The Art of the Christmas Bird Count

The majority of birders have participated in a Christmas Bird Count (CBC), but only a handful have planned and collected one. This article is designed to serve as a starting point for new compilers as well as a refresher for compilers and team leaders. On count day, it also gives some direction for team leaders and participants.

I’ve worked as a CBC compiler in Cottage Grove (1971-73), Florence (1983-87), and Coquille Valley, Oregon (1991-present), and I’ve participated in 15 Oregon CBCs as well as Missouri counts. Other areas’ counts may have different criteria, but much of this material may be relevant to them as well.

Starting a new CBC

Assume you are launching a new CBC. What are the first steps in establishing one? To begin, ask yourself, “Why am I here?” Why would a CBC be located in this area? Keep in mind that birders already support counts. The competition for dates and observers is already fierce. Ask around to see how many people will be there. To what degree will the count be supported locally? Unless the birding region is so fundamentally intriguing that people would always want to travel there, a count with a long-term core group of local birders is more likely to persist than one depending mostly on imported talent. Tillamook Bay, Oregon and Gray’s Harbor, Washington are two examples of the latter kind of count, with just a few local volunteers. At the opposite end of the scale, there are counts in Salem, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington, which have substantial local contingents but few foreign observers. If you can’t obtain enough people to field at least five teams, don’t bother counting unless there are specific reasons for the count or unless circumstances enable fewer individuals to produce a meaningful census. Examples of the latter include minimally covered CBCs done to count Spotted Owls or other special-interest species.

Another example is a census conducted in an usually exposed area, such as the open ocean or alpine regions. Isolation—Hart Mountain, Oregon, or Creston, British Columbia—could potentially be a particular circumstance. Large swaths of the land would otherwise be innumerable. Another distinguishing feature is open land or open water, which are simpler to cover with fewer observers. Second, determine where to place the count circle. The National Audubon Society grants you a 15-mile-diameter circle that cannot intersect with any other count circle. Aside from that, it is entirely up to you where it is drawn. Pelagic counts have their own set of regulations. When designing a circle, there are two key considerations: will it contain the birds you wish to count, and is there appropriate access through roads, trails, vistas, and so on? The first decision is whether to pursue species diversity or high numbers of certain species.

When drawing the Florence, Oregon circle, I encountered an example of this choice because a circle drawn to include Siltcoos Lake, the largest duck wintering lake on the central Oregon coast, is too far south to include the rocky headlands around Sea Lion Caves and Heceta Head, the only rocky shores near Florence. A southern circle would have also excluded a stretch of the beaches where a large number of Snowy Plovers spend the winter.

Now, hundreds of scaup and coots may be seen just outside the Florence CBC circle, but both populations can be difficult to detect within! Third, get in touch with the National Audubon Society. They want a decent map of the circle and the coordinates of the centre, as well as proof that you can gather enough observers to make it work.

For deadlines, contact National Audubon. The Society needs updated counts by October in order to send you a compiler’s packet in time for the count period. Audubon’s count form and instructions, specific requests (for example, the sex of all American Kestrels), and other minor paperwork and junk mail inserts are included in the bundle. It’s November, which means it’s time to plan your first annual Lister’s Bay Christmas Bird Count!

Organizing the CBC

Begin arranging the count as soon as possible. Unless your count consistently utilises a fixed day (for example, the first Saturday of the quarter), publish the date as soon as feasible, preferably before September. Begin recruiting observers for a fresh or “imported talent” count by mid-November, and late November for an existing, locally backed count. Some components of the count, such as final team allocations, cannot be completed with confidence thus early in the process, but others may. Keep in mind that other counts have well-established dates and patterns of observer attendance. The Coos Bay and Columbia Estuary counts in Oregon, for example, are generally done on the first Sunday of the count season. This isn’t an issue since they’re nearly 200 miles away and don’t share an observer base. Another coastal count slated for that day, on the other hand, may have problems gathering witnesses and will need a strong local foundation. Choose a feasible date by reviewing previous count dates and speaking with possible observers about other counts they want to attend. Consider the count as a whole, as a daylong birding event with a diverse group of individuals, before proceeding with the following stages in count organising. My opinion, which may not be held by all compilers, is that the function of a CBC is dual. The main goal is to produce a statistically valid (if enough counts are taken) and generally helpful account of the species and individuals present in the count region. To accomplish so, it must find every species present in the count region in proportion to the number of species really there. That is, don’t leave anything out and count anything that moves.

