by Alan Contreras (.pdf version here)
Most birders have taken part in a
Christmas Bird Count (CBC), but few have organized and compiled one.
This article is intended as a guide for new compilers and a refresher
for compilers and team leaders. It also provides some guidance for team
leaders and members on count day.
I have some experience as a CBC compiler at Cottage Grove (1971-73), Florence (1983-87) and Coquille Valley, Oregon (1991-present) CBCs and I have participated in 15 of Oregon’s CBCs as well as counts in Missouri. Counts in other regions may have unique conditions, but much of this article may be useful to them as well.
Starting a new CBC
that you are starting a new CBC, the “Lister’s Bay” count. What are the
initial considerations in setting up a CBC? First, ask yourself “Why
here?" Why put a CBC in the vicinity of Lister’s Bay? Bear in mind that
birders already support scores of counts. Competition for dates and
observers already is keen. Ask around to find out how many observers
can be expected. To what extent will the count be locally supported? A
count with a long-term core group of local birders is more likely to
survive than one relying largely on imported talent, unless the birding
area is so inherently interesting that people will always want to go
there. Examples of the latter sort of count are Tillamook Bay, Oregon
or Grays Harbor, Washington which have only a few local participants.
At the other end of the spectrum are counts like Salem, Oregon or
Spokane, Washington which have large local contingents and few imported
observers. Unless you can get enough people to field at least 5 teams,
don’t bother unless there are special reasons for the count, or unless
conditions allow fewer people to make a useful census. Examples of the
latter situation include marginally covered CBCs conducted in order to
census Spotted Owls or other special-interest species.
Another example is the count held in
a traditionally uncovered habitat, e.g. open ocean or alpine regions. A
special condition might also be isolation — Hart Mountain, Oregon or
Creston, British Columbia. Large sections of the region would otherwise
be countless. Another special condition is open country and open water,
which are easier to cover with fewer observers. Second, you must decide
where to put the count circle. The National Audubon Society allows you
a circle 15 miles in diameter and doesn’t allow overlap with any other
count circle. Other than that, where you draw it is up to you. There
are special rules for pelagic counts. There are two primary
considerations in drawing a circle: will it include the birds you want
to count, and is there adequate access via roads, trails, viewpoints,
etc.? Part of the first question is whether to seek species variety or
good counts of particular species.
I faced an example of this choice
when drawing the Florence, Oregon circle, because a circle drawn to
include Siltcoos Lake, the largest duck wintering lake on the central
Oregon coast, is too far south to include the rocky headlands around
Sea Lion Caves and Heceta Head, the only rocky shores near Florence. A
southern circle would also have excluded a portion of the beaches where
a sizable group of Snowy Plovers winters.
Now there are thousands of scaup and
coots just outside the Florence CBC circle, but both can be hard to
find inside! Third, you must contact the National Audubon Society. They
require a good quality map of the circle and the coordinates of the
center, as well as evidence that you can scrape up enough observers to
make a go of it.
Check with National Audubon for deadlines. They require new counts to be in to the bureaucracy by October in order to get a compiler’s packet to you in time for count period. The packet includes their count form and instructions, special requests (for example, for the sex of all American Kestrels), and other minor paperwork and junk mail inserts. It is now November and time to organize your first annual Lister’s Bay Christmas Bird Count!
organizing the count early. Unless your count always uses a set date
(e.g. first Saturday in the period), announce the date as early as
possible, say by September. Start recruiting observers by mid-November
for a new or “imported talent” count, late November for an established,
locally supported count. Some aspects of the count, such as final team
assignments, can’t be done with certainty so early, but other things
When choosing a date, bear in mind
that other counts have well established dates and patterns of observer
attendance. For example, the Coos Bay and Columbia Estuary, Oregon
counts are traditionally held on the first Sunday of the count period.
This is not a problem because they are over 200 miles apart. However,
another coastal count scheduled on that day may have difficulty
attracting observers and will need a strong local base. Choose a
practical date by looking at past count dates and talking to potential
observers about the other counts they plan to attend.
