When we picture scientists, we think of people with years of education and very specialized expertise, who use advanced equipment and technology to explore complex and sometimes obscure fields.
This may be one kind of scientist, but a lot of relevant science is built on data that anyone can observe – for example, bird sightings. The National Audubon Society has been enlisting citizen scientists in its annual Christmas Bird Count since 1900 and has accumulated a wealth of data that covers a large geographic area and a long span of time.
Moab residents have participated in the event since 1984, and on Saturday, Dec. 16, organizers will host the 33rd annual Moab Christmas Bird Count. Anyone can volunteer for the free event.
The bird count was conceived as a conservationist alternative to the popular tradition of shooting birds around the holidays. From its roots in the northeastern part of the United States, the count has spread to 15 countries and has grown to include tens of thousands of volunteers.
The Audubon Society has created a set of standard procedures which all counts must follow to ensure that all data collected is comparable. Participants in the Moab count will split into teams and be assigned to a specified route, all within a 15-mile radius of Shrimp Rock, which is in the Sand Flats area. Each team will fill out a standard data sheet with their observations, keeping track of how many individual birds are seen and how many different species are identified.
Inexperienced birders will be teamed with more knowledgeable observers, so amateurs or first-timers should not be deterred. They should, however, be prepared for rain, snow or sunshine.
“I do want to stress that the count goes on no matter what the weather,” event coordinator Marcy Hafner said. “Volunteers should be prepared with clothing for cold and/or inclement weather. They also need to bring a pair of binoculars.”
The data collected will be added to a large online database, which is open to anyone at http://netapp.audubon.org/cbcobservation/. Members of the public can explore past years’ observations, while professional scientists use it to track trends in the health of bird populations.
The fact that the count spans 117 years makes it possible to sort out long-term patterns from short-term fluctuations. Over the last 40 years, some species have been shown to be in obvious decline.
These patterns can also be used to predict future trends.
In a 2014 Climate Change Report issued by the Audubon Society, 314 North American bird species were projected to lose more than half of their current habitat range by 2080, due to the shifting climate. It’s impossible to see this trend on a local, short-term scale, but the large database illuminates the bigger picture.
“It is important for participants to realize that without them, there would be no bird count,” Hafner said. “What they contribute points to the trends of upward or downward numbers in the populations of birds during the winter in our area. Gathering this data helps to give a clue as to the health of our environment.”
Donna McCarty, of the Amos W. Butler Audubon Society, is quoted on Audubon’s website as saying, “Birds … are prime indicators of how well we are taking care of our planet.”
Many bird species are highly reactive to their environments – a change in their habitat will affect their health, behavior and/or numbers. Thus, trends in bird populations can indicate changes in an ecosystem – and suggest whether that ecosystem is stable. It’s not a comprehensive diagnostic tool, but it’s a valuable insight.
Marian Eason, an organizer for the Moab Bird Club as well as the bird count, said of birds seen in the Moab area, “Numbers and species can vary for many reasons, but changes in weather conditions from year to year, as well as changes in habitat can have an impact.”
The status of bird populations is one piece of the puzzle in understanding the balance of a healthy biosphere.
After the count, a pot-luck brunch will be held at The Nature Conservancy office at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 17. The potluck is an annual tradition held after the count, and participants can look forward to a cozy recap of their field observations.
“It feels so good to come out of the cold and into the warm,” Hafner said. “This is when we compare notes and brag about the rare species that have been seen. We also go over the list and tally up the total of species.”
Last year, some of the rare species spotted were a bald eagle, a prairie falcon and a northern pygmy owl.
Eason described the potluck as a fun gathering.
“We usually have a good turnout for the post-count brunch,” she said. “Team leaders report their teams’ count, which is always of interest to everyone. We usually have a trivia quiz, and prizes are awarded.”
Volunteers to participate in Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 16
“Gathering this data helps to give a clue as to the health of our environment.”
When: Saturday, Dec. 16
Where: Various locations within a 15-mile radius of Shrimp Rock, in Sand Flats
Information: Marcy Hafner, firstname.lastname@example.org or 435-259-6197
Marcy Hafner is the coordinator for the Moab count; to take part in this year’s event, contact her at email@example.com or 435-259-6197.