ITHACA, N.Y. — Along just a one-mile stretch of the East Ithaca Recreation Way on Tuesday, Diane Morton, president of the Cayuga Bird Club, counted cardinals, woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, blue jays, nuthatches, sparrows, mockingbirds, and several other species of birds. Morton was one of 159 people Tuesday who scoured trails, trees, and sky to take a count of birds within a 15-mile radius of Ithaca as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count.

During the count, volunteers have an idea of what they will see, but there are always some surprises. “Every time you go out, no matter how many times you’ve walked this path, it’s going to be a little bit different,” Morton said.

This year was the Audubon’s 119th Christmas Bird Count and the Cayuga Bird Club‘s 57th consecutive count. Local volunteers with the Cayuga Bird Club documented about 20,000 birds across 86 species. The data from Ithaca’s count will get incorporated into the data from over 2,500 count sites across North America. The large citizen science effort helps researchers understand larger trends.

Cardinals spotted along the East Ithaca Recreation Way on Jan 1, 2019. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
Cardinals spotted along the East Ithaca Recreation Way on Jan 1, 2019. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

The count started early Tuesday for some volunteers who went out to count owls when they are active in the dark. The call of an owl can be a tool to bring birds like chickadees and nuthatches out to sound an alarm.

“If you play the Screech-owl, they will come in and they’ll start the alarm calls and they’ll call everyone else and say, ‘Let’s get rid of this owl.’”

The walk along the East Hill Recreation Way was fairly quiet Tuesday afternoon, but at one point when Morton paused to play the recording of a Screech-owl on her phone, sure enough, several species of birds started to come out to inspect the noise.

The weather can affect what birds spotters will see, and it did Tuesday. Though it was a mild 35 degrees Tuesday — a full 30 degrees warmer than last year’s count — there were strong winds, which volunteers suspect kept birds hunkered down. Though 20,000 birds is a lot, during the 2018 count when weather conditions were better (for birds), volunteers counted 40,000 birds across a record 101 species, Morton said.

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After a day of counting, volunteers get together for a dinner to share their numbers and interesting finds.

There were a few unexpected birds this year, Morton said, including Common Redpolls and Evening Grosbeaks. Morton said Evening Grosbeaks have not been seen at the Ithaca Christmas Bird Count since 2008, but more than 70 were spotted Tuesday. She said a few other surprises included a Northern Goshawk at the Ithaca Farmers Market, a Gray Catbird, and two Eastern Phoebes. What was missing from the count Tuesday was loons, snow geese, American Kestrel and snow buntings, Morton said. Waterfowl numbers were also lower than average.

Nuthatch along the East Ithaca Recreation Way. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
Nuthatch along the East Ithaca Recreation Way. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
On right, Diane Morton scans the trees along the East Ithaca Recreation Way. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
On right, Diane Morton scans the trees along the East Ithaca Recreation Way. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

The Cayuga Bird Club was founded in 1913 and has over 150 members. They hold monthly meetings and often have guest speakers. Morton, the club president, said she has been birding since she was young, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that she began birding “year round.” She said she likes the challenges of identification. She said it’s also great to be a birder in Ithaca, not just because the climate attracts some interesting birds, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a lot of local experts and resources.

For the Cayuga Bird Club, this was the 57th count, but the Audubon has held a Christmas Bird Count since 1900. A bird census was proposed by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman as an alternative to the holiday tradition of the Christmas “side hunt,” where hunters would go out for the holiday and shoot as many small birds and animals as they could.

The count isn’t a perfect picture of local birds, but the decades and volume of data collected help researchers study the status of bird populations across North America. With more than 100 years of data, researchers can understand long-term patterns and inform “strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well,” the Audubon says. In the past, data from the annual bird counts has helped inform reports on how climate change could impact North American birds and has helped show what common birds are in decline.

The Christmas Bird Count is just one citizen science effort to track birds. There is also the Great Backyard Bird Count, which asks people to count birds for as little as 15 minutes for four days in February.

View past Christmas Bird Count results from the Audubon here.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.