Before beginning the next steps in
count organization, consider the count as a whole, as a day-long
birding event involving a variety of people. The purpose of a CBC is to
locate every species present in the count area in numbers proportional
to those actually present. That is, don’t miss any species and count
everything that moves.
This primary purpose is to provide a statistically valid (given enough counts) and generally useful account of the species and individuals present in the count area. The secondary purpose is to provide a high-quality birding experience for the participants such that they will want to participate again. This latter purpose is important not only for the count’s ability to field enough observers to maintain validity, but for the sheer pleasure of birding. I attend CBCs because they are usually fun. If they are no longer fun, I won’t go. I suspect that many CBC participants feel the same way. A successful CBC, to me, is one that achieves a customary level of statistical utility and also is enjoyable for the people involved.
Organizing the coverage
the next step is to recruit participants, this is a good time to sit
down with a map of the circle and sketch out some rough team
boundaries. The processes of recruitment and coverage design are
necessarily intertwined. The recruitment of participants varies widely
from count to count. A few with very strong local support need only
recruit at local Audubon Society or bird club meetings. Counts such as
Grays Harbor that have little local base must search elsewhere for
When recruiting for the Lister’s Bay
CBC, you will likely fall somewhere in between. You will have a few
local participants from the small city of Noburg, but you will also
need to recruit from elsewhere. There may be groups such as Audubon
Societies in nearby cities. Notify them of the count by early November
if possible so they can put a blurb in their newsletter. Notify the
Noburg Herald, too. This probably won’t net many new team members, but
will often produce good home counters as well as letting people know
what is going on.
The circle may contain certain
species, such as Snowy Plover, Spotted Owl, etc. that certain birders
are known to have an interest in. Send a postcard mentioning the
species and if possible offer to send Penelope Plover-lover on the
beach team and Olivia Owlogler into the woods at 3 am. Finally, send an
e-mail announcement to likely participants you know, with an RSVP
deadline. Many will respond if interested, allowing you to commence
planning your coverage.
You now have a list of names, some
of which have question marks. At this point comes the first of the ugly
realities for the organizer. You will never know until the last minute
who really is going to show up on count morning. My response to this
used to be to prepare 17 different contingency plans, with maps and so
on. That proved an insane technique for the peace of mind of the
organizer, so I recommend that you keep a few observers, if you have
enough, in “Team Zed” until the last minute. Use them to fill gaps as
There may be a couple of loose
observers present come dawn, especially on counts of the “meet in the
morning” variety. Send them looking for tough species, tack them onto a
team that has too large an area, give them some territory that you
hadn’t planned to cover, or give them a bit of all 3. There are, or
course, obvious advantages to the organizer assigning herself to Team
Zed. She is in the best position to know the last-minute needs of the
Coverage design is a matter of
geography, experience, personal traits, and simple numbers. Your
Lister’s Bay CBC has attracted 21 field observers, ranging in
competence, experience, and the unique enthusiasm I call “count
attitude” from Bonnie Biglist and Stan Scoper at one end to Uncle Ted
and his pocket telescope from the Battle of Manila Bay at the other.
You also have Emil Snork, who has always covered Chickadee Park and
plans to do so until death though he couldn’t hear a chickadee if one
called from his beard. Harry Hawkfreak responded to your promise of
raptor-saturated pastures but can’t identify a junco. And Roger
Runabout can identify juncos but wants to skim the circle for rarities.
You wanted observers, and here they are!
What are you going to do with them?
You can create 7 teams of 3, or some other combination. But just what
is in the circle for these people to cover? Well, there is Chickadee
Park, Shearwater Point, Raptor Valley, urban Noburg, Peep Flats, Rail
Marsh, Wigeon Lake, several chunks of reasonably productive forest and
brushland, Grouse Peak, Eagle Canyon, Plover Beach, Grassy Knoll, and
of course the clearcuts of Vulture’s Breath Ridge and the bleached
snags of Darklark Dunes. Every Starling in the circle visits the latter
In addition, there is no way to get
at Raptor Valley except via Darklark Dunes, and Grouse Peak and Eagle
Canyon are separated from the rest of the circle by the silent
stumpscape of Vulture’s Breath Ridge. Because of the habitat
configuration in the circle, much of the most productive habitat is
clustered in nodes, and here the birds swarm in splendid variety.
