Sun. Dec. 1, 2019

President’s notebook: Let’s eBird the Christmas Bird Count

By John Besser, Columbia Audubon Society (CAS) President

The Christmas Bird Count is probably the longest-standing activity of the National Audubon Society. The genius of this early “citizen science” project lies in its simplicity and consistency over the years. Each group participating in the CBC submits a list of all the birds (species and number) seen in a 15-mile diameter count circle over a 24-hour period. This simple framework has stood the test of time, and the resulting database with over a century of counts has proven invaluable to many bird researchers and conservation organizations.

For local CBC participants, counting birds on cold December day is a cherished tradition, as is congregating to share a chili dinner and tally the results of our day’s count. The chili dinner is one of the most popular social events on the Columbia Audubon Society annual calendar, but I suspect that its popularity is due more to the chili and conversation than to the l-o-n-g process of tabulating the counts of each species across each section of the count circle. This ‘Long Count’ is not only tedious, it is prone to errors, as tallies can be easily skipped or misunderstood.

Bird counting has come a long way since the early 1900s, and we now have access to a marvelous new technology: eBird, the online bird database. I suspect that most participants in the Columbia CBC use eBird to keep track of their bird checklists, or at least their life lists. Many groups that participate in the CBC now use eBird to tally the birds seen in their count circle. The main difference between eBird checklists and CBC tallies is that all birds seen in a CBC count circle on the count day are totaled and submitted in aggregate to the National Audubon Society database. In contrast, eBird emphasizes recording checklists for discrete locations such as “birding hotspots”, and they do not want data that has been aggregated over large areas. The simple solution for making eBird data compatible with the CBC database is that each group simply needs to submit one or more eBird checklists representing all the areas that they birded during the CBC. Once all the checklists for a count circle are submitted to eBird, it is a simple process to download the data and format it to be compatible with the Audubon CBC database.

You may be thinking that this approach would take all the fun out of the chili dinner. But I would argue that the chili will taste just as good without the long count, and we can still compile a species list after dinner. We will still find out … Who saw the rarest species? Who found the most screech owls? (spoiler alert: it‘s Paul M)? And, most importantly, did we pass the magical 100 species barrier?

I suspect that once we get used to using eBird to compile our CBC data, we won’t miss the old manual counts. But nobody said we have to go cold turkey on this process. I am suggesting that we treat this year as a trial run and see if we can come up with the same answers using eBird that we get with the traditional method. All I ask is that anyone who compiles one or more lists during the Christmas Bird Count this year please share an eBird list with the CAS eBird group account, as well as to those who run the traditional compilation.

Please see this document for suggestions on preparing checklists with CBC data in eBird and for sharing these checklists with the Columbia Audubon Society’s eBird group account (username = casbirddata).

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Field trips in the winter

Cancellation procedure for field trips: We are entering the time of year when snowy/icy/frigid/uncertain weather can mess with field trip plans, resulting in conditions that fall somewhere in a spectrum from ambiguously iffy to clearly dangerous. Sometimes the decision to cancel or postpone may be made on short notice. The CAS website is generally the source for the most up-to-date information, but if the field trip leader is a Facebook user (our Field Trip Chair is not), a notice could show up on the Columbia Audubon Facebook page first, so check both. Given inherent uncertainty of weather forecasts, even if the website indicates the trip is on, participants are encouraged to make their own assessment of the safety of winter weather conditions before deciding to attend.

Also, some field trips may be scheduled only 5-10 days or so in advance, particularly when there is some indication that the forecast will be favorable. Monitor the CAS website, the Columbia Audubon Facebook group, and/or your email (if you’re subscribed to event listings) for announcements of field trips on shorter notice. And let Eric Reuter know if you have one you would like to lead.

