Christmas hunts were a longstanding tradition before the turn of the century. But when bird populations started to decline significantly, an ornithologist named Frank Chapman came up with an alternative: counting the birds instead of killing them. Over a century later, the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count may be the longest running citizen science project in the nation. This is its 119th year. According to Audubon Alaska, Alaskans have participated in the count since before statehood.
Volunteers across the state take part in the count each year between mid-December and early January. Birders in Haines headed out earlier this month to see what they could find.
Pam Randles lifts her binoculars in the light rain and studies what look like black dots on the water. She counts fifteen mallards. Randles is walking towards Jones Point with her daughter and grandson. This stretch of the Chilkat River is Area 9 for the purposes of the count. The three birders will keep track of their sightings by species and number in this area. Randles is expecting a typical winter mix.
“Eagles, ducks, gulls, chickadees, ravens, crow, blue, jays, magpies. The winter group. There’s a whole bunch of species,” she says. “It’s a third of what we get in the summer! They’re the hardy ones.”
The Randles aren’t the only birders braving the rain. Others have staked out different zones from the Haines townsite all the way up the highway through Klukwan. At the end of the day, they’ll tally counts from the 17 different areas. Their data goes to the Audubon Society, a non-profit conservation organization. It’s a way for the group to map bird populations and ultimately determine their conservation priorities. Randles says she’s seeing some new species lately.
“We’re getting a lot of changes,” says Randles. “A lot more southern birds. A lot more winter tolerant summer birds. So, it’s changing and that’s part of why we do this! Is to keep track of those changes.”
Max Goldman is a Conservation Biologist with Audubon Alaska in Anchorage. He says the changes that Randles is seeing are part of a broader trend as global temperatures rise.
“Haines and the rest of Southeast Alaska are becoming more important overwintering habitat for waterfowl, especially as they no longer need to migrate as far south. As the climate keeps warming we’re gonna see more and more of these temperate species sticking around in the habitat for a little longer,” he says.
This trend is called range expansion. The area where certain birds can be found is growing. On one hand, this is great news for birders – there’s more to see. Goldman says he’s concerned that if too many birds can stay in one area they will be competing for finite resources.
“Those species that are specialized to subsist and thrive in a colder climate are having to compete with new birds. So the number of resources hasn’t changed but the number of mouths at the trough has increased quite a bit,” Goldman says.
There’s not much the Audubon Society can do about limited resources, but they can keep track of where the birds go. Counts like this one show whether cold weather birds will get pushed out of the area or if their numbers decline as a result of sharing resources. So far, Goldman says, all bird populations look strong in Haines and the Upper Lynn Canal.
Randles spots some more ducks on the water. She instructs her daughter to enter “BAGO?” in the bird log. If you haven’t heard of a bago, don’t worry. That’s birder code for a Barrow’s Golden Eye, a duck. Leaving a question mark on the tally isn’t enough for Randles, so she pulls out her cell phone to check a reference app. It turns out the ducks are female Harlequins, and uncommon species to see in Haines this time of year.
One December sighting of a few Harlequin is unusual, though not unheard of. But when added to the Audubon Society’s nearly 120 years of bird count data, it could give conservationists and researchers new insight in a changing world. For now, the Harlequins swim upstream, skirting the ice.