Bye, bye birdie: Annual bird count tells a story

WASHINGTON — Some people bundle up to walk the dog or go for a run in freezing weather.

But across the D.C. region, thousands brave frigid temperatures for a chance to tally all the birds they can find during a 24-hour period. The practice is part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, a tradition that stretches back to 1901.

Janet Millenson of Potomac, tallied the data taken by the Sugarloaf Mountain count. Her team was out on Sunday, the coldest December day since 1989.

In a feat of understatement, Millenson said the day was “unpleasantly cold” and joked that teams of birdwatchers who spread out over a 15-mile diameter route were still thawing out.

“I actually feel guilty; I feel as the compiler of the data I ought to arrange nice weather,” she said.

The types of birds spotted can indicate what’s going on in the environment due to habitat loss, climate change or even outbreaks of things such as West Nile virus, according to Millenson.

“When West Nile virus hit some years ago, that made a big impact on crows and smaller birds like chickadees,” she said. “I’m a little concerned about such common species as mockingbirds and cardinals — the numbers aren’t what they used to be.”

There are positive signs, too.

“Bluebirds and eagles have come back remarkably well around here,” MIllenson said.

During Sunday’s outing, the Sugarloaf count spotted two short eared owls. While just a couple of owls might not seem like big news, MIllenson explained, “That bird was last seen on this count 27 years ago.”

Other birds of note: a pair of brown thrashers. They’re relatives of the mockingbird.

“We’ve only had those twice in the last decade,” Millenson said.

During the Audubon Chirstmas Count, which started in mid-December and continues through Jan. 5, more experienced birders are paired with beginners. Millenson said that helps novices and veterans alike.

Millenson was paired with a woman who spotted several “life birds,” birds the woman had never seen before.

“You know her joy made seeing some of these birds more special,” Millenson said.

A number of participants hoped to spot Snowy Owls. The birds sometimes drift down to the area during what are called “irruptions.”

Millenson said she doesn’t have any reports of sightings of the distinctive white raptors and joked, “We figured that is one species that would have enjoyed the weather we had on Sunday.”

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