By Michelle Blake | Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division natural resource specialist
FORT CARSON, Colo. — The Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS) Directorate of Public Works (DPW) staff hosted the third annual National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (CBC) Dec. 21, 2020.
The CBC, which was first initiated in 1900, is one of the longest running citizen science surveys in the world. Each year, from Dec. 14, 2020, to Jan. 5, 2021, volunteers count the birds within pre-approved 15-mile-wide CBC circles. The data collected enables the National Audubon Society to track and assess the health of North America’s bird population over space and time, enables scientists to monitor the impact and spread of non-native species and to detect changes in migration patterns.
The CBC data is often combined with other surveys, such as Breeding Bird Survey, to guide conservation efforts and the development of strategies that protect birds and their habitats. For PCMS, the data collected can be used to support the objectives of Fort Carson’s Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan (INRMP), foster partnerships within local communities and demonstrate the Army’s commitment to protecting natural resources.
Now in its 121st year, the CBC has more than 81,000 volunteers at over 2,500 locations throughout the western hemisphere, including military installations, according to the Audubon Society. During the 2019 survey, 81,601 volunteers participated in 2,646 counts and feeder surveys, and collectively recorded over 42 million birds (2,566 species). It is somewhat alarming to note that despite increased survey effort, six million fewer birds were counted in 2019 than in previous years. In Colorado, approximately 50 CBCs are conducted annually, with an average of 200 species observed. However, due to COVID-19 complications, far fewer CBCs are expected in 2021.
The PCMS bird count
The PCMS CBC circle is located in the center of the installation and encompasses 24 unique plant communities and a range of habitats including short grass prairies, arroyos, steep canyons and pinon-juniper dotted hillsides.
During the PCMS CBC, 10 biologists from Fort Carson, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the National Audubon Society divided into four teams and surveyed for approximately five hours. Although the participants were fortunate to have clear sunny skies, and unseasonably warm temperatures, many of the roads were muddy, requiring the observers to cover much of the terrain on foot.
During the survey, the biologists observed 25 different species and 769 individual birds. Unlike the 2019 survey, when the teams documented a record numbers of bluebirds, this year the most common bird observed was the horned lark, followed by the dark-eyed junco, American tree sparrow, juniper titmouse, raven and canyon towhee. The biologists also saw golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, robins, ladder-backed woodpeckers, American goldfinches, scrub jays, shrikes, Bewick’s wrens, bluebirds and several species of finches and sparrows. Overall, the survey numbers were lower than in previous years, but that is at least partly due to an intentionally reduced surveyor group size (to minimize COVID-19 risks).
PCMS conservation efforts
The PCMS CBC is only one component of bird conservation efforts at the maneuver site. In addition to the annual CBC, DPW biologists support avian habitat through the installation and maintenance of cavity nest boxes, construction of a cliff swallow nesting structure, raptor platforms, owl nest boxes and solar powered wells, which provide reliable drinking opportunities for birds. Open pipes are covered with mesh to prevent accidental bird entrapment, and power lines are monitored to ensure that “killer” poles are rapidly mitigated.
Additionally, the biologists conduct annual surveys including summer and winter raptor surveys, spring acoustic bird surveys, nightjar surveys and raptor nest and eyrie (eagle nest) monitoring. Golden eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and if/when their nest becomes active, a buffer is placed around the nest until the eaglets fledge. Many other species of birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the biologists conduct surveys for active nests prior to the implementation of downrange projects and activities.
Participation in the CBC is an excellent way to support the Audubon Society’s program to protect North America’s bird population and also enjoy a day outdoors with friends, family and other birders. Volunteers do not need to have some prior birding experience as they will be teamed up with more experienced birders. In addition to the CBCs, the National Audubon Society offers Project Feeder Watch, which is a survey that can be done right from a volunteer’s backyard. For more information, contact the Audubon Society by visiting https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count or contact Michelle Blake at firstname.lastname@example.org to join the PCMS 2021 CBC.
Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count a 121-year tradition
The original holiday tradition was known as the “Side Hunt.” Men would select a side and then head into the field with weapons to kill as many birds (or other animals) as possible. In 1900, Frank Chapman, who was an officer and ornithologist in the newly formed Audubon Society, proposed the concept of counting, rather than killing the birds. During the first CBC, 27 birders participated in 25 counts, and collectively recorded approximately 90 species. Now 121 years later, the CBC has evolved into the oldest volunteer science survey in the world with an average of approximately 80,000 volunteers counting over 40 million birds annually.