Because swans are more visible than Song Sparrows, you will obviously get a more comprehensive count of the former, but this is true every year and the proportions will stay consistent across many years of counts. The secondary goal is to give participants with a high-quality birding experience that will entice them to return. This second goal is vital not just for the count’s capacity to attract enough observers to be legitimate, but also for the mere enjoyment of birdwatching. I go to CBCs because they are typically entertaining. I won’t go if they’re no longer enjoyable. I’m sure many CBC attendees feel the same way. To me, a good CBC is one that provides a standard amount of value as a survey while also being fun for those participated.

Although the next stage is to recruit players, now is a good time to draw some approximate team borders on a map of the circle. The processes of recruiting and coverage design are inextricably linked. The number of people recruited fluctuates greatly from count to count. A few individuals with strong local support just need to recruit at Audubon Society or bird club meetings. Counts with a small local base, such as Gray’s Harbor, Washington, must look elsewhere for every observer.

A laminated copy of an 8 1/2 by 11-inch circular map is a handy planning tool, particularly for counts that constantly alter area borders. Such lamination may be done for a few bucks at a print shop. A water-based (temporary) acetate marker will enable you to experiment with area borders as much as required without having a stack of blank maps on hand. I laminated two maps for twice the fiddling power at the same price. You will most likely fall somewhere in the middle while recruiting for the Lister’s Bay CBC. You’ll have a few local competitors from Noburg, but you’ll also need to recruit from outside. Audubon Societies, for example, may exist in surrounding cities. If feasible, notify them of the count by early November so that they may include a note in their newsletter. Notify the Noburg Herald as well. This is unlikely to result in many new team members, but it does often yield excellent home counters while also informing people about what is going on. Print a slew of postcards or catchy fliers and distribute them to prospective attendees you know with an RSVP deadline. If you are interested, many will react, enabling you to start preparing your coverage.

Designing coverage

Coverage design is determined by location, experience, personal characteristics, and basic numbers. But what exactly does the circle cover? Chickadee Park, Shearwater Point, Raptor Valley, urban Noburg, Peep Flats, Rail Marsh, Wigeon Lake, several stretches of reasonably productive forest and brushland, Grouse Peak, Eagle Canyon, Plover Beach, Pipit Knoll, and, of course, the clearcuts of Vulture’s Breath Ridge and the bleached snags of Darklark Dunes. Every Starling in the circle pays the latter three visits every day.

Furthermore, Raptor Valley can only be reached through Darklark Dunes, and Grouse Peak and Eagle Canyon are secluded from the rest of the circle by the quiet stumpscape of Vulture’s Breath Ridge and its associated slopes. Because of the circle’s habitat layout, most of the most productive habitat is packed in nodes, where the birds flock in spectacular diversity.

As the organiser, you may simply divide the circle into habitat teams, such as a mountain team, a park team, a bay team, a river team, and so on. I strongly warn against using this method. Instead, create a swath of various habitats for each team region. This isn’t always practicable, and it has some drawbacks, but it’s generally the best option. Most birders like diversity and the opportunity to build a respectable species list on a CBC. This cross-habitat method has geographical limits. A tiny pond cannot be rationally split into three teams, but if it is fruitful, numerous visits by “poachers” taking detailed notes may be beneficial. Roads in Lister’s Bay do not always take you where you want them to. Create coverage so that teams do not have to go back and forth to go around their region. There’s nothing wrong with going over some areas of your property more than once. This is an excellent strategy. But do it because you want to, not because the organiser threw you off track. Draw area boundaries so that teams are aware of them. Avoid dragging them into the centre of roadways (“Well, it was on our side until the Merlin pursued it”) or small canals (“We believed you were hunting for the Smew from yesterday”). Use ridge tops, abrupt habitat changes, and other prominent landmarks.

