Ten Tips for a Happy and Successful Christmas Bird Count

by Ted Floyd

[Reprinted, with permission, from Ted's message to prospective Boulder Christmas Bird Count participants, which he posted to the Colorado birding list (CoBirds) on 12/2/2004. The birds in Colorado are a little different from those in North Carolina, but the principle's the same.]

First, a word of preamble: The whole point of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is to have fun. I think we actually lose sight of that point every now and then. I've been doing CBCs every year since I was fourteen; most years, I do more than one. The CBC for me is like Christmas morning and Super Bowl Sunday all rolled up into one. On Count Day, there's the thrill of discovery and the satisfaction of spending time with old (avian) friends. Bottom line: I can't fathom anything I'd rather do than count birds for the CBC. (Except spend time with my wife and daughter, in case they're reading this.)

Another word of preamble: There is no One True Way to a happy and successful Christmas Bird Count. The formula that I outline below works for me. But I acknowledge that there other legitimate approaches. I understand that some CBCers actually break for lunch, bird in groups, and don't go owling. Personally, I can't relate to such approaches. But, again, I acknowledge that such approaches can lead to happiness, and maybe even success.

And now for the ten tips:

1. Bird in small groups. The smaller the better. The best group size, N, is N=1. Consider that a CBC circle is 177 square miles. Even if you had 177 participants, each one of them covering exactly 1 square mile, there is no way you'd have thorough coverage of the count circle. A square mile is huge! You could spend two weeks exploring a single square mile of the foothills around Boulder. There's no question about it: The more party-hours, the more birds; and the more parties, the more party-hours.

2. Cover lots of ground. In the CBC calculus, maximizing party-hours is the most important thing to do. But maximizing party-miles runs a close second. All things considered, you're going to see twice as many birds along a four-mile stretch as along a two-mile stretch. Note that, mile-for-mile, party-miles by foot are incomparably more valuable than party-miles by car. On foot, you can actually hear birds. And you're not limited just to views through your grimy windshield.

3. Scout your territory. Get out into your assigned sector a few days before Count Day. Try to figure out where that Wilson's Snipe is hunkered down for the winter. See if you can figure out which residences have bird feeders. Work the hedgerows and determine where all the sparrows and finches are hanging out. Many of the best birds on the Boulder CBC (indeed, on any CBC) are those that were scouted out in advance.

4. Have a plan. Given that your sector is going to be unmanageably huge (see #1, above), it's a good idea to figure out your itinerary in advance. Many birds, e.g., ducks, raptors, gulls, exhibit regular and predictable patterns of movement during the day. Be sure to leave enough time to get to all of the major destinations on your itinerary, bearing in mind that it's dark before 5:00 p.m. on Count Day in Boulder.

5. Be flexible. In other words, don't get too uptight about #4, above. If you're faced with high winds, get into a sheltered spot; the birds are going to be there, too. If there was a freeze-up the night before, try to figure out where the aquatic species may have relocated to. If you come across a large flock of passerines, spend a lot of time with them; there may well be a goodie mixed in with the commoners.

6. Stay out, stay long. The longer you're out-of-doors, the more you're going to see. I've had many of my best CBC birds while munching on a snack, while walking between points that I might otherwise have driven, and even, ahem, while watering the trees. Sitting in restaurants or driving in cars is so boring. Sitting down next to a Canyon Wren or spooking a Merlin is totally cool. Make the most of Count Day, 'cause you're going to be back in your cube, back at the monitor, back in the car, the next day.

7. Pay attention to "forms". It's an ungainly term: "Forms" refer to all of those interesting morphs, races, age-classes, etc. that don't actually boost the species total but that are very much worth noting, all the same. Examples: Dark-eyed Junco subspecies, Northern Flicker intergrades, Bald Eagle age-classes. National Audubon really does request this information from us, and paying attention to "forms" adds spice to winter birding. Note that certain taxa that do not count for your ABA life list nonetheless do count for the CBC. A good example in Boulder is Sharp-tailed Grouse (not yet "established" for ABA counting purposes, but valid for NAS reporting purposes).

8. Go owling. For my money, owling is the best part of the CBC. I guess it's the mystique, the mystery, the serenity of a quiet winter's night in the woods. Plus, it's a great way to endear yourself to the CBC compiler. As a corollary, consider focusing in on other commonly overlooked taxa and guilds, e.g., Virginia Rails and other marsh denizens, Blue Grouse and Three-toed Woodpeckers in montane woodlands, even Horned Larks in the corn stubble. (Seriously, we've missed Horned Lark several years recently!)

9. Count Week birds count. There's a stigma, it seems, about birds observed "only in Count Week, not on Count Day". Honestly, I don't get it. For one thing, it's intrinsically interesting to know what's around, even if it's missed on count day. Moreover, National Audubon really does desire Count Week data. Look at it this way: By taking Count Week seriously, you get to septuple the fun!

10. Every bird counts! Yes, every Dark-eyed Junco, every Ring-billed Gull, every Brown-headed Cowbird. (Actually, Brown-headed Cowbird is a decent bird on the Boulder CBC, but you catch my drift.) Don't get me wrong: It's great fun to find a Harris's Sparrow in a flock of White-crowneds, to find a Mew Gull in a flock of Ring-billeds. But it's just as fun to work through the big flocks of common species. I find that actually taking the time to count, say, Ring-billed Gulls (954, 955, 956...) is the best way to find a rarity (957... oh, wait, that's a Mew Gull!).

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding

American Birding Association
P.O. Box 7974
Boulder, Colorado 80306-7974

Chapel Hill Bird Club