When conservation was entering its beginning stages near the turn of the century, scientists and bird lovers were worried about the declining populations of birds. During a traditional Christmas “side hunt,” hunters would venture out and see how many animals they could kill.
On Christmas Day in 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman came up with the idea for a new holiday tradition: a Christmas bird census, where citizens would document all bird species and numbers observed in one area on a designated day.
Today, the Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen wildlife project in the world. Twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held that Christmas Day in 1900, tallying around 90 species. Now, each year between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, tens of thousands of volunteers take part in the effort to assess bird populations and guide conservation action.
Four years ago, Lewis County opened its own chapter of the annual bird count. The volunteers count every bird they see in a 15-mile diameter, from as far west as Adna, as far south as Napavine, as far north as South Thurston County and as far east as Big Hanaford Road.
The Lewis County Christmas Bird Count, which takes place on Dec. 18 this year, typically consists of 12 groups of volunteers who each take a different section to count the birds. This year, because of COVID-19, groups will be broken into smaller packs, either solo or in pairs, to keep everyone safe from the pandemic.
Afterward, the groups all give their data to Lewis County Christmas Bird Count Coordinator Dalton Spencer, which includes bird numbers and which areas they looked at, and he submits the data to National Audubon Society. Data from all over the Americas can be found on their website.
The unspoken goal of the Lewis County Christmas Bird Count is to get over 100 species. The group has fallen short every year, though they’ve come close twice with 90 and 93 species the last two years. For total bird numbers, which is also counted, the group tallied over 20,000 birds on Dec. 20, 2019.
This year, on Dec. 18, Spencer and his group of volunteers will be spread around, starting at dawn, in hopes of catching glimpses of owls. The daylight hours, however, will be when most of the birds in this area are active.
“If we miss a couple owls, I might spend that night also looking for owls until midnight,” Spencer said. “Try to pick up another species or two if we can.”
Some rare species have been spotted in the area during the bird count the past four years. During the first year in 2016, the organization spotted a Eurasian green-winged teal, the smallest dabbling duck in North American. It was the only one spotted in the state that year.
Last year, the group spotted a sandhill crane, a tall, gray-bodied bird that looks similar to a blue heron, which was seen on Big Hanaford Road between Centralia and Bucoda.
“Pretty difficult bird to find in Western Washington, outside of Vancouver,” Spencer said.
Two years ago, a Pacific loon, a coastal bird, was seen out by the Chehalis-Centralia airport. It was just the second time one had been identified in the county.
“It’s amazing what you can find when every place in the Chehalis-Centralia area is all covered in the same day,” Spencer said. “If there’s something good in the area, you’re likely to find it on count day.”
For anyone with some bird knowledge who is interested in joining, Spencer is always looking for people to “feeder watch.”
“Which is, throughout the day, if you notice birds hanging out in your backyard or in your neighborhood, count them, tally and report that data to me,” Spencer said. “There’s a lot of data points that are missed by not picking up those neighborhood birds. So we’d be more than happy to have them.”
During a normal year, for someone wanting to join who doesn’t have a ton of bird knowledge, Spencer would pair them with an experienced birder. He does plan to have a walkthrough in Borst Park on the morning of Dec. 18. Anyone interested in learning more about the Lewis County Christmas Bird Count can email Dalton Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org.