Unless you have the uncommon good fortune of having absolutely the cream of birders to pick from, the most important component of success for a compiler is to field as many observers as possible. Although weather is an important element in spotting birds in the northwest, nothing beats a big turnout. Observer number compensates for the fact that each team does not always have a highly experienced observer. The majority of birders who come on counts can identify the majority of the species they observe. One principle that some organisers find difficult to comprehend is that observers should focus where birds congregate. There are some exceptions, primarily in open areas where a single observer can easily count a thousand ducks or thirty buteos. Count organisers should, in general, avoid spending observers on bird-free zones. This does not pose a difficulty for data consumers as long as the habitat coverage is appropriately reported in count data submitted. Sensible compilers make decisions about where to emphasise coverage and where to cut corners: it’s fine to have some teams take a swipe at recent clearcuts or high sage plains, but having three teams staggering around in that habitat all day isn’t a productive use of limited observer-hours unless the main purpose of the count is to survey that habitat. Some sections were purposefully left uncovered during the counts I coordinated so that observers may cover their regions more extensively. At Coquille Valley, which has the most species diversity in Oregon and numerous high individual counts, over 40% of the circle’s land area is never allocated or visited on count day because it is unproductive and, in many cases, inaccessible. However, in certain cases, sending one or two observers on a half-day trip across patchy habitat might yield nice birds. This is particularly evident towards the coast’s furthest reaches, where walking beaches or deflation plains behind dunes may only yield nine species, but three of them are unique to the area. It is worth noting that many birds may be discovered most readily in cities and towns throughout the winter. Temperatures are somewhat higher (in certain microsites much higher), and there are often plants that offer both food and shade. Feeders are a fantastic CBC resource that is sometimes overlooked. Many unusual winter birds are missed because of the inclination to hide metropolitan areas during Christmas Counts. This is particularly true for warblers. One or two of the greatest birders should be tasked with scouring the neighbourhoods for rare birds hiding in yards, deciduous draws, and brushy sumps. It doesn’t take much habitat to keep a little bird frantic for survival under harsh circumstances. A last word about limits and the enigmatic Circle Edge. Although CBC maps must be somewhat precise, if a road travels along the circle’s boundary, in and out by a few hundred feet, no one knows or cares if the robins were on one side or the other. The maps aren’t very accurate, and they can’t be made to be. The following is my arbitrary rule of thumb for the all-important In or Out. A Swallow-tailed Kite is perched on a snag on the circle’s rim. Count it if you know it’s In. Count it if you believe it’s in. If you’re unsure, count it. If it’s clearly Out and you can’t persuade yourself that it flew from In, hope that some unknown party builds a fire behind it to entice it inside the circle; otherwise, you’re out of luck. The Kite is definitely more interested in this than the swarm of juncos.

Team makeup and assignment

Now that your areas have been brilliantly sliced out of the circle portion that you have chosen to cover, it is time to assign team leaders and members. Team leaders who know the area are best, but in any case, choose people who are dedicated—people who can still bird in the snow at 3 p.m. and convince others to do the same. Assume your Lister’s Bay CBC has drawn 21 field observers ranging in competence, experience, and what I call “count attitude” from Bonnie Biglist and Stan Scoper on one end to Uncle Ted and his pocket telescope from the Battle of Manila Bay on the other. You also have Emil Tweet, who has always covered Chickadee Park and intends to do so until the day he dies, despite the fact that he couldn’t hear a chickadee if it called from his beard. Harry Hawkfreak reacted to your promise of raptor-infested fields but is unable to recognise a junco. And although Roger Runabout can recognise juncos, he prefers to scan the circle for rarities. You requested observers, and they have arrived! What plan do you have for them? You may form 7 teams of three, or any other combination. Match the strengths of the observers. Keep in mind that some people are just as opposed to processing a flat full of gulls as they are to processing an endless sparrow patch. The circle may include species that certain birders are known to be interested in, such as the Snowy Plover and Spotted Owl. Send Penelope Ploverlover on the beach team and Olivia Owlogler into the woods at 3 a.m. if possible.

