmly dressed people gathered in an annual new year’s ritual, the temperature was down to 22 chilly degrees, with biting winds gusting from the northwest at 15 to 30 miles per hour. We were equipped with binoculars and spotting scopes as well as coats, hats and mittens for the Annapolis Christmas Bird Count, which is held every year on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year. Around Annapolis, small groups like ours were gathering in teams for a cold day of looking for birds and recording the results.

As if frigid conditions weren’t enough, our group had to deal with security, too. Our reconnaissance point is just outside the Northrup Grumman facility, on the waterfront just south of the Bay Bridge, where we have gathered on the appointed day for over a decade. In recent years, we freely came and went. This time we had to enter as a group, which meant a prompt and early starting time. Oh, the sacrifices we make for science.

Our team spent the day searching a “count sector” that includes the Northrup Grumman acreage and the nearby community of Holly Beach Farm. Others were deployed within a 15-mile radius centered on the Severn River Bridge. Counters scoured roadsides, patrolled Sandy Point State Park and searched a variety of properties, personal and private. The results will be published by the National Audubon Society in a report including the results from all the Christmas counts.

Christmas counts are a century-old tradition across the country. For many outdoors lovers, they replace the once-classic Christmas bird hunt. As far as I’m concerned, their purpose, is social as much as scientific. It’s a chance to see old friends and meet new people.

Our team was smaller than usual, lacking a half dozen old friends, kept away by family obligations, who traditionally trek from as far as Richmond. We four were ably led by Leo Weigant, a knowledgeable and avid birder, who replaces Mark Garland, who recently took a position with the Cape May Bird Observatory. Karyn Molines, Tom Field and I rounded out the team. We didn’t sing Auld Lang Syne to signify tradition, but as we braved the cold we were preserving our own customs and thinking of friends who could not be with us. I hope they were somewhere warm and sleeping in.

Large flocks of diving ducks are typical, but this year’s numbers were unusually low, probably because the long stretch of mild weather has kept the flocks of canvasback, scaup, goldeneye and old squaw from descending to our region from the north. The Annapolis count usually scores the country’s highest number for canvasbacks, typically 15,000 to 20,000. This year only a few thousand were seen. The cold weather we are now experiencing is expected to drive the Bay’s familiar winter ducks south to their winter home.

Looking out over the Bay, our team saw only a small flock of Canada geese, some gulls and a flock of 15 tundra swans. Later, from Holly Beach Farm, we found a modest number of ruddy ducks and buffleheads.

The number of species reported from all sectors was 107, 10 below the all-time high. The cold and wind kept land birds hunkered down in the brush and hard to locate, so the count-per-species was generally low. A highlight of the count was a dozen northern gannets seen out over the Bay. They are ocean-going birds, not usually seen this far north in December.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly