Saturday, December 24, 2011


              At last, each seasonal chore is done, right down to the turkey in the oven. Shopping, wrapping, mailing packages, cards—all completed. Yep, everything’s ready… except the blog post. I’m having a little trouble bringing that task to a successful conclusion.

            It’s not that I haven’t tried. The first of last week I started an entry entitled “Thanatos, Astronomy, and Fungus Gnats.” Before I could finish, however, the annual Geminid meteor shower peaked; death and gnats got shelved for the time being. Then there was “Solstice and Pansies.” Once again, the universe wouldn’t stop—or even slow down—for me: solstice came and went early Wednesday morning. The pansy-care section moved to the back burner.

           Today I’m hoping three’s the charm. (It certainly was in the husband department.) I've piled Beethoven’s 5th, 7th and 9th Symphonies into the CD player, shoved all the Sudokus out of sight in a drawer, and turned on the computer.


Christmas Bird Count participants
            The National Audubon Society’s 112th annual Christmas Bird Count runs from December 14 through January 5. This oldest continuing citizen-science project amasses the raw data scientists and statisticians use for assessing the health of avian populations and for suggesting conservation strategies. I went to the Audubon website to learn about the program, which is different from the Great Backyard Bird Count held in February (see my “For the Birds” post of February 2, 2011).

" ornithological impresario"
            The first Christmas Count took place back in 1900, as an alternative to the then-popular “side hunt.” This fun event involved lots of people with shotguns and pockets full of cartridges dividing into geographically based teams. The object: the indiscriminate killing of anything furred or feathered. At a set time, the happy hunters returned to base camp to compare carcasses. The team that slaughtered the most creatures won. (My source doesn’t specify the prize. Personally, I hope it was an extra six weeks in hell.) Appalled by the toll the side hunt exacted from bird populations, ornithologist and member of the nascent Audubon Society Frank Chapman suggested substituting a holiday bird census in place of the sanguinary free-for-all. By the turn of the 20th century, conservation movements were beginning to take hold in the American consciousness: thanks to Chapman, concern for dwindling bird populations (can you say “passenger pigeon”? Can you say “annihilation”?) became a national cause célèbre.

            More strictly organized than the Backyard Count, the Christmas Count takes place in duly designated 15-mile-radius Count Circles on duly designated dates. On the day, volunteers follow specified routes through their Circles, recording every bird they spot. Tallies are handed in to the area’s Count Compiler. There are scads of Circles in all 50 states, so check out the Audubon website’s FAQ page for more information on joining in the fun.

Experienced a bad moment about the likelihood of successfully publishing this post in a timely manner when our local newspaper, the Wilmington StarNews, ran an article about the Pender County count that took place on Sunday the 18th in the Holly Shelter Game Land. Damn, I thought: skunked again. But then I checked the list of Circles and discovered Wilmington’s count is slated for Saturday, December 31st, and Oak Island/Southport/Bald Head Island’s for New Year’s Day. If you’re interested in participating—solo or with a group of like-minded friends, no prior birding credits needed—contact the Circle's Count Compiler.
While navigating Audubon's time-sucking site, I clicked on a link for “Top 20 Common Birds in Decline.” Seems many common birds (“common” meaning species with over a half-million individuals and a range of 385,000 square miles or more) are becoming a lot less, well, common. Reasons include loss of habitat, pesticide issues and climate change. Here’s a representative sample:

No wonder you never see whip-poor-wills
Whip-poor-wills. A nocturnal woodland species, these loud and insistent little creatures’ numbers have declined by 57% since 1967. Human activities in the form of fire suppression in the eastern deciduous forests, along with road-building and development, have fractured the whip-poor-will’s habitat. Adding insult to injury, pesticide control of gypsy moths has reduced available food supply in some areas.

Can this bobwhite be saved?
 Northern bobwhites. Populations of these grasslands denizens have plummeted 80% over the past 40 years, their breeding-grounds decimated by the growth of large-scale agriculture, intensively managed pine plantations, and unrestrained development. Fortunately, an Audubon Society’s 2007 report on their plight led to conservation efforts that are beginning to bear fruit: the prognosis for bobwhite resurgence looks tentatively hopeful.

Which would you rather see:
another boat ramp
or a little blue heron?
Little blue heron. This one hit close to home. Dependent on marshlands for food and nesting sites, little blues are an object of ornithological concern, especially in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. Since the 1970s, with farmland expansion and residential and recreational developments encroaching on coastal wetlands and riparian environments, degradation and outright loss of habitat caused a 54% population decline among these egret relatives.

A mama common tern & baby
Common tern. Long a favorite of beach-going birders, terns are being loved to death. Their numbers have decreased by over 70% since the 1930s. After surviving the millinery feather fashions of the early 1900s, they now face other dangers. Drawn by poorly placed landfills, gulls usurp tern breeding grounds at the same time overuse of pesticides increases reproductive failure rates. Silent Spring, anyone?

We, as individuals, can’t do much to mitigate the damage we, as a species, have wreaked on our planet. What we can do, as gardeners, is to maintain our properties as welcoming wildlife environments. As citizens, we can be aware of corporate and governmental plans to worsen birds' plights—I have in mind here the megaport North Carolina wants to cram into a wetlands situated between a nuclear power plant and the largest military weapons depot on the East Coast and just north of an infrastructure-lacking village—and follow where our hearts lead. One other thing you-the-individual can do is to participate in a bird count, contributing to the assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of species in your neighborhood, so remedial actions can be undertaken before it’s too late.


From both of us to all of you—regardless of what holiday, if any, you celebrate—a peaceful and pleasant Christmas season, and our best wishes for a happy and healthy 2012. And thanks for dropping by.