The size of the team will be determined by the number of observers that show up, but unless extraordinary circumstances arise, they should all fit easily in one vehicle. In most cases, four persons is a realistic limit that is readily divided in the field. Five is a pack, six is a horde, and seven is a convoy, two teams posing as one, frequently to the disadvantage of the count. I’ve seen the convoy technique work—Medford, Oregon does it fairly well—but it’s only effective in places where the megateam can send a skirmish line a mile wide through the habitat, such as large parks or grassy areas where the ability to send a skirmish line a mile wide through the habitat provides better coverage. Convoys are an ineffective strategy when teams are restricted to roads.

The composition of a team is a delicate subject. There are folks who don’t get along and individuals whose birdwatching styles are incompatible. However, different styles do not always clash, particularly on a CBC. Some of the best coverage I’ve seen came from teams that mixed sluggish seasoned senior birders with rambunctious youthful brushstompers. Different approaches might result in more and different birds. Isn’t that the point? Remember that some excellent birders are unable to spend the day climbing up 45-degree slopes in search of unexplained “chip” notes because to physical limitations (health, hearing loss, mobility issues). These folks, who are frequently older birders, are nevertheless incredibly productive in the field when they are put in positions that allow them to utilise their years of knowledge without tiring them out. They are delighted to be engaged and will perform admirably on duck-filled meadows, raptor havens, shorebirds, and seawatching—situations where their expertise and thoroughness exceed mobility or hearing impairments. The organiser is now confronted with the first of many unpleasant facts. You never know until the last minute who will really show up on count morning. My response used to be to create 17 different contingency plans, complete with maps and so on. That proved to be an insane technique for the organizer’s peace of mind, so I recommend that you keep a few observers, if you have enough, in “Team Zed” until the very end. Fill in the blanks as needed. There could be a handful of roving watchers about come dawn, particularly on “meet in the morning” counts. Send them in search of challenging species, tack them onto a team with a too big area to cover, offer them some region you hadn’t meant to cover, or give them a little of all three. Of course, there are clear benefits to the organiser putting herself to Team Zed. She is the greatest person to know about the count’s last-minute requirements.

Leading up to the count

Notify local police agencies of the count a week or two before the count. This will keep owling teams unburdened and free to owl, as well as offer them a good start in justifying their gazing into home garden plots to the gendarme. Another comment to the local press may also assist, as neighbours may stop a team to report an eagle on a tree on Cat Street that would otherwise go unnoticed. If feasible, some pre-count coverage is beneficial. Where has the shrike gone? Is there going to be rails this year in that otherwise useless ditch? Which feeds are currently active?

A good map of the area to be covered; aerial photos if useful (often available from college map libraries); tide information for coastal counts; phone numbers of all team members, other area leaders, and the organiser; notes on the area and previous coverage; information on any pre- or post-count meetings; the names and phone numbers of local people such as park caretakers and landowners who may be willing to p According to American Birds editors, the yellow vehicle cards that National Audubon used to distribute may be made and used locally with the NAS name on them. Some individuals like using them, while others do not. Some teams will make extensive use of this information, while others will make little use of it at all. The organizer’s job is to provide as many options as possible to the team leader so that she can make informed decisions on count day.

Count day

The key to a count’s success, once again, is to get as many people in the field as possible, send them where the birds are, get them out of their automobiles as much as possible, and encourage them to make appealing sounds, such as “pish” and hoot. Go bird-watching. Never allow tallying take longer than counting; if feasible, have a dedicated tallier. If the woodpecker was not noted down immediately after it was spotted, adjustments may always be made. If you were marking it down when the Goshawk snatched it and swooped away, you’d never know your list — and your day’s birding experience — is missing one enormous uncommon accipiter. Try to keep up with jays, magpies, sparrows, and other “even-flow” species that are difficult to recall later. Although a dry run through your area in the days before the count is not always possible (especially on “imported observer” counts like Gray’s Harbor, Washington or Tillamook Bay, Oregon), you, the team leader, can nag the compiler for information about where to go. Obtain permission from landowners, if possible, to count on their land (ideally the organiser has done this and will give you letters of permission). Many private landowners would agree to this, and magnificent birds may be discovered. One Coquille Valley counting crew discovered a Northern Saw-whet Owl disturbed by a Swamp Sparrow in a willow patch in broad daylight—you never know what’s hidden on private property.

