What brings almost 200 people out into the Pacific Northwest wind, drizzle and cold on one of the shortest days of the year? One thing is birds. Last Dec. 16, a hearty group of local bird lovers ventured into the local parks, open spaces, backyards — even onto the choppy waters of Puget Sound — to count birds during Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The counters even tallied some snow — not precipitation, but over 5,000 Snow Geese.
For 118 years, volunteers — Audubon calls them citizen scientists — from around the world have been counting birds for one day in December in 15-mile diameter count “circle”. Participants sign up to count in a specific circle — normally in their own area or yard — and record the maximum number of birds of each species they spot or hear. The number of count circles has increased from just over 100 in the early 1900s to 2,500 today. By counting birds at the same time of year in the same locations, trends in bird populations and ranges can be identified. Scientists analyze the CBC data to determine the effects of climate change, habitat change and conservation efforts on birds.
A perfect example of how climate and habitat affect bird populations is the busy little Anna’s Hummingbird — the tiny iridescent emerald colored birds with rose-pink throats that buzz around local gardens and feeders. Pilchuck Audubon’s Rick Taylor, who organizes the Edmonds count with Bob Schmidt—says that “No one saw an Anna’s Hummingbird in this area during the winter until 1998.” As Taylor’s Growth of Anna’s Hummingbird in the Edmonds CBC graphic shows, this has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. In last December’s count, a record 249 Anna’s Hummingbirds, were spotted in the Edmonds count area.
According to Taylor, the relatively recent local presence of the Anna’s Hummingbirds during the winter is due both to climate and habitat. The area’s winters have gotten warmer and are more hospitable to the hummingbirds. The presence of large numbers of hummingbird feeders in local yards is also part of the story, as there is now more food available for the hummingbirds during the winter.
The Edmonds count circle is a 15-mile diameter circle centered in Lynnwood and approximately bordered by Mukilteo and Kenmore to the north and south, Snohomish to the east, and in the Puget Sound waters west of Edmonds. 2017 was the 34th year that the Pilchuck Audubon has sponsored the Edmonds count. Eighty-seven members of 36 field teams scattered across the count circle to record birds, and another 96 individuals—another record for the Edmonds count—counted birds at their home feeders.
And boy, did they find birds. If you keep your eyes and ears open while traveling around the area you know that birds love the Pacific Northwest, but probably don’t realize just how many species of birds are permanent residents, winter in the area, or migrate through in the spring and fall. During the December 2017 count, 121 species of birds were found in the Edmonds count circle. This included common birds that are easy to spot in Edmonds’ neighborhoods or on the waterfront, like American Robins, Crows, Bald Eagles, Black-capped Chickadees, the area’s most common duck — the Mallard, and Northern Flickers — the ubiquitous woodpeckers that must believe they are avian alarm clocks as they welcome the morning with machine gun-like drumming on metal gutters and flashing on our houses.
However, unless you’re a dedicated birdwatcher — or birder as they’re called — there’s a good chance that you haven’t heard of many of the birds that were counted. Birds like the plucky Lincoln’s Sparrow, which are found in Edmonds only in the winter or the various waterfowl that also winter in the area.
The Edmonds count circle includes lots of water — part of Puget Sound and many lakes, ponds and streams — so it’s not surprising that counters found a variety of ducks. If you thought the ubiquitous Mallard is the only duck in the area, think again. The Pacific Northwest is a mecca for web-footed birds, and over twenty types of ducks were found enjoying the damp Edmonds area weather and water — amazing colorful Wood Ducks, Harlequin Ducks, Northern Pintails, Cinnamon Teals, Green-winged Teals, and Buffleheads to name a few.
Geese, also waterfowl, were well represented too, including the ever-present Canada Goose as well as less common cousins the Brant, Cackling Goose and Snow Goose. The presence of Snow Geese in the Edmonds count circle is especially interesting. During the winter, these medium size white geese with black wingtips are quite common to the north in the Skagit area, where a can’t miss experience is watching a massive flock of many thousands of snow Geese take to the air in a honking frenzy with Mt. Baker in the background when a hunter or Bald Eagle appears.
Snow Geese aren’t typically associated with the Edmonds area. However, the far east edge of the Edmonds count area extends to the Snohomish river valley where according to Rick Taylor, “Snow Geese were found only sporadically and in single digits until 2009.” This year, a record 5,250 Snow Geese were counted during the Edmonds CBC. Rick goes on to say that that it will be interesting to see if this upward trend continues as “over the last three years large areas of the habitat have been converted from sod and row crops to berries.” Snow Geese love grass, not berries, so like any habitat change, this could affect the number and type of birds found in the future.
Keeping with the water theme, four diehard birders even headed out onto Puget Sound in a boat to see what birds they could find in the waters off Edmonds. During their more than five-hour cruise the boat party counted a total of 1913 birds from 43 species.
Crows are another interesting avian character in the local count. During winter late afternoons and evenings, a steady stream of crows can be seen departing Edmonds, flying to the southeast. Rick Taylor describes this as one of the “rivers of crows” that fly along natural drainage paths to a giant roost on the UW Bothell campus. In the morning the traffic pattern reverses and the crows disperse in all directions, in some cases commuting as far as the Skagit or Whidbey Island for the day. This truly is a huge flock of crows — during the 2017 CBC over 15,000 crows were counted flying to the roost in Bothell, and Rick Taylor says that there are probably more than that.
This year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count will on December 15, 2018, and Rick Taylor will be looking for help again with the Edmonds count. In 2017 the Edmonds count was in the top 100 for number of participants out of the 2,500 count circles, and Rick wants to see Edmonds move even higher next year. Just 30 minutes counting at your backyard feeder is an easy, fun way to participate, and will help make the CBC data more representative of the area’s bird trends. However, you may find yourself having so much that you’ll want to spend more than half an hour.
Every year, the call goes out in MLTnews for volunteers to join the Edmonds CBC. Anyone interested in this fun event should keep their eyes on MLTnews or visit Pilchuck Audubon’s website in early December to get more information.
For more details about last December’s 2017 Edmonds CBC, see Rick Taylor and Bob Schmidt’s detailed report, also on the Pilchuck Audubon website.
— By Michael McAuliffe
Michael McAuliffe is a freelance writer and photographer in Edmonds. He can be reached at www.mtmcauliffe.com