Quietly, on the snowy trails of the Watershed Reserve, a small group of birders were contributing to the nation’s longest running community science data base. This year marks the 121st anniversary of the Audubon Christmas Count and, as usual, Education Director Jeff Hoagland was joined by Washington Crossing Audubon President Juanita Hummel and her husband Blaine; Sharyn Magee; and Mary Joan Gaynor, longstanding volunteer at the Watershed Center.
Wearing masks and socially distancing, the group covered about four miles of trails in about 6 hours, counting every bird seen and heard on the Watershed Reserve. The count is based on observation, not extrapolation, so while it does not represent the exact number of birds present on the Reserve, it is a means of monitoring the status of resident and migratory bird populations. This measure becomes increasingly important in the face of climate change and continued habitat loss. (The journal Science reports that North American bird populations have declined by nearly 3 billion birds since the 1970s!)
The count on the Watershed Reserve was on Sunday, December 20, as part of the Princeton Area Bird Count. It was quiet on the Reserve this year, with less than 1000 birds counted, represented by 41 species. Highlights include 7 raptor species (plus both vulture species), including a pair of courting bald eagles; 3 ravens; a lingering catbird; and a tiny winter wren. Across the country, this effort is replicated creating a snapshot of bird populations. This year’s effort will certainly be impacted by the COVID pandemic, keeping many birders off the trail.
While the count provides valuable data on the status of birds, participants glean more from the experience. Jeff likes to tell friends that birds are among his favorite people, and by spending the day with them, one gets a glimpse at their secret lives – the beauty of flight, the unending quest for food, acts of cooperation, extreme durability in the face of winter, and, in the case of the eagles, their aerobatic love story.
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