Locations with restricted access, such as sewage ponds and landfills, are usually desirable. Railroad rights-of-way are often excellent counting routes. These are often privately held, however access may be granted. In a birdless sea of suburbia or “clean farms,” they form linear habitat islands. I used a railroad line to walk “cross country” on the Eugene, Oregon CBC. I had more Lincoln’s Sparrows and Marsh Wrens than I had ever seen in all my years of birding in that region. Any reputable count organiser will give maps of the region as well as tips on what birds to search for. The challenge is what you do with that information: how do you organise your team on count day to discover all of the birds? Depending on the weather, we have around eight to nine hours of daylight to count in the northwest. Except for large turnout counts, it is insufficient time to fully “cover” a count sub-area. The areas are just too big. As a team leader, you may use the principle of observer concentration. Parts of your region will be densely populated with birds, while others will be scarce. Some locations need intensive bush-to-bush birding, a laborious but rewarding exercise in bird-by-bird extraction.

To “leapfrog” your team members is an apparent but underutilised approach for covering big regions with plenty of birdy spots. Drop one or two individuals along the road when you approach a decent spot and have them walk a mile or so to where you have parked the vehicle. After leaving the automobile, you walk forward on a predefined path. Your team members will pick up the vehicle and drive it ahead of you to another agreed-upon place, where they will park and continue walking, and so on. This permits two or three persons to thoroughly bird a broad area. Using this strategy, I’ve had a lot of luck collecting high counts of species like little woodpeckers.

Under ideal circumstances, it may also be quite useful for locating owls (see Fix) (1987). Remember to give your team mates a set of keys, otherwise they will go to the automobile and be stranded there, while you continue on eternally, an ornithological Flying Dutchman. If you’ve done CBCs, you’re familiar with the two o’clock blahs. The early morning catches up with you in the afternoon, and the area appears, well, adequately covered. That’s why experienced counters undertake the most of their difficult lifting first thing in the morning. Most areas have areas that require long walks and others that are better birded from a single location. Ideally, you should walk all day because you will see far more birds in most habitat. However, most individuals lack that type of energy, and most counties lack regions planned to be covered in that manner. By late afternoon, it is frequently most beneficial to devote your attention to roosting birds such as gulls, harriers, turkeys, Rosy Finches, and even ducks. If you did some heavy walking in the morning and did really well on woodsy birds, pipits, and hedgerow birds,

lovers and the like, you may spend the day scoping from a nice view position while giving your body a rest. You’ll be amazed at what you can see at great distances by using your scope for more than watching buteos and ducks.