November meeting recap: Yard-scale habitat management for birds

by Joanna Reuter

At the November membership meeting, Margy Terpstra spoke about “Why Our Yards Are So Important to the Full Life-cycle Conservation of Our Native Birds”. Members of the sizable audience were treated to many beautiful bird photos and an inspiring example of the benefits of managing habitat with a purpose. The guiding principles followed by Margy and her husband Dan include use of diverse native plants and avoidance of pesticides. When choosing plants for their 0.6 acre yard, they consider (among other things) how many species of lepidopteran (butterfly/moth) caterpillars the plants will support; caterpillars, after all, are food for many birds including warblers. Diversity in plant structure also provides cover for birds. Plus, they built and maintain an all-season bubbler that attracts birds with its gurgling sound and provides a place for birds to bathe after a long flight; at this spot alone, they’ve compiled a species list 122 birds long.

If you feel inspired to make your yard more attractive to birds, winter is a great time to do some planning. Here are two handouts that Margy provided:

You can find out what Margy and Dan are seeing by following their Shady Oaks blog, which is routinely updated with photos and observations of birds and other wildlife.

Holiday gift ideas

by Joanna Reuter

In this season of giving, gifts for people can also benefit birds by sharing knowledge, providing food, and enhancing habitat. Here’s a brainstorm of ideas for a range of budgets and interests:

  • The MOBIRDS listserv recently had a great discussion of books related to birds and habitat. Most of the recommended books were compiled in this table, with some additional suggestions in this post.
  • Consider a gift certificate for your favorite native plant nursery. Or perhaps save some seeds of native plants from your garden or property to share with friends and family.
  • Wingspan board game: Eric & I recently played this for the first time, and we think this bird-themed game with plenty of strategy and loads of diversity will become a regular favorite. We received it from someone who found it more complicated than expected. The written rules are a bit difficult to decipher, but there is a video (linked in the instructions) that clarifies the procedure for play. It’s better suited for game-lovers who are only slightly interested in birds than bird-lovers who are only slightly interested in games, but it’s excellent for combined bird- and game-lovers like us. Game play does provide some useful insights into ecological interconnectedness and there’s a lot of fun trivia built in.
  • Birds of North America Online: For in-depth information about the breeding birds of North America, this online subscription service from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great choice. In 2020, the service will be upgraded to a cover Birds of the World, but it seems that existing subscribers will be grandfathered in at the current price.
  • Songbird Station, a sponsor of CAS, sells bird food, feeders, binoculars, and many other bird-related items.
  • Last but not least, consider supporting birds with a donation to CAS through CoMoGives; see the full article here.

November board meeting unofficial summary

Official meeting minutes will be posted to the website after approval at each subsequent board meeting. Below are brief notes about some topics discussed on November 20, 2019. Please contact a board member with any questions.

  • Jean Neely has agreed to fill the board vacancy; thank you, Jean!
  • Liability insurance: The company that offers field-trip insurance to non-profits requires sign-in sheets with liability waivers. Eric Reuter, Field Trip Chair, is forming a committee to make informed decisions on how best to proceed. For more information, see article in this newsletter.
  • CoMoGives update. For more information, see article in this newsletter.
  • Boone County Nature School discussion, including plan for a special December board meeting and possibility of making a “founding partner” contribution to the school.

Correction

The article on Hog Island scholarship recipients in the previous issue of The Chat incorrectly identified one of the participants; this has been corrected to Andrew Crawford in the online edition. Thank you to Emily Reynolds for pointing this out.

Supporting CAS

Carrying out our mission through education, conservation, and outreach takes a wide variety of resources, from the valued time of dedicated volunteers to the financial support of members and donors. We welcome and appreciate all participants and supporters of our work through their generous donations of time, money, or other resources.

Submitting material to The Chat

The Chat is published online on the first of every month from September through May. Submissions are welcome, including photographs, stories, and brief notes about bird or nature observations. Please contact News Editor Joanna Reuter with submissions, feedback, or suggestions for content. The submission deadline is the 25th of each month.