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Annual Bird Count Opens A Window Into Climate Change

December 30, 2016

Scott Atkinson and Diana Antunes are tramping around a flooded field in an abandoned farm just north of Everett. They pick their way through blackberry brambles and wade through water halfway up to their knees. Antunes stops short when she spots something in the distance.

“What do you got?” Atkinson asks her.

Antunes points to a peregrine falcon perched on a tree, eating a bird.

“Oh! Nicely done!” Atkinson says.

Atkinson and Antunes are two of the tens of thousands of birders who are participating right now in the Christmas Bird Count. This annual survey of the birds of North and Central America has been taking place during the last weeks of December and first week of January for over one hundred years. The count documents what birds are where and how many of them there are, and it’s given scientists loads of data about how birds’ ranges and populations are changing.

Here’s how it works: Volunteers walk a pre-established route, count up the birds they see and hear, and submit their tallies to Audubon.

Scott Atkinson’s a Christmas Bird Count veteran. He says he’s participated every year since 1974, when he was fourteen years old.

 “There was some birders there in Hoquiam, and so we stayed overnight just kind of, you know, sleeping bags,” he says. The group woke before dawn to look for owls and “what I remember was I was very tired,” Atkinson laughs.

Atkinson says what he loved about the bird count that has kept him coming back for over four decades is “the fact that everything that I saw that day counted — you know, counted,”   for the survey, that is — and, therefore, became useful data for scientists.

The Christmas Bird Count has helped scientists figure out how birds are responding to climate change, says Meade Krosby, a biologist at the University of Washington.

“The Christmas Bird Count is actually one of the most powerful data sets that we have that demonstrate that birds’ ranges are changing,” she explains. “You can see these really dramatic shifts in their winter ranges on average moving northward. And that’s what we expect. We know that, on average, globally, species’ ranges have moved poleward.”

Krosby says she’s seen these changes not just in the data but in her own observations as well. One day, biking into campus, “I heard something that should not have been there,” she remembers. “I heard this like ‘ra, ra, ra.’ And, I mean, I know that call, but I had never heard it here, and I was like, ‘No way!’ And I looked up and it was a scrub jay--and these are typically something you would hear down in California. I’d never seen one in Seattle before.”

Krosby says she’s not the only one: birders all over the Pacific Northwest are starting to see scrub jays here in wintertime.

Scrub jays will probably do okay as the climate continues to warm; they’ll just keep moving north. But “alpine habitats and the species that live there are going to be in trouble,” Krosby says. “So, for example, the gray-crowned rosy finch — that is one of our very highest elevation breeding species — they are adapted to very cold environments, and it’s very likely that that is going to disappear.”

Back in Everett, Scott Atkinson is making bird sounds and waiting until he hears a response from the bushes. He says he’s seen a lot of changes over the past forty years and, for him, that’s part of the fun.

“Birds have wings. They move around. They get blown around. They respond to climatic factors,” Atkinson says. “You just never know what you’re going to encounter.”

Antunes, who took up birding about four years ago, says the thrill of the hunt is part of what draws her also.

“When I go with Scott and we see a new bird, I get so excited that he has to tell me, ‘Sh, you’re going to scare it away!’” she says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just so excited I’ve never seen it!’”

“It’s kind of like a spiritual thing,” Antunes adds. “Some people like to do yoga. I like to watch birds.”

It’s not too late to join this year’s Christmas Bird Counts in the Pacific Northwest: The Seattle, Portland, and Tri-Cities counts are on New Year’s Eve, and the Eugene count is on New Year’s Day.


Diana Antunes and Scott Atkinson are counting the birds on an abandoned farm north of Everett, Washington. They're just two of the tens of thousands of birders participating in the 117th Christmas Bird Count, an annual survey of the birds of North and Central America.

Eilís O'Neill, KUOW