A blackberry or willow patch on the wrong side of a river carefully watched by scope can yield everything from Lincoln’s Sparrows to Orange-crowned Warblers to the dashing shrike that would like to eat both. Small hawks (and Red-shouldered Hawks) are notorious for being invisible at a distance although sitting in the open, and some languid scoping can raise them from hiding. Even on a nasty day you can scope in relative comfort through the simple expedient of using an umbrella. You won’t hear passerines very well over the noise of raindrops, but you can scope for a long time without getting sodden. A sheet of mylar or one side of a plastic binder cover (minus the three rings) held on with a rubber band keeps the rain off the objective lens if you don’t have a slide-out “sun” shield. See the unique article on scanning the sky (Fix, 1988) that helps at any time of year for other ideas on how to find lots of birds from a fixed position. A specialized variation of this idea is sea watching. Team leaders assigned to ocean view areas can almost always add several species to a count by spending a certain amount of time simply staring at the ocean. You’d be amazed what will fly into view. On a Coos Bay count in the 1980s I was scanning from Cape Arago (o.k., I was idling in the afternoon) when the whole scope field was filled with two massive birds—a Brown Pelican being pursued by an adult Bald Eagle! Certainly a rude awakening for the pelican after the usual Heermann’s Gulls. Other birds seen by diligent northwest CBC ocean-watchers include Sabine’s Gull, Heermann’s Gull, Oldsquaw, the rare jaeger, lots of alcids, Peregrine Falcon, shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, Red Phalarope and others. I will borrow a page from the birders I have learned the most from, such people as Larry McQueen, David Fix and Rich Hoyer. If you come across a patch of nice habitat for small birds, have one member of your party pish while another does a Northern Pygmy-Owl (or in the east, Eastern Screech-Owl) imitation. The capacity of this combination to attract birds is remarkable. You can also get real owls to respond on occasion, even in mid-day. I am constantly amazed at the number of birders who, even on CBCs, get out of their cars (or worse, stay in them), make no sounds, and, of course, see a few birds. Make attractive sounds and you’ll see far more. ourse, see few birds. Make Even that little red “Audubon” squeaker that Aunt Jane got you for Christmas is pretty effective once you learn to use it (and if kept dry), especially for Fox Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and other birds that make a solid “chip” or “chunk” sound. You can also warble like a House Finch and pretend it’s spring. The “pish and hoot” technique is especially useful when you see or hear one small bird in winter, because chances are that forty are quietly feeding just out of sight, ready to be called in. Many species feed in mixed flocks in winter, and such species as Hutton’s Vireo or warblers can most easily be extracted from such groups. It is often the case that the more you “work” such a group by pishing and hooting, the more birds come in from all directions.

There is nothing wrong with covering a location twice. It is essential in any tidal zone and very helpful at any lake or pond where waterfowl come and go. Different birds use these areas under different conditions or at different times of day. The same is true of wide-open areas that support raptors. These birds move around and by checking an area more than once you can find more of them. The CBC is next to useless as a true population indicator unless accurate party hour data is kept. Keep your compiler happy and your data useful by keeping track of those numbers. The same is true of habitat coverage. If you never got to that pasture, indicate that on your results, or the compiler may try to guess your coverage from the maps. A count known to have spent 50 percent of its energy in the forest is a better indicator of woodpecker populations than one that spent 10 percent even though the maps may show 60 percent of the area as forested. Don’t make the compiler guess what you did.

Tips for owlers

Owling begins well before count “day,” and there is nothing more frustrating than going out and stopping in all of the wrong places while finding no owls and parking in the Sheriff’s driveway. Some owls are relatively easy to stake out ahead of time. A little practice will make you familiar with the habitats preferred by various species so that your count day stops are as hootful as possible. There is a great feeling in starting your count at dawn with two or three owls already in your pocket. See the note above on leapfrogging for an especially effective owling technique. You can also find owls in the daytime. Long-eared and Barn Owls are fond of roosting in dense willow or Russian-olive thickets in open country. If you are pishing the outside of such a thicket you may not flush the owls. If you stick your head into one side of the bushes while your team members watch, they may be treated to a sight I once had: two Barn Owls and half a dozen Long-eared Owls boiling out the other side while a Great Horned Owl watched in amused dignity from a nearby cottonwood. You can find Barn Owls by peering into barns with the owners’ permission—Barn Owls really do live there.

Here are some broad generalizations about CBC owl-finding in the west. Western Screech-Owls like the edges of wooded areas with at least some older deciduous trees (e.g., oaks or maples) next to open mousy fields or pastures, even (or especially?) small grassy sites. They are not as common in huge wide-open spaces. Northern Saw-whet Owls like mostly evergreens (not necessarily large trees) with some grassy openings (but they sometimes use dense willow and even ash stands in the west), while Northern Pygmy-Owls prefer heavily wooded canyons and hillsides and don’t need large open spaces, although narrow stringer meadows are good. Great Horned Owls can be almost anywhere but big dense trees, even in city parks, are often favored. Great Horned, Barn and Western Screech-Owls all use holes in cliffs from time to time. I won’t make this a treatise on the ins and outs of finding each species of owl—for one thing I am not especially successful with some species. Listen to recordings and learn to imitate owls, or just bring the tapes along and play them. That is a bad idea in the breeding season but for CBC purposes it is ok—there is not yet much breeding activity and there are few CBCs and many owls. One final note on night birding—you can find more than owls.

