For many if not most local birders, watching birds is a pastime largely of spring, summer, and fall. But for the most intrepid, the end of the year brings an opportunity to observe and count birds for the longest-running citizen science project in the world: the Christmas Bird Count.
Started in 1900, the CBC was conceived by Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as a pivot from the traditional “side hunt” at Christmas, when men shouldered firearms and scoured the countryside in search of avian creatures. Whoever shot the most won. Chapman was a conservationist alarmed at the ongoing slaughter of birds and proposed instead a bird census which would involve counting, instead of killing, birds. From a modest beginning of 25 counts, the Christmas Bird Counts now number in the thousands, with tens of thousands of volunteers participating.
The annual event takes place on a day between December 14 and January 5. Each locality selects its count day in that time frame and organizes volunteer birders to tally the birds they see in a “count circle” during the 24 hours of that day. Counters gather, usually in the late afternoon or evening, to compile, compare, and celebrate the results.
* Bird count photo by Steve Barten for Citizens for Conservation.
Barrington has held an annual CBC since 1964, thanks to Chuck and Lorraine Westcott. Chuck, who had been involved in such counts since a boy, had moved to the area to serve as senior naturalist and director of Crabtree Nature Center, and wanted to continue the annual holiday tradition. He and Lorraine established and supervised the Barrington count for several years until the area – a circle of 15-miles diameter, or 177 square miles – was divided into four quadrants. Chuck continued responsibility for the northwest quadrant, while Prairie Woods Audubon, Kane County Audubon, and Spring Valley Nature Center oversaw the others.
I first participated in the Barrington CBC in 1975, when our second child was not even a year old, and continued for many years after. The anticipation of finding something unusual – a long-eared owl? lingering belted kingfisher? purple finches? – motivated me and lots of others to head out early on count day and spend many hours searching for birds. I always returned chilled through but exhilarated by the hunt. The afternoon gathering at the Westcott’s house at Crabtree, where the table abounded with cakes and cookies from Lorraine’s kitchen, was a spirited finale to the event.
Leafing through my field journals, I found early CBC accounts that described encounters with pheasants, rough-legged hawks, many swamp and tree sparrows. One year I was thrilled to watch a mink dip in and out of a drainage ditch. While I have participated in very few Barrington CBCs in recent years, it’s doubtful that pheasants or rough-legged hawks would be on my list. I haven’t seen those species for years in my count area.
I regularly documented between 10 and 25 species for the day, but Chuck tells me the average for the Barrington count (compiled from around 30 participants) is a bit under 60. What astounds me is that the total number of species sighted over 55 years of CBC’s in the Barrington area is 138, with the highest one-day count just above 70. Those unusual species for the season include double-breasted cormorants, sandhill cranes (which had not been documented prior to 2009), barred owls, pileated woodpeckers.
In contrast, some places in Texas submit counts of over 220 species; even Brooklyn registered 129 this year. But while more temperate regions will yield more diverse and higher counts, there’s special pleasure in canvassing yards, forest preserves, parks, trails close to home. Besides being just plain fun, the event yields data that informs understanding of population trends and contributes toward conservation decision-making.
One never knows what might turn up. I am grateful to return as a counter this year on December 16, covering parts of Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve. On the evening before, I nourish hopes of some special discovery. Look for a report of this year’s Barrington Christmas Bird Count in the next installment of Birds of Barrington.
About Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.