Annual Audubon bird count is more than counting birds
JOHNSTOWN — Since graduating from Johnstown High School in 1982 and entering Cornell University in Ithaca, Pam Hunt has been on the lookout for birds.
Since 1986, Hunt has been a part of the Johnstown-Gloversville area unit of the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count that has been organized by the National Audubon Society from Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 for 117 years.
Within a circle 15 miles across and centered between Bleecker and Gloversville, volunteers in seven sectors count birds and species.
“The count informs our understanding of bird and trends,” said Hunt, a biologist with the New Hampshire Audubon Society. “Another reason we do this is to have fun” working with people who have the same interest, she added.
In 2015, area birders spotted a record 10,942 birds while the number of species has remained steady at an average of 50, Hunt said.
Canada geese and snow geese have increased in the area, making up more than 5,000 of the total last year.
The area covered in the count includes not only Johnstown and Gloversville but such communities as Mayfield, Caroga Lake and Rockwood down to the Montgomery County line.
The count, involving some 15 to 20 volunteers, is done only one day each season to avoid re-counting birds. This year, it’s Dec. 26.
So far a record number of volunteers — 76,669 — across North America, Latin America, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands have been seen 58.9 million birds this season, down from the record 68.8 million in 2015.
Laurie Freeman of Meco will be taking over coordinating the 2017 count since Hunt is so far away.
“I really like looking at birds because they’re interesting, pretty and cute,” she said. Unlike many animals, “you can see them all the time.”
In her sector, she has traveled 80 miles in years past, going down every road, on beautiful, sunny, warm days and days that are snowy, rainy, bitter cold and windy, even days requiring snowshoes.
Freeman said the bird count may be the longest-running “citizen science” project in which the average person can gather information that gives scientists some useful information.
In some neighborhoods, some residents are suspicious of people with binoculars while other residents are “very enthusiastic” and direct the teams to birds that hang around their feeders, she said.
Freeman said it’s an enjoyable social event when the volunteers get together to compare notes and avoid duplications, such double-counting flocks that fly across sectors.
“It’s a little bit of a competition to see birds no one else has seen,” she said.
“[The count] provides us with data about bird population sizes during the winter and whether some species are increasing or decreasing,” Hunt said. “Very few birds don’t migrate at all” and most of the birds that leave are insect eaters, she said, adding that cardinals, chickadees and crows stay in our area.
The population of northern mockingbirds has been declining in the area but not in other parts of the country, Hunt said.
“We don’t know why it’s decreasing,” she said. “It’s intriguing.”
For Hunt, who holds a doctorate in biology from Dartmouth College, birdwatching is more than a scientific study. She said she takes a five- to six-mile walk once a week to spy birds and always finds something different and interesting.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.