As organizer, you can simply carve
up the circle by habitat — a mountain team, a park team, a bay team, a
river team, and so on. I advise against this technique. Instead, cut a
swath out of all sorts of habitat for each team area. This isn’t always
possible, and has certain negative aspects, but in general is best.
Most birders like variety and the chance to come up with a solid
species list on a CBC. There are geographic limitations to this
cross-habitat technique. A small pond can’t be sensibly divided between
3 teams, although if it is productive, multiple visitation by poachers
keeping careful notes could be useful.
At Lister’s Bay, you will find that
roads don’t always go where you want them. Design coverage so that
teams don’t have to backtrack to get around their area. However, there
is nothing wrong with going over parts of your area more than once.
Indeed, this is good technique. But do it because you want to, not
because the organizer stuck you with a lot of dead ends.
A useful planning tool, especially for counts that frequently change area boundaries, is a laminated copy of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch circle map. A print shop can do such lamination for a couple of dollars. A waterbase (temporary) acetate marker will allow you to fiddle as often as necessary with area boundaries without having a stack of blank maps at hand or trying to remember which of ten computer files is the current one. I put 2 maps in the same lamination for twice the fiddling power at the same price.
Now that your areas are brilliantly
sliced out of that portion of the circle that you choose to cover, it
is time to assign team leaders and members. Team leaders who know the
area are best, but in any event choose people with a certain amount of
dedication — people who still have the ability to bird in the snow at 3
pm and convince others to do the same. For a compiler, the most crucial
component to success is to field as many observers as possible unless
you have the rare good fortune of absolutely the cream of birders to
Although weather is a significant
factor for good or ill in the northwest, nothing beats a good turnout
for finding birds. Observer quantity helps make up for not always
having a very experienced observer in each team. Most birders who come
on counts can identify most of the birds they see, but keep in mind
that some people have just as much an aversion to processing a flat
full of gulls as others would an endless sparrow patch. Match observers
to their strengths.
One concept that some compilers have
trouble grasping is this: observers should be concentrated where birds
concentrate. There are situations where this does not apply so clearly,
mainly in open spaces where one observer can easily count a thousand
ducks or thirty buteos. In general, however, count organizers ought to
avoid wasting observers on bird-free zones. As long as the habitat
coverage is accurately stated in count data sent in, this does not
raise a problem for users of the data.
Sensible compilers make choices
about where to emphasize coverage and where to skimp: it is all very
well to have some teams take a swipe at recent clearcuts or high sage
plains, but having three teams staggering about in that habitat all day
is not a productive use of limited observer-hours unless a main purpose
of the count is to survey that habitat. At the counts I have organized,
Cottage Grove, Florence and Coquille Valley, Oregon, some places were
left uncovered on purpose in order that observers would be able to
cover their areas more thoroughly. At Coquille Valley, which sometimes
finds the largest species variety in Oregon and often has many high
individual counts, about 40 percent of the land area of the circle is
never assigned or visited on count day because it is unproductive and,
in many cases, inaccessible.
However, there are situations in
which sending one or two observers on a half-day hike through spotty
habitat can produce good birds. This is especially true along the outer
coast, where walking beaches or deflation plains behind dunes may only
produce nine species, but three of them are found nowhere else.
Note that in winter many birds can
be found most easily in cities and towns. Temperatures are slightly
warmer (in some micro-sites much warmer) and there are often plantings
that provide both food and cover. Feeders are an incredible CBC
resource that are undercovered in many situations. The tendency to
undercover urban areas on Christmas Counts results in missing many
birds. This is especially true of rare winterers such as warblers. One
or two of the best birders ought to be assigned to sift the
neighborhoods for unusual birds lurking in yards, deciduous draws and
brushy sumps. It does not take much habitat to hold a small bird
desperate to survive under undesirable conditions.
