Updated: Mar 21
By Linda Spence
An important tool to assess the quality of habitat and changes in climate.
There is much evidence that some birds are changing their ranges and migrating habits.
The Decatur Audubon Society is a strong advocate of regular bird counts. Regularly counting birds over a period of years in a specific area provides data that can be used to evaluate the health and diversity of that habitat. In my opinion, out of all the animals living on earth, birds are the best indicators of what is going on right now and what the future may bring because they are the easiest to observe. They live their entire lives right in front of us.
Comparing count data over a period of years can help us assess climate change. There is much evidence that some birds are changing their ranges and migrating habits. A good example is the Ruby-throated Humming-bird which over the past 20 years has pushed its winter range north about 250 miles. This northern expansion of their winter range can be seen in the data from the Christmas Bird Counts in our southern states.
President Melody Arnold, First Vice President Connie Requarth, and Board Member Norm Jensen collect and report the data from the counters that participate in the Christmas Bird Count and the Spring Bird Count in Macon County. DAS member Jarod Hitchings does the same for the data from the Christmas Bird Count held each year at Lake Sangchris. Here is what Connie, Melody and Jarod have to say:
Linda: Melody and Connie, in which bird counts does Decatur Audubon participate?
Melody: We participate in the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), and the Illinois SpringBird Count (SBC).
Linda: There is a board position for this. Why is this important enough for a board position?
Melody: For many years NAS suggested that Chapters have a Bird Count Chairperson and committee. The Chair was suggested to be a board position. National’s latest directory of suggested committees no longer lists the Bird Count Committee, but Decatur Audubon has retained this position on our board because we think it is important. There is much work in organizing these counts and in managing and reporting the data collected.
Linda: What is the Christmas Bird Count (CBC)?
Melody: The CBC takes place within a circle that has a 15-mile diameter and is centered on downtown Decatur. Our circle is divided into four quadrants and an attempt is made to have counters in each. This count must be held between December 14 and January 5. Decatur Audubon holds their CBC the first Saturday during that time span. Birds can be counted while the counter is walking or driving, or the counter can sit and count in their own yard, a favorite park, or at feeders as long as the person counting is in the circle. Birds can be identified by sight, their calls, and/or their songs. The data is entered into a National Audubon portal by either the board member in charge of these counts or a designated person.
Connie: The CBC covers a 24-hour time period - this past year it was held on December 18th, midnight to midnight. Most of the counting occurs from dawn until dusk - people choose their own times and report their numbers to the compiler. Owling hours can also be reported. These hours are most often after dark and are usually based on calls – the owls are not often seen. The 24-hour count-day starts and ends at midnight. If counters are looking for owls, they can count from the midnight that begins the count until dawn or begin at sunset to the midnight that ends the count.
Linda: Jarod, you set up and run the count at Lake Sangchris. How did this come about?
Jarod: While attending a Bird Banding talk at the Illinois State Museum in October 2019, I was approached by one of our local birders, Trevor Slovick, to discuss having a CBC near him at Lake Sangchris. I was familiar with CBC as a long-running citizen science effort whose data has been immeasurably valuable in avian studies.
Linda: What is your counting area for the CBC?
Jarod: Our Sangchris circle has been divided into 5 areas. Region 1: the area of Sangamon County within our circle. Region 2: a Roby, Illinois area to the north and the village of Edinburg. Region 3: the heart of the lake and village of Kincaid. Region 4: includes many campsites, archery ranges, and other activities generally along the lake that are closed during winter. Region 5: includes the Village of Pawnee and all the agricultural “leftover” areas within the circle.
Linda: How many participants do you have?
Jarod: It varies from 10 to 13 field observers. We try to pair individuals in teams to cover the 5 areas. We have 1 to 3 feeder watchers in the Village of Tovey. The count has always been scheduled on a weekday between the Decatur CBC and the Springfield CBC count dates.
Linda: Have any of you had some surprising or unusual birds counted during the CBC?
