The Wednesday before Christmas, 44 locals took to different locations within a 15-mile diameter circle in Lewis County with a highly important mission: a Christmas bird count.
The birders may be enthusiastic, even expert identifiers, but nobody is paying them. They are one of thousands of bird counting circles in the country in a citizen science project run by the National Audubon Society.
On a chosen day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 each year, residents from within or around the area spend the day in bird-watcher heaven, counting as many species and individual birds as possible.
Lewis County Christmas Bird Count (CBC) organizer Dalton Spencer first designated the county’s circle five years ago, sponsored by the Black Hills Audubon Society. That group continues to provide the “meager” funds necessary for the project, he said.
Covering downtown areas, parts of the Skookumchuck and Chehalis rivers, farmlands, forests, backyards and wetlands, the chosen ring is highly representative of the diverse local avian habitats.
Of those, Lewis County counters in past years have had the toughest time accessing backyards. This year, however, they set a record in number of participants with 11 of the 44 staying home as “feederwatchers” to fill in the backyard gap.
Many other records were broken, as well. The group tallied 107 different species, adding three to its previous record. Five species made their count day debuts, including the Townsend’s Solitaire, an uncommon bird that has only been recorded in Lewis County two other times during the winter, according to Spencer.
“It was a great year. A lot of good birds,” he said.
In total, 30,491 individual birds were tallies, setting yet another record. There were 12,227 passerines — also called perching birds or songbirds, more than half of all bird species fall in this category — and 18,423 non-passerines including wood ducks, snow geese, peregrine falcons and four different owl species. This over 6,000 bird split between the two categories was the Lewis County CBC’s largest yet.
“I got that greater white-fronted goose and the orange-crowned warbler, which I had on the species list for the count. They've been on the list since I started it, and we just hadn't ever come across one yet,” Spencer said. “We just have to connect with them on count day. So seeing those, that was really cool.”
Another noteworthy CBC moment Spencer mentioned was watching two peregrine falcons soar just 20 feet over his head, which he said was a “really cool experience.”
New volunteers also told Spencer of their positive stories from the CBC, including how valuable it felt to connect with the whole group dedicated to citizen science.
“We average usually right around 35 to 40 (volunteers). So 44 is a pretty good number for us, especially for a poor weather year,” he said, adding later: “I had a lady who just moved to Washington in August from New Jersey and had been active with Christmas Bird Count in New Jersey and didn't really know any birders and wanted to make connections … She definitely said that she appreciated the experience.”