“The vultures are circling again,” my brother announced. Sure enough, there they were, six or so vultures making graceful arcs across the sky, their awkward appearance masked by the beauty of flight, looking for the meal hidden somewhere on the forest floor.
This had become something of a catchphrase at my family’s Indiana summer home. The house was a huge Victorian with a wraparound porch, perfect for lounging and passing the time with our eyes on the expansive sky, peering miles into the distance and counting the local residents soaring up above. It’s a unique challenge to become more observant of the life going on all around you, all calm and centered internally, all alive and alert externally. We made a game out of counting the birds we saw in the final weeks before we closed our family’s retreat for the winter.
And we thought we were clever. Come to find out, we didn’t invent our own game. Bird counts have been going on for more than 100 years, bringing together amateurs, expert ornithologists, and birdwatchers at every level in between. The species count tallies in the thousands.
A Tradition is Born
Come holiday time, the National Audubon Society enlists citizen scientists from all over the world for three weeks of birdwatching bliss during the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This early-winter census began back in the year 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman founded the Christmas Bird Count in opposition to the Christmas “Side Hunt.” Chapman, an officer of the nascent Audubon Society, proposed counting birds instead of shooting them, and a new holiday tradition was born. With participation from nature enthusiasts all over the country, the first CBC covered 25 count areas – impressive at the time, but modest compared to how the event has grown in the century since.
With binoculars, bird guides, and identification sheets in hand, participants take to the outdoors across 1,800 count areas in North, Central and South America. Each count circle is assigned a 24-hour period within the three weeks for area birdwatchers to head out in teams led by an expert to record the number of species spotted, in that area, on that day. Participants organize into groups and follow designated routes through a 15-mile diameter circle, counting every bird that shows up for the occasion.
All are Welcome
By channeling their holiday cheer into an important data-collecting pursuit, CBC birders help the Audubon Society analyze changes in bird populations and migratory activities, which in turn clues them in to environmental trends. This annual count is one of the most important events the Audubon Society sponsors, in terms of the vital information collected and catalogued by expert birders and their teams of enthusiastic supporters. Everyone can contribute simply by bringing their eyes and ears to the count. We spoke with Judy Lumb, co-author of Belize Audubon Society: The First Thirty Years, about her experience participating in the CBC at Punta Gorda’s count circle in Belize:
“I was hardly an expert,” she said. That wasn’t a problem. Ornithologist Lee Jones, author of the 2004 Birds of Belize guide, led the way as Judy and 40 or so other birders surveyed several territories around Punta Gorda and recorded the vast number of birds that migrate to Belize from northern latitudes, in addition to a multitude of native avian species. The event is organized such that birdwatchers of all levels can contribute to the findings while learning from expert guides at the same time.
“There was an organizational meeting the night before, and then a reporting meeting at the end of the day. Lee took me in his group, knowing I was inexperienced. I was their scribe. Being the scribe is a good way to contribute if you’re inexperienced. The way Lee managed us was to check each of our sightings to make sure we were correct in our IDs – he had a form for us to fill out in correct bird order,” Judy explained.
For birdwatchers, the CBC is a refreshing retreat from holiday chaos and a return to the wilderness where the Tweets aren’t electronic, they’re the ambient music on your nature walk.
Best Places to Go Birdwatching
CBC birders in Belize celebrate Christmas like nowhere else. The rainforest trees are bedecked in a rainbow spectrum of bright colors, the birds like living ornaments alighting at a moment’s notice for sudden, spectacular shows of glorious plumage.
The holiday season is all about togetherness and sharing blessings, and with five count circles and a staggering variety of species, Belize offers a wealth of birdwatching blessings for you to share. Join in the collective hush as your group listens to the distinctive aggression call of the keel-billed motmot, or exclaim in joyful unison as a violet sabrewing hummingbird flits by.
And beyond having one of the most incredible experiences of your life, there’s an added bonus to participating in the Christmas Bird Count in Belize: you give a meaningful gift to a country of astounding natural beauty. Your support boosts awareness of conservation efforts and helps the Audubon Society maintain the wondrous variety of flora and fauna that captivates you from the moment you set foot in the country (and I know this from experience). If a species is on the decline, the CBC is able to report it the Belize Audubon Society so that proactive preservation measures can be implemented. What better way to embody the Christmas spirit than giving back to the entire Belizean community!
Join in! Find a Count Circle near you. If you’re living or traveling in Belize, choose from five count circles listed below. Happy holidays, and happy birding!
Cockscomb Basin Christmas Bird Count
December 14, 2011
Belize City Christmas Bird Count
December 18, 2011
Belmopan Christmas Bird Count
December 27, 2011
Punta Gorda Christmas Bird Count
December 30, 2011
Gallon Jug Christmas Bird Count
December 31, 2011