Bird count offers up data to help us shape future policy

  • Friday, January 9, 2009 12:42pm
  • Opinion


For The Beachcomber

The Vashon-Maury Island Audubon Society celebrated its 10th official Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on Dec. 28. Since 2000, approximately 30 to 40 Islanders volunteer to count birds around the Island. Every year participants look forward to getting together with other bird enthusiasts to see an abundance of beautiful birds and maybe a rarity.

What I think should be remembered, though, is that participants combine the fun and passion of seeing birds with something equally important: the yearly collection of data according to a set protocol, strengthening our region’s understanding of the health of our environment. The Vashon CBC delivers citizen science that should help Islanders make better decisions about their local environment and persuade politicians to follow suit.

The Christmas Bird Count is a nationwide conservation measure that began more than a century ago to end a very different Christmas Day practice — so-called “side hunts,” parties formed to see who could shoot to kill the largest number of birds and other animals.

In 1900, the first CBC started with 27 birders at 25 locations across the United States and Canada tabulating 18,500 birds of 90 species. The idea of a count instead of a kill spread, and today more than 10,000 birders in locations across North, Central and South America tally millions of birds of several thousand species.

These counts serve to remind us of the importance of citizen action in regulating human impacts on the environment in order to appropriately manage wild populations.

From the very beginning of the CBC, counters also took note of the time spent, the number of participants, the weather and area covered, all variables that can be factored in to relate records from one count to another. CBC numbers now represent more than a century of data spanning a continent. No other research study or project provides hard data on such a large geographical and time scale. Scientists, planners and policy-makers use this information as a valuable tool for understanding birds and predicting the effects of natural and human-made changes to the environment.

In celebrating 10 years for the Vashon CBC, Islanders can also mark off a significant achievement in citizen science. Ten years allows enough time to see some real trends in local bird populations. One way to approach the data involves looking at bird species by habitat use, an approach that reveals a few important trends. For the most part, the populations of birds that use land and forests as habitat (the red-tailed hawk, pileated woodpecker and winter wren) appear to be holding stable. I think that says a lot for how well Vashon continues to maintain its rural character despite growth pressure and, in particular, how well the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust and other organizations continue to preserve key habitat for wildlife.

This year, the tally for the Vashon CBC — still unofficial — climbed to 113 species observed, despite the cold and the frozen-over ponds.

The red flag in the 10-year trend, however, can be found in the statistics that present more evidence that our marine species face major challenges, perhaps as a result of the health of Puget Sound. The Vashon CBC results for diving seabirds such as loons, grebes and ducks show five species with declining figures. Observations for the western grebe show a dramatic and significant decrease. It’s interesting to note that Quartermaster Harbor, named an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society because of its once-abundant western grebes, this year produced only 17. Diving ducks such as surf and white-winged scoters, common goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers developed slight to steep declines over the last decade.

The Vashon CBC data corroborate the very grim picture outlined by the rigorous ecological study conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife known as the Puget Sound Ambient Monitoring Program (PSAMP). PSAMP scientists flew aerial surveys over set transects over the northern Puget Sound from 1992 to 1999 as well as the remaining inner marine waters of Washington from 2000 to 2008. Their results (viewable online at indicate declines for all of the Sound’s grebes and most of the diving ducks.

As the Vashon CBC continues to extend out over more years, it will likely become a more powerful tool, strengthening our decision-making on the Island and throughout the region. Citizen science volunteers in this project continue to develop valid data that illuminate the local situation in the bigger Puget Sound picture. Situations such as the proposed Glacier mining and shipping activity in shoreline, nearshore and marine water habitats of Vashon and Maury Island offer direct relevancy for the CBC effort. With the Vashon CBC information for the most part seconding the bleak situation outlined for seabirds by PSAMP, the Glacier gravel mine’s impact represents one more roll of the dice with the condition of the Puget Sound ecosystem. The CBC signifies another important means to evaluate projects that will affect our local environment.

But what about the exciting, fun and passionate part I mentioned at the beginning of the article? Was it that two groups of observers recorded a glaucous gull for the first time for the Island? Well, that’s interesting for the birder fanatics. But one watcher topped that by far, delivering a Bird Count Baby (BCB). Bianca Perla joined the Lisabeula crew helping identify birds left and right during the day. She took an afternoon break. Then, remembering the CBC lasts officially until midnight and listening from her window, she tallied the sole barred owl for this year’s count. A few hours later, at 3 a.m., she delivered the BCB, Isabel Faith Knowler, at home as planned.

All in a day’s work for a CBC volunteer.

— Ed Swan is a naturalist and birder who has written extensively about the birds of Vashon Island.

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