When you are designing coverage,
resist the temptation to ignore residential and urban areas. Except for
central business districts and the newest, most sterile developments,
cities are full of birds in the winter. Backyards contain the remnants
of old orchards. Little garden plots exist in odd places. Give some
teams mandatory streetwalking. They’ll come up with hawks, rare
sparrows, and Northern Mockingbirds sitting on convenience store
Team size will be somewhat dependent
on observer turnout, but except in unusual circumstances they should
all fit comfortably in one car. Four people is usually a practical
maximum, and is easily divisible in the field. Five is a pack, 6 a
horde, and 7 is a convoy: 2 teams masquerading as one, often to the
detriment of the count. I have seen the convoy technique work, but it
is only effective where the mega-team covers sites such as large parks
where the ability to send a skirmish line a mile wide through the
habitat provides better coverage. Convoys are a poor technique when
teams are limited to roads.
Team member mix is a delicate
subject. There are people who don’t like each other and people whose
birding styles clash. Note, however, that differing styles do not
necessarily clash, especially on a CBC. Some of the most thorough
coverage I have seen came from teams that combined rather sedentary
experienced older birders with lively teenage brushstompers. Different
styles can result in different and more birds. That’s the point, right?
A final note on boundaries and the
mysterious Circle Edge. CBC maps need to be reasonably accurate, but if
a road wanders along the edge of the circle, in and out by a few
hundred feet, no one really knows or cares whether the robins were on
one side or the other. The maps aren’t that accurate, and can’t
practically be made so. The rule of thumb for the all-important In or
Out is as follows, arbitrarily set by me. There is a Swallow-tailed
Kite sitting in a snag on the edge of the circle. If you know it’s In,
count it. If you think it’s In, count it. If your aren’t sure, count
it. If it is obviously Out and you can’t convince yourself that it flew
from In, hope that some unknown party starts a gorse fire behind it to
goose it into the circle, because otherwise you’re out of luck. This is
obviously of greater interest with the Kite than with the flock of
Draw area boundaries so that teams understand them. Avoid drawing them down the middle of roads (“Well, it was on our side until the Merlin chased it”), or narrow waterways (“We thought you were looking for the Smew that was there yesterday”). Use ridgetops, abrupt habitat changes and other features likely to be obvious.
Leading up to the count
the week or two before the count, notify local police agencies of the
count. This will keep owling teams unhassled and free to owl, and will
give teams a head start in explaining to the gendarme their peering
into backyard garden plots. Another note to the local paper can help,
too, as residents may stop a team to say there is an eagle in a tree on
Cat Street, which would otherwise have gone uncovered. Some pre-count
coverage is good, if possible. Where is the shrike hiding? Are there
rails this year in that otherwise useless ditch? Which feeders are
active? Finally, seed slicks can be laid at areas where sparrows
concentrate, to make them easy to find on count day. This is especially
helpful with species such as Swamp Sparrow, which is disinclined to
come out in the open.
An information packet sent early to
team leaders should contain: a good map of the area to be covered;
aerial photos if useful; tide information for coastal counts; phone
numbers of all team members, other area leaders, and the organizer;
notes on the area and past coverage; information on any pre- or
post-count meetings; the names and phone numbers of local people such
as park caretakers and landowners who may be willing to permit special
access; and finally, a list of species specially to be sought in the
area or hard to find in the count as a whole. Some areas have good maps
downloadable from free online sites.
Some teams will use a lot of this material, others will use none. The organizer’s job is to give the team leader as many options as possible, so that she can make informed choices on count day.
Go count birds. Never let tallying
take up more time than counting. Adjustments can always be made if the
woodpecker didn’t get marked down the instant after it was seen. If you
were marking it down when the Goshawk snagged it and flew away, you
will never know that the list — and your day’s birding experience — is
short one large rare accipiter. Try to stay caught up on jays, magpies,
sparrows, and other more “even-flow” species that are hard to
accurately remember later.
