Christmas bird count season is here

Bruce Mactavish
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The Christmas season is a joyous time of giving, receiving, eating, drinking and socializing. For birdwatchers, there is one little extra joy of the season: counting.

This is Christmas Bird Count time. There are days specifically organized for birding all day long during the Christmas holiday period.

It is an annual event taking place at many centres across Canada and United States, organized by the National Audubon Society.

The rules are simple, and the same for every Christmas Bird Count (CBC). A CBC area is a circle based on a 7.5-mile (12.1-km) radius of a fixed point.

The count circle area remains constant each year. Groups of birders divide the pie into sections in which they birdwatch for the day.

Each group records all the birds they see, including counting common species like crows and chickadees.

At the end of the day, the lists of all the groups are combined to produce a total count for the count circle.

Of course, every bird in the CBC count circle is not seen. The count total is a good representation of the different kinds of birds in the area and their relative abundance.

Over the years, trends start to appear. For instance, if one was to take a close look at the more than 45 years of consecutive St. John’s CBCs, there would be marked changes in the greater abundances of ducks and feeder birds like juncos, blue jays and northern flickers. This is due to more people feeding birds, making it easier for them over winter in the St. John’s area.

Other birds like robins and winter finches would show less change over time, but would show some interesting patterns.

It would be pretty easy to know when the big dogberry crop years in St. John’s were all the way back to the mid-1960s by looking at the robin counts on the CBCs. Robin counts vary from zero to hundreds, depending on the state of the dogberry crop. Finches like the white-winged crossbill also vary year to year, depending on the cone crop.

The St. John’s CBC is traditionally held on Dec. 26.

You can help if you live in the St. John’s CBC area. The birds coming to your feeder can be added to the total count. Your bird feeder must be within the St. John’s count circle which is centred on the Confederation Building. The outer boundaries are Torbay, the ferry dock in Portugal Cove, Mt. Pearl, some of Kilbride and Maddox Cove.

 It is simple. You do not have to be vigilant all day long, but a general count of the species of birds and numbers of each that you see at your feeder and around your yard is perfect.

Sometimes you have to guess-timate the number of the common birds like juncos. That is fine.

At the end of the day or the following day, you may email your bird list to the email address at the bottom of this column. Please include your name and address, or at least the general area that you live.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Christmas Bird Counts are held at St. John’s, Cape Race, Ferryland, Terra Nova National Park, Gander, Corner Brook, Gros Morne National Park, St. Paul’s, Goose Bay and Labrador City. Some of these will have taken place by the time you read this. The Cape Race CBC was unfortunately cancelled due to the road to the lighthouse being blocked by snow.

This month’s early snowfalls have blocked the Cape Race road, which does not get plowed during the winter. We missed out on a chance to set the record for the highest number of snowy owls ever recorded on any North American CBC.

On Saturday, Dec. 14, we did the Ferryland CBC. Nine birders in four groups covered the main areas between Cape Broyle and Renews. It was a true winter style count with snow, cold temperatures and high winds. A total of 58 species was below recent standards.

There was a great lack of birds at bird feeders. In fact, most bird feeders that we came across looked neglected and without seed. I suspect the reason for this was a genuine lack of birds coming to feeders during the fall. This was because of the abundance of wild seed available in the woods.

And it is true. Most of the juncos we saw on this bird count were in the woods getting seed from the abundance of seed in the spruce and fir cones. But with all this snow around now, some birds are going to be looking for the easy living at your bird feeders, so please stock up those feeders! It is good for your entertainment and good for the birds.

As usual with such a concerted effort in a particular area, some unexpected birds were found. A late orange-crowned warbler was at Admiral’s Cove.

A female wood duck was discovered living in a small ditch in Calvert. A northern harrier at Ferryland was a late date for this summer hawk.

Not surprising this year, but still a first for this Christmas Bird Count circle, were three snowy owls out on Ferryland Head. The amazing black-bellied plover that has spent the winter on Renews beach for the last five years at least is again present this year. Truly a heroic bird to winter so far north of its cousins, all down on warm beaches in the United States.

So, let us get our birdfeeders back in action with the onset of this old-fashioned winter. And keep an eye on the dogberry trees for robins now starting to flock together.

Bohemian waxwings are beginning to appear in good numbers in Gros Morne National Park. The first flocks could end up around the Avalon Peninsula any day now.

And watch out for snowy owls wherever you are. Sightings of snowy owls from random locations from within the city limits are happening every couple days. And watch for something different at your bird feeder. Enjoy the birds, and have a Merry Christmas.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: National Audubon Society.The, Confederation Building

Geographic location: United States, Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador Cape Race Gros Morne National Park Renews Portugal Cove Terra Nova National Park Gander Corner Brook St. Paul Goose Bay Cape Broyle Calvert

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Recent comments

  • Dave
    December 22, 2013 - 04:59

    To the person who fired at a Snow Owl in Renews, remember if you aren’t going to eat it don’t shoot at it, looser