Counting birds –

Please consider the images to be copyrighted and ask permission to use or reproduce. Thank you. DEClapp

In the last post I mentioned the annual Christmas Count; a bird count within a circle. This is an annual occurrence in over 2500 locations today. In 1900 the tradition of a Christmas “side shoot” was first confronted by a noire passive activity; the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). During the past 120 years the CBC has pretty much replaced the side-shoot. Much of the USA is covered by these 15 mile diameter circles and birders of all stripes patrol the lakes, ponds, woods, fields, streets, seas, and developments within the scribed area. National Audubon Society oversees this massive citizen-science project and the data is largely available just by Googling.

That is all well and good; good for nature, good for birds, good for planning; it is even fun and social. The weather varies year to year but the enthusiasm and repetition prevail. But counting is easy only when you use your fingers and maybe toes. A quick flight of Razorbills or sandpipers happens in a flash and the most experienced people will have wildly different counts (estimates) of the number of birds that just passed by. Even a slow moving flock of Canada Geese can be hard to count. Rarely do birds pass by slowly and with space between them. And even if they do, it can be hard to count them.

Ducks on a pond or eider on the sea will bounce, dive, and paddle to a frustrating degree. Learning to estimate and extrapolate is a skill born of practice. Let’s take a look at some flocks, flights, and floats. Try to estimate the number in a few seconds, then count a representative section and multiply and try a second number – for the most obsessive of you, take the time to actually count the birds. This is best done by printing out the image and then ticking off the birds as you count them on paper. I will give the answers at the end of the post – so get ready….

This image shows 2 Purple Sandpipers (PUSA) flying into a beach with a group of Sanderling (SAND). The PUSAs are at the left edge in the middle and on the lower edge just to the right hand side of center; they are the two darkest birds in the image. When they flew in I thought there were maybe 40-60 Sanderling. I printed the picture and counted them….how many do you think I got?
Some groups of birds are beyond accuracy.
This flight of Common Eider (COEI) went past for at least twenty minutes. There were hundreds in view at any moment and in the next minute there was another whole population in front of me. I have never bothered to count from this image but I imagine there are more than 700 birds here and I think that they were replaced by another 700 birds in just a minute or two. It is hard to imagine that I had tens of thousands of birds pass by…but maybe.
I’d like to get one of those counters they use for fish-counting and adapt it to bird counting.

Looking at large groups of birds requires some planning and quick counting. If there are three people in a group everyone should try to develop a number and then discuss estimates and arrive at a best guess. Exact numbers are not possible in many cases while in the field.

Some groups and some species are kind of easy. These are a cute little duck called Bufflehead. There are 13 in the picture; but these are diving ducks and at any given moment you might see only 5 and a few seconds later there will be 15. Some species deserve a bit of time in order to make the best count or get the best possible estimate. In this image there are only two males (white bodies) so if you later see five males you know to add three.
While walking a beach you might come on an aggregation of gulls that consists of several species; and with gulls, several ages.
This is not an easy circumstance as you need to know how many were Herring or Great Black-backed or perhaps how many were Ring-billed or Laughing. In the image above there are a lot Bonaparte’s Gull to further confuse the situation. The best way to count this sort of group is to use “notes” on a ‘phone or jot down numbers on a pad with a pencil to keep track of each species. Count one species at a time – and hope they don’t fly or drastically change position before you are done. This requires that you stop and stay quiet as you count and recount. The tide will rise (or fall) and the birds will fidget and move. An eagle may fly over and they will all lift off, or a dog will happen by (all too often) and the birds will turn into a mass of white and gray and black feathers that are simply unable to be counted. Plan ahead and be patient.
One warm day in Brazil’s Pantanal we had the surprise that this picture represents. It is a group of hawks lifting into the warm mid-morning air. In the US we occasionally see a Snail Kite in the Florida wetlands where Pomacea snails live. But the kites are usually quite solitary. Here in Brazil, all of a sudden this group of Snail Kites lifted in front of our boat. The nearby Jaguar may have been more breathtaking but these birds were more unexpected. It is another chance for you to make a quick estimate, then a more exact guess and to count them all if you want. Again, the answer is below.
This last image shows how you might lose concentration. When counting birds a flash of yellow in a thicket will certainly distract you. In the ocean a pod of Humpback Whales feeding on Sand Lance can do the same thing. This half-dozen whales are surrounded by Herring and Laughing Gulls and on some days will have Great, Cory’s, and Sooty Shearwaters around them as well. It is hard to do bird numbers when these great and iconic marine mammals are just off the rails. There are just about 65 gulls in the image; how many are Laughing Gulls (with a black head and dark gray mantle)?

So that’s what we do; only a lot of it is counting birds at feeders and in bushes and walking through snow or slush. But getting good numbers of Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers and Northern Cardinals isn’t that easy either. How many can you list when you have already seen two woodpeckers with red feathering on their heads? Some birds, like Northern Cardinals, are pretty easy as they often just sit out as if waiting to be counted, others flit or hide and make accurate numbers difficult.

Here are the numbers from the images: there are 202 Sanderling in the first picture with the 2 Purple Sandpipers; there are 204 Snail Kites in the air in Brazil; and there are 37 Laughing Gulls in the 65 birds in the last image. By the way the top three birds in that last picture are actually Common Terns, not gulls at all. My counts are certainly close but I cannot guarantee them to be exact… close for sure though. There are 31 Great Black-backed Gulls and two Herring Gulls in the image used as a heading, or lead, at the top of the post…..Cheers.

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