Every year is a “Big Year”
By Michael J. Good
For most serious ornithologists, every single year is a ‘Big Year’ for trying to see and scientifically record as many bird species as possible during the year. Each ‘Big Year’ culminates on Mount Desert Island with the annual National Audubon MDI Christmas Bird Count (MDICBC), which took place on Dec.19, 2020.
This year’s participants included 12 groups in the field, Fred Yost, Bill Townsend, Julianne Taylor, Ken Shellenberger, Scott Riddell, Osker Mattes, Celeste Lindsey, Craig Kesselheim, Angi Johnson, Zackary Holderby, Billy Helprin, Paul and Margot Haertel, Anne Dalton, Martie Crone Michael Good and Barb Acosta. The groups traveled 262 miles and 31.2 hours by car and walked 45 miles and 38.15 hours by foot. This year’s total birds counted was 6,354 and a total of 69 species, which is in the upper range of most MDICBC’s.
Each year between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, the Annual National Audubon Christmas Bird Count takes place. This idea for Big Years was made famous by international birder, Greg Miller, along with Sandy Komito and Al Levantin, during the 1998 season when they ran all over the United States chasing birds and starting the trend. Miller has been a frequent speaker at the Acadia Birding Festival, now in its 22nd year on MDI.
In the movie “The Big Year,” Jack Black portrays Brad Harris, a computer programmer from Balitmore who’s on a quest to try to beat the prior year’s record of 722 bird species. Harris found 715 species of birds in a single year, which is a far cry from the 69 species found during this year’s MDICBC. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count has been a continuous bird survey and is 121 years old.
As long as the earth has circled the sun and has tilted on its axis, parts of the earth are cold for a few months due to this annual rotation. When the tilting away from the sun begins, the weather, and especially the winds, are key factors in the lives of birds as we enter into the coldest and darkest days that we call winter. During December, our summer breeding birds have, for the most part, departed south to Cuba or South and Central America, while another migration of ducks, owls, loons, fruit– and conifer–seed eating passerines replace them during our long cold winters in Maine.
These processes have driven evolution of birds on earth since the dawn of our oldest bird fossils, thought to be around 155 million years old. For the last 1.8 million years, there have been at least 22 major periods of glaciation that made the entire planet cooler and drier. These were times of great changes for all life on earth. Most of the modern bird populations have lived through these oscillations and by the end of the most recent glaciation period, ending about 12,000 years ago, all of them have evolved their current form and annual life cycles.
On Earth, there are thought to be from 9,159 bird species to recent studies suggesting an estimate of 18,043 bird taxa, according to Joel Cracraft of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For the last many years, the annual Audubon CBC has tallied upwards of 55 million birds. That is an enormous amount of data that has revealed interesting factoids about climate change and its global effects on our birds. Birds are the “canary in the coal mine” in terms of what is happening with our weather and climate on earth. Everyone should be worried about the alarming trends showing great reductions in modern day bird populations and movement of many species a little farther north each year. CBC data is used each year to enhance the lives of birds and help guide conservation efforts.
The current number of Christmas bird count circles in the Western Hemisphere stands at a record-setting 2,646 count circles in 2019: 1,992 counts in the U.S., 469 in Canada and 185 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands. More than 81,000 volunteers took part in 2019 and tallied more than 42 million birds, representing more than 2,500 species. In the United States, 661 species were tallied, plus 62 infraspecific forms, seven count week species and 44 exotics. New for the U.S. was a great black hawk at Greater Portland, Maine, a bird from Peru and Mexico. Each CBC count circle is 15 miles in diameter, so the MDI circle covers the entire island including the Cranberry Islands and Oak Point Road in Trenton.
The annual National Audubon CBC was started in 1900 by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman and a group of 27 volunteers who counted 90 species during the first CBC. They proposed a new holiday tradition, a “Christmas bird census,” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them, which was the tradition of the annual “side hunt” where hunters around the U.S. would shoot every bird or mammal they could. Chapman proposed a “protest,” which has become the annual Christmas Bird Count. The information and data collected in this long-running wildlife census are used by scientists, Audubon and conservation organizations to assess the health of bird populations and to help guide conservation action.
Each CBC circle has a compiler to organize the participants and tabulate the final numbers. Past Mount Desert Island compilers include Acadia National Park ranger Paul Favour, William Townsend and College of the Atlantic professor William Drury. Townsend transferred his responsibilities to ornithologist Michael Good in 1995.
The data collected each year leads to a deeper understanding about bird species on Mount Desert Island and adds to the decades of MDICBC data of the past. There are many ways to enhance understanding of birds including other local CBC’s in Blue Hill, Ellsworth and Schoodic. There is nothing like winter birding in Maine. Below is the bird list compiled since 1970 and all the birds seen during this year’s MDICBC. Over the years, 123 species have been documented and recorded.
Over the many decades, the MDICBC has been held on the first Saturday of the count period. Collectively our experiences include festive blue-sky days like Dec 19, 2020, or horizontal rain, snow and combinations of both. The coldest days have been 20-30 below zero, complicating the entire experience for birds and humans. Through it all, everyone who participates has an avian learning experience, a unique journey and quiet, isolated moments all their own, which become data and something useful to local and global ornithology. Winter birding meets all COVID-19 standards for social distancing and it is a great time for everyone.
Editor’s Note: Michael J. Good is the MDI Compiler and maintains the Three Pines Bird Sanctuary in Town Hill.
Dec. 19, 2020, MDI CBC summary of bird species recorded:
|0||Great Blue Heron|
|5||Mallard X Blk Duck|
|173||American Black Duck|
|0||Hoody X Goldeneye|
|47||Great B-b Gull|
|0||Great Horned Owl|
|10||Am. Tree Sparrow|
|0||Emberizidae sp. Sparrow|