Every year since 1900, birders have braved the winter weather to engage in what's considered to be the longest-running citizen science survey in the world: the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count.
Held annually between the days of Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, the Christmas Bird Count is a census of winter birds that has, over time, expanded to involve tens of thousands of annual participants who count bird populations all across the Western hemisphere.
The tradition began as an alternative to a very different popular Christmas Day pastime: shooting as many birds as possible. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, suggested counting birds instead, according to National Geographic.
And while the annual bird count looked a bit different this year, the COVID-19 pandemic didn't stop the bird-watchers of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties from engaging their binoculars and field guides for science.
Birders across the two counties, organized by the Sequoia chapter of the Audubon Society in San Mateo County and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society in Santa Clara County, were set to observe a total of six circles – each with a 15-mile diameter – in one-day counts held this year and in the first days of 2021. The two areas planned in San Mateo County were set for Dec. 19 at Crystal Springs and Jan. 2 at Año Nuevo near Pescadero, and the four areas in Santa Clara County set to be surveyed were scheduled for Dec. 20 in San Jose, Dec. 21 in Palo Alto, Dec. 26 in the Calero-Morgan Hill area and Jan. 3 at Mount Hamilton.
Strict precautions to avoid mixing households are being observed, said Matthew Dodder, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. Participants are expected to follow COVID-19 guidelines, such as wearing face masks, staying at least 6 feet apart, and not carpooling. The event's traditional dinner where counts are compiled is taking place over Zoom rather than in person. In fact, this news organization was not permitted to photograph or interview participants in person during the Palo Alto count held Dec. 21.
At least in Santa Clara County, Dodder said, generally well over 100 people work in teams to complete the count, and it's traditionally been a great opportunity for new birders to get involved. However, because of the pandemic precautions preventing households from interacting with each other during this year's count, it can't be as open to newcomers as in past years, Dodder said.
"One thing that has always been good for the event is that it attracted a lot of beginners," he said. "That simply can't happen this year. ...That'll change once everybody is clear of the virus, but we can't have that kind of hand-holding that usually takes place."
Still, he said he expected to see many regular participants return this year. "I think we're still going to have a pretty good turnout," he said.
The Palo Alto count, which has been held every year since 1959, had fewer participants and didn't involve newcomers this year. But it was still a lot of fun, according to Ann Hepenstal, a Los Altos resident, who helped organize the count and participated with her son, Alex Tey.
Tey, now 21, got the family involved in bird-watching as a 5-year-old who was permitted to study his mom's birding field guide instead of napping, Hepenstal said. They joined their first Christmas Bird Count that year and were quickly welcomed into the birding community at the annual dinner held after the count, which usually involves pizza and eager stories shared about the rare birds that were observed, Hepenstal said. That first year, Tey impressed the older birders – many of whom were his senior by at least 50 years – with his precocious knowledge of kingbirds, and the two have been regulars ever since, she said.
The birds reported in the Palo Alto area during the Dec. 21 count included a merlin flyover, parakeets in Palo Alto, a Mandarin duck and snow geese at a pond near some apartments in Sunnyvale, a Western screech owl and barn owl at Stanford, woodpeckers at the Alta Mesa Cemetery, a Western tanager at the Stevens Creek Trail and more, Hepenstal said.
Because the data is collected year over year, the count shows trends in bird populations over time, she said.
It's unlikely that some abnormalities in this year's annual count, due to the pandemic restrictions, will have a major impact, Leslie Flint, the Christmas Bird Count coordinator for San Mateo County, said in an email.
"National Audubon indicated early that canceling the count would not be a problem in the greater scheme of things," she said.
Particularly in San Mateo County, in areas that have been damaged by CZU Complex fires this year in the Año Nuevo region, it's likely that the counts will naturally be lower due to park closures, Flint said.
Over the past century and more, Dodder said, the Christmas Bird Count has offered scientists a good sense of the fluctuations in bird populations, which then shapes which types of conservation efforts are enacted.
"It serves a real purpose for the protection of birds," he said.
The annual bird count, when compiled at the national level, has shown some concerning trends in recent years. At the most recent count, the 120th in 2020, there were 81,600 participants, more than ever, and a total 2,646 species counted. However, the number of birds counted had fallen by around 6 million from the previous count, according to the National Audubon Society.
While the counts from the Palo Alto area were being collected Dec. 21, Hepenstal said, previous years' data was brought up to show how some species were being observed in larger numbers, while others hadn't been counted in several years.
Even though local Audubon Society chapters aren't accepting new volunteers for the Christmas Bird Count right now, December is still a good time for birding, according to the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. The organization has put together several self-guided field trip recommendations for nearby destinations to explore in December. Go to scvas.org/self-guided-field-trips for more information.