In addition to food and appropriate clothing, there are
2 things that counters ought to bring and often don’t. One is that
nasty little red Audubon squeaker that Aunt Jane sent you. The ugly
truth is that those things work if kept dry, and are useful to give the
old pishing lips a break during a long day in the field. The other
(don’t laugh) is an umbrella for counts in the rain zone. Why get
yourself, your binoculars, and your scope soaking wet while scanning
pastures? They have one important negative characteristic: noise. The
rattle of raindrops may drown out the chatter of Crossbills. Use the
small, collapsible kind with the loop handle, and hang it from a belt
clip when not in use. It is not a replacement for rain gear, but an
added convenience. Finally, some kind of sound-pod with portable
speakers useful for calling rails will be helpful for some teams.
The CBC is next to useless as a true
population indicator unless accurate party mile and hour data is kept.
Keep your compiler happy and your data useful by keeping track of those
numbers. The same is true of habitat coverage. If you never got to that
pasture, indicate that on your results, or the compiler may try to
guess your coverage from the maps. A count known to have spent 50
percent of its energy in the forest is a better indicator of woodpecker
populations than one that spent 10 percent even though the maps may
show 60 percent of the area as forested. Don’t make the compiler guess
what you did.
Remember, as a team leader your purpose (and that of the count) is to locate every species present in the count area in numbers proportionate to those actually present. The key to a count achieving this goal is to get as many people in the field as possible, send them where the birds are, get them out of their cars as much as possible and get them to make attractive noises, i.e. “pish” and hoot.
Tips for team leaders and members
Although it is not always possible
to do a dry run through your area in the days before the count
(especially on “imported observer” counts like Gray’s Harbor,
Washington or Tillamook Bay, Oregon), you can nag the compiler for
information about where to go. If possible obtain permission from
landowners to count on their land. Public but limited access locations
such as sewage ponds and dumps are always good. Railroad rights-of-way
are often splendid counting routes. I once walked “cross country” on
the Eugene CBC by using a railroad line. I had more Lincoln’s Sparrows
and Marsh Wrens than I had ever had in my years of covering that area.
One team at Coquille Valley counting at a private dairy farm found a
Northern Saw-whet Owl being harassed by a Swamp Sparrow in a willow
patch in broad daylight — you never know what’s hiding on private land.
Any good count organizer will
provide adequate maps to the area and suggestions about what birds to
look for. The question is what you do with that information — how do
you operate your team on count day to meet the goal of finding all the
birds that you can?
In the northwest we have roughly
eight to nine hours of daylight in which to count, depending on weather
conditions. Except on counts with enormous turnouts that is not enough
time in which to truly “cover” a count sub-area. Areas are simply too
large. The concept of observer concentration carries over to you as a
team leader. Parts of your area will be dense with birds, other parts
sparse. Some spots require intense bush-to-bush birding, an exercise in
bird-by-bird extraction that can be tedious but produce great results.
I recall following a loud “chink” note in and out of the bushes in Sunset Bay park on a Coos Bay count in the mistaken belief that I was chasing a small woodpecker, only to finally unearth three White-throated Sparrows in one shrub. On another Coos Bay count I decided to stop at one more swampy hole surrounded by bushes in a residential neighborhood. It looked birdless. When I pished I got a Townsend’s Warbler, Bewick’s Wren and an Anna’s Hummingbird at the same time. Rare birds such as Northern Waterthrush and Black-throated Gray Warbler have been lifted into sight that way, as has the odd Harris’ Sparrow.
Anyone interested in effective
winter birding west of the Cascades needs to read the excellent article
on birding winter habitat microsites (Irons and Fix, 1990) in Oregon
Birds. This is the definitive guide to being where the birds are and
finding them in the moister parts of the northwest. In sum, spend your
energy in moist sump areas choked with blackberry, canary grass, teasel
and scrub willows. The more of this habitat the better, especially if
it is contiguous. However, don’t get sparrowitis to the extent that you
completely ignore the brooding evergreen ridgetop that overlooks the
juicy bottomlands. The count’s only Red Crossbills are probably up
there hoping that you’ll miss them.