Connie: During the 2020 CBC, we observed many waterfowl including the Greater White-fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Common Golden-eye. We counted 38 American White Pelicans in two separate groups. A Ring Necked Pheasant was seen, and a Bald Eagle or two usually make an appearance. We did see an unusual number of Pine Siskins last year because there was an irruption. This year we had fewer observers and fewer birds– it was a miserable weather day. We really appreciated those who braved the weather to contribute!
Jarod: We have also had some great sightings. North-ern Bobwhites, Ring-necked Pheasants, Wild Turkeys, and Lapland Longspurs have been seen alongside the grassy habitats of the rural roadsides at Lake Sangchris. The coveted woodpecker “clean sweep” has occurred every count with the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Pileated being the linchpins for success. We have had Brown Thrashers and Northern Mockingbirds. Hawks, owls (including Short-eared), eagles, and falcons are at good, healthy numbers. Eurasian Tree Sparrow numbers keep increasing with each count. Both Kinglets and now not only the Myrtle Warbler (a subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler) but also an Orange-crowned Warbler was seen this past count. Our greatest fluctuation is always in the number of species of waterfowl.
Linda: Connie and Melody, Decatur Audubon also participates in the Spring Bird Count (SBC). Tell us about this count.
Melody: Decatur Audubon has participated almost every year since it started in Illinois. Our part of the count can be anywhere within Macon County. On count-day, counts can be made while walking, driving, bicycling, boating, and while sitting still– at feeders, sitting in the backyard, looking out a window, etc. Birds can be identified by sight, their calls, and/or songs. Decatur Audubon attempts to have coverage of the whole county and will suggest areas that need to be monitored. The data is compiled on an online form by the board member in charge of counts, or by a designated person, and is submitted to the Illinois Natural History Survey. The count day always falls between May 4 and May 10 and is usually on a Saturday.
Connie: This is also a 24-hour count from midnight to midnight so owls and nightjars can be included.
Linda: Have you had some uncommon or rarer birds reported during the Spring Bird Count?
Melody: Some of the more unusual birds reported during the SBC include Eastern Whip-poor-will, Western Kingbird, Henslow’s Sparrow, Western Tanager, Ross’s Goose, Snow Goose, Bob-o-link, Bonaparte’s Gull, and American White Pelican. Some of these, such as the Snow Goose and pelican aren’t uncommon during certain times of the year but are unusual in spring. Others are unusual because they are rare or declining species, such as the Henslow’s Sparrow and Bob-o-link. The Western Kingbird and Western Tanager were out of their ranges.
Linda: Thinking back over both the CBC and the SBC, are there any birds you wish your counters would see but have not?
Melody: Eastern Screech Owl, American Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Upland Sandpiper, Sandhill Crane - really, any on the species list that hasn’t been reported.
Jarod: Gray Catbird is the one hearty winter mimid not seen. No Rusty or Brewer’s Blackbirds. Snow Bunting would be the ultimate snowbird find for this count. Tundra and Mute Swans. Long-Tailed Duck and White-winged Scoter for the “weird winter duck” category. Hopefully, some of these will grace our presence on a future count.
Linda: How does someone volunteer to be a part of these bird counts? Do you need experience?
Melody: Contact one of the compilers: Connie Requarth, Norm Jensen, myself, or email DAS at firstname.lastname@example.org. No experience is needed. If someone wants to participate and is a beginner or not a confident birder, we will pair them with an experienced birder. Some participants count at their feeders. To do the Great Backyard Bird Count, participants can Google GBBC and register online with eBird or contact DAS at the above email for assistance.
Jarod: We welcome all levels of experience. The Sangchris CBC is a diverse group in ages and backgrounds. I was a relatively new birder, with only a year of documenting species under my belt, so I partnered with Joe Gardener my first year to better understand counting large numbers and for species ID. This mentoring aspect is still prevalent with our count as we support and help one another with identifications in a fun educational situation. Every year we have had new folks join the count. The only requirement is a love for nature.
Linda: The Spring Bird Count is coming up. Melody, I am sure you would like to invite everyone to participate?
Melody: The SBC is my favorite! The weather is usually nice and there are lots of different species of bird migrating through the area. This is the perfect time to participate in a bird count. This year, the SBC will be held on May 7. Anyone interested may contact me at email@example.com. If you aren’t an experienced birder, we will pair you with someone who is.