July 09, 2020

Local counters get bird’s-eye view Experts, amateurs combine to help compile data during annual survey

EDDINGTON BEND – The large, graceful spirit gliding over the Penobscot River sometime after dawn was hard for anyone to miss. The sight of the bald eagle was cause for even a veteran birder to stop and marvel, while the novice wondered if the remarkable creature was in fact the granddaddy of American birds.

Such are the questions a bird count makes you ponder in the course of a four-hour tromp through backwoods trails and fresh snow. As you learn more birds, you ask more questions. You learn by flight patterns, call notes or, in the eagle’s case, size – and by following the example of an experienced bird-watcher.

After starting the annual Christmas bird count at dawn at the Eddington Salmon Club, five hours of hiking and driving would bring the veteran and rookie to the University of Maine in Orono, where area compiler, Judy Markowsky, would pose the question of the day:

“Do we still need to find [any of] these species: barrow’s, mergansers, grouse, gulls, pileated woodpecker, creeper, shrike, sparrow, crossbill, redpoll, waxwing, grosbeak, mockingbird, owl?”

Of the 14 birds that are traditionally tough to find in the traditional bird count, only four went unseen by the nine birders who scoured the Old Town-Orono area and reported at the meeting two Saturday’s ago.

There were 24 birders who covered areas assigned by Markwosky, who works at Fields Pond Nature Center in Brewer and has been the data compiler in the Orono-Old Town count since 1988.

For all 24 birders, the day’s task was indeed work. But all those who scanned the skies and trees two weeks ago also did so with joyous precision.

“You don’t have to be good to have fun. It’s not like tennis where you have to learn to hit the ball over the net,” said birder Chuck Whitney as he drove along a logging road in Eddington, scanning the sky. “You don’t have to approach it from the scientific and ornithological level. It is an example of how rank amateurs can make meaningful contributions to scientific research.”

Whitney has counted the Eddington area for Markowsky since 1979 and taken place in the Audubon’s Christmas bird count for 30 years.

Indeed, the Orono-Old Town count is part of a larger tradition. For 101 years the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count has taken place around the country during a three-week span. There are other bird counts at other times of the year, but the Christmas count is the oldest and longest running in the country.

There are 23 that take place around Maine during the three-week period, and three counts in the Bangor area, with the Old Town-Orono count being the first. All of the counts are tallied and recorded in the Audubon’s Christmas bird count report.

The second count in the Bangor area takes place today in Bangor and Bucksport and is open to late arrivals. The New Year’s Day count on Schoodic Point is the third and last count in the area and runs in conjunction with a birding course taught by Markowsky.

Sometimes on bird counts, there are unusual sightings, like the great blue heron one birder saw at Taylor Bait Farm in Orono two weeks ago.

“The bird was hanging around because the food is there,” Markowsky said. “It’s not the first time that’s happened. It’s unusual, so we get excited. But it’s a little sad, and you hope the bird goes south soon.”

However, the joy in bird counts is the diversity of birders, as much as the diversity of birds.

You don’t need to be wealthy to participate, you don’t need to be athletic. You find birders in their 80s, and birders who are 8, those who are animal-rights activist and those who are hunters.

While a veteran birder like Whitney is able to call birds in by “pishing,” or making various nonsensical bird sounds, a rookie can enjoy the process of a count just the same by learning the markings and distinctive characteristics from a veteran.

If you’ve never watched or studied birds, not a problem. The joy of participating eliminates any chance of being humbled.

“That’s crud,” Whitney grinned to the beginner birder on his count. “I often see crud in a tree and think it’s a bird. We all do, believe me.”

The most difficult work, however, is done by Markowsky, who must decipher the data.

“When the data is used, it’s controlled for effort,” she said. “If my count has 25 birders and another has three, the 25 are going to find more birds. Statistically, there are methods to correct for that and compare the data.”

To be sure, every last bird is not found in an area. But, Markowsky said when the data is used carefully, it can indicate trends.

“I think it was three years ago, house finches were dying off. There was a fungus that affected their eyes, and a lot of sick ones,” Markowsky said. “One year we had 300 on a Christmas count. The next we had zero. You can detect trends in the data in even one Christmas count.”

A total of 4,919 birds were tallied this year, compared to 3,765 last year. Moreover, Markowsky’s birders spotted 48 species, matching last year’s tally of 48.

Still, the area Christmas count had its moments of disappointment. Whitney, for one, would have loved to have seen the hard-to-find bohemian waxwing to complete the count, and to show Maine birds are alive and well.

“Bohemian waxwings are good birds [to find],” he said. “We get a lot of them. The rest of the country doesn’t. They drool when they see ours.”

Deirdre Fleming covers outdoor sports and recreation for the NEWS. She can be reached at 990-8250 or at dfleming@bangordailynews.net.

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