The concept is also applicable east
of the mountains, but the habitat is somewhat different, being
generally devoid of blackberries. Willows and Russian-olive are the
common species found in moist lowlands and brushy draws, and these
places tend to have more cattails than west of the Cascades, and are
often frozen. The crucial factor in finding birds on east-side CBCs is
finding unfrozen water and focusing your birding along it. See also the
useful article on locating Swamp Sparrows (Fix, 1992) which is good
advice for winter birding in general.
If you have done CBCs you know about
the two o’clock blahs. There comes a time in the afternoon when the
early morning catches up with you and the area seems, well, adequately
covered. That’s why experienced counters do most of their heavy lifting
in the morning. Most areas have places that require long walks and
other places that are better birded from one spot. Ideally, of course,
you walk all day long, as you will find far, far more birds in most
habitat. However, most people don’t have that kind of energy and most
counts don’t have areas designed to be covered that way.
One obvious but little-used
technique for covering large areas that have lots of birdy places is to
“leapfrog” your team members. As you enter a good area, drop one or two
people along the road and have them walk a mile or so to where you have
filed the car. You, having left the car, proceed on foot ahead on a
predetermined route. Your team members pick up the car and drive it
ahead of you to another agreed-upon location, where they park it and
walk onward, and so on. This allows two or three people to bird a large
area very intensively. I have had remarkable success in getting high
counts of species like small woodpeckers using this technique. It can
be stunningly effective at finding owls under good conditions, see Fix
(1987). Hint: remember to give your team members a set of keys or they
will get to the car and be stuck there, while you wander indefinitely
onward, beyond their reach, an ornithological Flying Dutchman.
By late afternoon it is often most
productive to direct your energy at birds going to roost such as gulls,
harriers, turkeys and sometimes waterfowl. In the interior west this is
a good time to find Gray-crowned Rosy Finches going to roost in Cliff
Swallow nests or similar protected sites. If you have done some serious
walking in the morning and have as a consequence done very well on
woodsy birds, pipits, hedgerow lovers and the like, you can feel quite
comfortable using your afternoon to scope from some good vantage point
while giving your body a break. You’ll be amazed at what you can see at
great distances by using your scope for more than watching buteos and
Also remember that some really good
birders are for physical reasons (health, hearing loss, mobility
problems) unable to spend the day scrambling up 45 degree slopes after
mysterious “chip” notes. These people, often older birders, are still
extremely effective in the field when they are placed where their years
of experience can be used without wearing them out. They are glad to be
involved and will do excellent work on duck-filled pastures, raptor
havens, shorebirds and sea-watching — situations where experience and
visual acuity outweigh other physical factors or hearing problems.
A distant blackberry or willow patch
carefully watched can yield everything from Lincoln’s Sparrows to
Orange-crowned Warblers to the dashing shrike that would like to eat
both. Small hawks (and Red-shouldered Hawks) are notorious for being
invisible at a distance although sitting in the open, and some languid
scoping can raise them from hiding. Even on a nasty day you can scope
in relative comfort through the simple expedient of using an umbrella.
You won’t hear passerines very well over the noise of raindrops, but
you can scope for a long time without getting sodden. A sheet of mylar
or one side of a plastic binder cover (minus the three rings) held on
with a rubber band keeps the rain off the objective lens if you don’t
have a slide-out shield. See the unique article on scanning the sky
(Fix, 1988) that helps at any time of year for other ideas on how to
find lots of birds from a fixed position.
A specialized variation of this idea
is sea-watching. Team leaders assigned to ocean view areas can almost
always add several species to a count by spending a certain amount of
time simply staring at the ocean. You’d be amazed what will fly into
view. On a Coos Bay count in the 1980s I was scanning from Shore Acres
(o.k., I was idling in the afternoon) when the whole scope field was
filled with two massive birds — a Brown Pelican being pursued by an
adult Bald Eagle! Certainly a rude awakening for the pelican after the
usual Heermann’s Gulls. Other birds seen by diligent CBC ocean-watchers
include Sabine’s Gull, Heermann’s Gull, Oldsquaw, the rare jaeger, lots
of alcids, Peregrine Falcon, shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, Red
Phalarope and others.
