"Some of us leave at five, some of us at six, and so on," says birding enthusiast Howard Langridge -- and he's talking a.m. "We try to encourage them to get out as early as they can, so they can catch some of the owls." After all, Langridge adds, nocturnal birds of prey need to be counted, too.
The "us" and "them" Langridge refers to are local bird watchers. This Saturday they'll gather as participants in the 43rd Palm Beach County incarnation of the Christmas Bird Count, the annual National Audubon Society census of resident and migratory birds that occurs all over the Western Hemisphere.
The statistics compiled during the count are important for numerous reasons, including tracking bird populations and measuring habitat quality. The count has grown into something of a tradition for hard-core bird watchers such as Langridge, who hasn't missed one since 1956. Even at age 74, the avian hobbyist from Lantana continues to compile statistics for the count every holiday season.
"Everybody has his own techniques [for attracting birds]," Langridge offers. He pauses, not wanting to give away long-held secrets. "I have to be careful here. Some people use tapes, some people use squeaking noises." Whatever it takes to draw the birds into view for counting purposes, without hurting them, of course.
That was the idea when the practice began in 1900 as a counterevent to an existing Christmastime tradition known as the "side hunt," explains Geoff LeBaron, editor of the Audubon report Christmas Bird Count. "The side hunt started as a way to produce a meal for the holiday gathering," LeBaron notes, "but turned into a hunting contest in which whoever brought in the largest pile of birds won."
Frank Chapman, publisher of the periodical Bird-Lore -- printed at the turn of the century by a loose confederation of wildlife conservation groups that grew into the Audubon Society -- had other ideas. "At some point," recounts LeBaron, "Chapman said, 'We really should be counting birds on Christmas Day, not shooting them.' So he proposed doing a Christmas count instead.
"It has evolved into a near-century of data," LeBaron continues, pointing out that the yearly nationwide tabulation, now in its 98th year, is what he believes to be the longest ongoing gathering of data in ornithology -- if not in all of wildlife study. "When analyzed over time," he says, "you have a really good tool for looking at early-winter bird distribution and population trends."
According to LeBaron a record 17,000 counts -- involving almost 46,000 people -- were held last year during the two-week window around Christmas prescribed by Audubon; 40 or 50 new counts are started each year. For purposes of consistency, the same fifteen-mile diameter circle is checked for birds in each locale. In Palm Beach County, Langridge explains, the area radiates out from a point on the map about a mile southwest of the intersection of Hypoluxo Road and Military Trail.
"The area is getting harder and harder to cover because of the housing and the development," he notes. "If it's an excellent year, we get 140 species, usually. We used to get 160-some about 30 years ago."
The same is true for Broward County's count circle, with its epicenter located at the intersection of Sunrise Boulevard and Florida's Turnpike, says compiler Wally George. "Unfortunately most of our count circle is lost habitat," explains George, who marshalled Broward birders for their yearly outing this past December 20. "Homes are built, trees are cut down, marshes are drained, and the habitats just aren't there for many of the birds any more."
Recognizing such trends is one important aspect of the count, says Audubon's LeBaron. "If someone wants to analyze marsh birds, and we notice that there is a decline within a count circle, but it is okay in other circles, then we have an idea that there is something wrong with habitat quality."
And while the count certainly helps the birds, the birders get something out of it, too. Chance encounters with exotic species are one impetus to participate, observes George, who's been counting birds each Christmastime since 1965. "Last year we had two western tanagers, which are very rarely found east of the Rocky Mountains. These birds obviously got off track and ended up in our count circle."
Rarities have also included the striped-headed tanager from the Bahamas. And, exclaims Langridge, "We had a thick-billed vireo from the Bahamas. That was a good bird!" Starlings, boat-tailed grackles, herons, and egrets are some of the more common birds tallied.
"There's people that have been doing it for years," says George. "But you don't have to be an experienced birder. We try to put newer people with experienced people."
Adds LeBaron: "It's evolved into quite a tradition. People may travel back to an area just to do Christmas bird counts. It's one of their reasons to travel during the holidays."