Rails are especially known for night activity and occur at open water in most of the region (sometimes at warm springs in colder areas), and Black-crowned Night Heron can erupt with a “krowk!” at almost any CBC with open water in the region.

A note on poaching

Poaching is the practice of one team stealing species from another team’s area in order to come up with a big day list or see rare birds known to be in the area. It is useful and productive if used properly. Don’t tell teams not to poach on other areas. Make all areas small enough to complete within a reasonable day’s effort, and tell teams to poach if they have time.

Suggest some possible areas to poach. At Coquille Valley I know perfectly well that half the teams will find an excuse to “pass by” the south jetty an hour before dark, so I suggest to them species to look for should they “happen” to be in the area. In 1984 the Eugene, Oregon CBC team in whose area a Snowy Owl had been lurking was jinxed on count day, finding everything but the owl. A poaching team made a pass through the area and found it. Boundaries are for convenience, and to make sure that areas that should be covered get covered. If you’ve squeezed all of the Song Sparrows out of your area, go elsewhere. This is a bird count, go where the birds are. Be sure to keep separate notes on when and where you poached which birds.

When you’re done

At the end of the day, have a get-together in some warm place with food and good cheer. Give people a chance to brag and gripe about the day’s birding. Don’t just collect the lists in some cold, rainy place and let everyone disappear into the gloom of night. That’s no fun. Choose a restaurant or birder’s home in Noburg and be festive. Give Team X a chance to brag about how hard they worked to find that Peregrine, when in fact it was sitting on top of the Dairy Queen where they went for a surreptitious hot cocoa break when the thermos ran out. At the end of the count the organizing is done and the compiling begins. Compilation is more than just sitting there with a calculator or computer. Did Team 4 really walk 30 miles? The swans and Rosy Finches were moving back and forth all day, so which sightings are likely duplicates? Details for the Reddish Egret seem adequate, but it was seen by Dan Dreamer, who had a full flask of Wild Turkey for lunch. The six Avocets skimming puddles in the 7-11 parking lot have no details at all, but were seen by sober Bonnie Biglist, and who could mistake an Avocet? Compilers are loathe to purge sour species from the list, largely because birders are personally attached to their rarities and reputation is so important in birding. Tell people ahead of time what sort of details are required and announce that you will mercilessly purge those that don’t measure up. Consider appending a brief list of species that are often reported with inadequate details: Swainson’s Hawk, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Yellow Warbler etc. Purging has to be done by someone, or the whole count acquires a certain taint. Don’t leave the dirty work to the regional editor. When you send out or publish the results, explain, at least to the people who reported the inadequately supported species, why you found it unacceptable. Don’t just secretly dump the species. Use the opportunity to improve the field skills of your observers. Send some sort of results to your observers right away. They did the work and are entitled to know how it came out. I send a complete breakdown by area and species, previous years’ highs and the average, a map and observer list by area, and a letter with my comments on various highlights of the count. If you care about the quality of your observers’ experience, they will come back again next year. Finally, fill out the official form (soon to be electronic) for National Audubon and send it in, and make a few notes to yourself for next year. The Lister’s Bay CBC has been a success! I hope that these thoughts will help make your CBC experience both more successful and more enjoyable. Remember that each count has its own traditions, so if you are a visitor to a new count don’t try to tell your team leader how to run the area he’s been doing for ten years, even if you think you could do it better. Just enjoy the day.

Alan Contreras is an active birder from Eugene, Oregon. He adapted and revised this piece from his articles in Oregon Birds magazine.

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