If you come across a patch of nice
habitat for small birds, have one member of your party pish while
another does a Northern Pygmy-Owl imitation. The capacity of this
combination to attract birds is remarkable. I am constantly amazed at
the number of birders who, even on CBCs, get out of their cars (or
worse, stay in them), make no sounds, and, of course, see few birds.
Make attractive sounds and you’ll see far more. Those little red
“Audubon” squeakers that well-meaning friends get you for Christmas are
pretty effective once you learn to use them, especially for Fox
Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and other birds that make a solid
“chip” or “chunk” sound.
The pish and hoot technique is
especially useful when you see or hear one small bird in winter,
because chances are that forty are quietly feeding just out of sight,
ready to be called in. Many species feed in mixed flocks, and such
species as Hutton’s Vireo or warblers can most easily be extracted from
such groups in winter. It is often the case that the more you “work”
such a group by pishing and hooting, the more birds come in from all
There is nothing wrong with covering a location twice. It is essential in any tidal zone and very helpful at any lake or pond where waterfowl come and go. Different birds use these areas under different conditions or at different times of day. The same is true of wide-open areas that support raptors. These birds move around and by checking an area more than once you can find more of them.
Tips for owlers
Owling begins well before count
“day,” and there is nothing more frustrating than going out and
stopping in all of the wrong places while finding no owls and
mistakenly parking in the sheriff’s driveway. Some owls are relatively
easy to stake out ahead of time. A little practice will make you
familiar with the habitats preferred by various species so that your
count day stops are as hootful as possible. There is a great feeling in
starting your count at dawn with two or three owls already in your
pocket. See the note above on leapfrogging for an especially effective
You can also find owls in the
daytime, especially east of the Cascades. Long-eared and Barn Owls are
fond of roosting in dense willow or Russian-olive thickets in open
country. If you are pishing the outside of such a thicket you may not
flush the owls. If you stick your head into one side of the bushes
while your team members watch, they may be treated to a sight I once
had: two Barn Owls and half a dozen Long-eared Owls boiling out the
other side while a Great Horned Owl watched in amused dignity from a
nearby cottonwood. West of the mountains there are more places to hide
and such roosts are harder to come by, but you can still find Barn Owls
by peering into barns with the owners’ permission — Barn Owls really do
Here are some broad generalizations
about CBC owl-finding. Western Screech-Owls like the edges of wooded
areas with at least some older deciduous trees next to open mousy
fields or pastures, even (or especially?) small grassy sites. They are
not much for huge wide-open spaces. Northern Saw-whet Owls like mostly
evergreens (not necessarily large trees) with some grassy openings, but
they sometimes use dense willow and even ash stands, especially in
swampy areas. Northern Pygmy-Owls prefer heavily wooded evergreen
canyons and hillsides and don’t need large open spaces, although narrow
stringer meadows are ok. Great Horned Owls can be almost anywhere but
big dense trees, even in city parks, are often favored. Great Horned,
Barn and Western Screech-Owls east of the Cascades all use holes in
cliffs from time to time.
I won’t make this a treatise on the
ins and outs of finding each species of owl — for one thing I am not
especially successful with some species. Listen to recordings and learn
to imitate owls, or just bring the tapes along and play them. That is a
bad idea in the breeding season but for CBC purposes it is ok — there
is not yet much breeeding activity and there are few CBCs and many
One final note on night birding — you can find more than owls. Rails are especially known for night activity and occur at open water in most of the region (sometimes at warm springs in colder areas), and Black-crowned Night Heron can erupt with a “krowk!” at almost any CBC with open water in the region.
A note on poaching
Poaching is the practice of one team
stealing species from another team’s area in order to come up with a
big day list or see rare birds known to be in the area. It is useful
and productive if used properly. Don’t tell teams not to poach on other
areas. Make all areas small enough to complete within a reasonable
day’s effort, and tell teams to poach if they have time. Suggest some
possible areas to poach.
