WC has participated in a fair number of Christmas Bird Counts. For non-birders, the Christmas Bird Count is an annual census of birds, a citizen science project that has been held during the Christmas holidays for some 120 years now. It provides one of the longest baseline studies of populations of bird species across North America. The idea is to send volunteers out into a fifteen-mile diameter circle to see and count every bird they can.
In Boise, WC’s adopted home, the count circle centers on the Capitol Dome in downtown Boise. The fifteen mile diameter circle gets a nice sample of urban, suburban, foothills, sagebrush and river habitats, including a couple of small reservoirs, across a 3,000 vertical foot elevation range. In Fairbanks, the habitat is much less diverse.
WC, as readers know, is a mildly obsessive bird photographer. One of his motivations for relocating to Boise was more species diversity, especially in the winter. The Christmas Bird Counts demonstrate just how different the birding is. The 2014 Fairbanks Christmas Bird Count, the last one for which WC was the compiler, counted 26 species of birds, pretty respectable for the sub-Arctic, boreal forest in late December.1 By contrast, the 2020 Boise Christmas Bird Count found 104 species, exactly four times as many. Those species included a Wilson’s Snipe, seen by WC and Mrs. WC.
And conditions were surprisingly challenging in Boise this year: freezing fog limiting visibility to a quarter mile or less most of the day. Along the Boise River corridor, in our assigned area, sometimes you couldn’t see the tree tops for the fog. The fog froze to the paved trails, too, turning them into a skating rink. Not the same, WC will admit, as a Fairbanks bird count at -50° F or so, but still.
Fairbanks does lead Boise in a couple of categories, though: in 2014, it mustered some 112 volunteers. Boise, with a much, much larger population, could manage only about 80. On the other hand, the longer daylight hours in Boise permit a longer count day, so the hours of effort – time each participant spends looking for birds – is much longer.
There are some 2,300 Christmas Bird Counts around the world now. The Boise one has been running for more than 50 years. Fairbanks has been running one for 60 years, so it passes Boise there, too.
The highlight for WC of this year’s count? Either the Wilson’s Snipe above or the two Anna’s Hummingbirds coming to our (heated) hummingbird feeder.
If you’ve done a Christmas Bird Count, thanks. WC hopes you had as much fun as he does. If you aren’t participating, you should consider it. If you aren’t a birder, you can be teamed up with one (in that future COVID-free world) for help. Fresh air, exercise to work off all that Christmas candy, and the wonderful delight of seeing birds.
1 The Fairbanks total is inflated somewhat by the Chena 5 Powerplant in downtown Fairbanks. The cooling water from the powerplant is discharged into the Chena River. The warm water plume keeps the river open for a couple of miles downstream. The open water supports six waterfowl species that otherwise would be absent.