Birders On The Lookout For Snowy Owls, Other Species During Christmas Count

Dec 23, 2013

Birders are out counting species for the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. A few people have reported rare sightings of Snowy Owls.
Credit Michael Gäbler / © Michael Gäbler / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Nearly 600 North Carolinians are expected to get out into the woods and fields during the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. Volunteer bird watchers will join the coordinated effort to count as many birds and species as possible within designated areas.

Curtis Smalling directs Land Bird Conservation for Audubon North Carolina. He says the federal government surveys breeding birds in the summer, but the Christmas Bird Count compiles data going back 114 winters.

“There's a big changeover in the bird life in the US between winter and summer. And so having a data set that covers the winter and having a big data set that covers the summer, you know, is kind of ideal,” said Smalling. “It's important to keep the Christmas count going because it is such a long running data set, and it is a really good, mid-winter snapshot of what's going on in the US.”

Smalling says the bird count was created 114 years ago as an alternative to Christmas hunting traditions.

“By Christmastime folks are kind of settled into their winter routine of watching their feeders and that kind of stuff. And the Christmas count gives you a good excuse to get back out in the woods and the fields and see what else is out there besides just what's coming to your feeders,” he said.

Smalling says the Audubon Society also collects data from people who are bound to their home feeders.

A few recent sightings of Snowy Owls in North Carolina are causing a buzz. The birds live in the Arctic and subsist of lemmings. Lemming populations cycle through boom and bust periods. When food is scarce, Snowy Owls fly south.

“The birders are eternally optimistic that they'll see something, you know, rare,” Smalling said. “So think there'll be a lot of people out looking for Snowy Owls on their Christmas counts this year.”

Smalling says that the owls are already stressed and near-starving when by the time they get to North Carolina, so he asks that birders keep their distance.

For other bird species, Smalling says, Christmas Bird Count Data reflects changes in climate and habitat.

The Christmas Bird Count ends January 5th.