In 1984 the Eugene, Oregon CBC team
in whose area a Snowy Owl had been lurking was jinxed on count day,
finding everything but the owl. A poaching team made a pass through the
area and found it. Boundaries are for convenience, and to make sure
that areas that should be covered get covered. If you’ve squeezed all
of the Song Sparrows out of your area, go elsewhere. This is a bird
count, go where the birds are.
Be sure to keep separate notes on when and where you poached which birds.
At the end of the day, have a
get-together in some warm place with food and good cheer. Give people a
chance to brag and gripe about the day’s birding. Don’t just collect
the lists in some cold, rainy place and let everyone disappear into the
gloom of night. That’s no fun. Choose a restaurant or birder’s home in
Noburg and be festive. Give Team X a chance to brag about how hard they
worked to find that Peregrine, when in fact it was sitting on top of
the Dairy Queen where they went for a surreptitious hot cocoa break
when the thermos ran out.
At the end of the count the organizing is done and the compiling begins. Compilation is more than just sitting there with a calculator or computer. Did Team 4 really walk 30 miles? The swans and Rosy Finches were moving back and forth all day, so which sightings are likely duplicates? Details for the Reddish Egret seem adequate, but it was seen by Dan Dreamer, who had a full flask of Wild Turkey for lunch. The 6 Avocets skimming puddles in the 7-11 parking lot have no details at all, but were seen by sober Bonnie Biglist, and who could mistake an Avocet?
The birds that weren’t
Compilers are loathe to purge sour
species from the list, largely because birders are personally attached
to their rarities and reputation is so important in birding. Tell
people ahead of time what sort of details are required (in Oregon and
Washington these are standard and published online in advance, see the
regional editor’s CBC web site at
http://home.pacifier.com/~mpatters/cbc/cbc_WAOR_reg.html), and announce
that you will mercilessly purge those that don’t measure up.
Consider appending a brief list of
species that are often reported with inadequate details: Swainson’s
Hawk, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Yellow Warbler etc. Purging has to
be done by someone, or the whole count acquires a certain taint. Don’t
leave the dirty work to the regional editor.
When you send out or publish the
results, explain, at least to the people who reported the inadequately
supported species, why you found it unacceptable. Don’t just secretly
dump the species. Use the opportunity to improve the field skills of
Send some sort of results to your
observers right away. They did the work and are entitled to know how it
came out. I send a complete breakdown by area and species, previous
years’ highs and the average, a map and observer list by area, and a
letter with my comments on various highlights of the count. If you care
about the quality of your observers’ experience, they will come back
again next year. Finally, fill out the official online form for
National Audubon, and make a few notes to yourself for next year.
The Lister’s Bay CBC has been a success!
CBCs can be started wherever the energy exists to start them. The Christmas Bird Count is one of the most wonderful of birding experiences, an excellent way to introduce people to the joy of birding. Keep recruiting, keep developing new talent, keep the fun in birding. I hope that these thoughts will help make your CBC experience both more successful and more enjoyable. Remember that each count has its own traditions, so if you are a visitor don’t try to tell your team leader how to run the area she’s been doing for ten years. Just enjoy the day.
Thanks to Barbara Combs, Anthony Floyd, Craig Miller, and Paul Sullivan for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. They contributed significantly to some of the ideas set forth here. Good Birding!
Contreras, Alan. 1986. The Art of the Christmas Bird Count. Oregon Birds 12(3) 192.
Fix, David. 1987. A Record of 48 Western Screech-Owls on the Florence CBC. 13(3): 278
Fix, David. 1988. Bird-finding Technique: Scanning the Sky. Oregon Birds 14(3): 247.
Fix, David. 1992. Notes on Observing Swamp Sparrows. Oregon Birds 18(4): 103.
Fix, David. 2009. Tips on doing your CBC area. See Regional Editor’s page.
Irons, David and David Fix. 1990.
How to Search for Passerines More Effectively in Winter:
Notes on Winter Habitat Microsites. Oregon Birds 16(4): 251.
Reprinted as pdf on the Regional Editor’s page.