Sandhill crane

A photo of Sandhill Cranes is captured by Jerry Black and shared by Audubon North Carolina.

DURHAM — While some local counts may be cancelled due to regional COVID-19 rules, many community scientists across the hemisphere were planning to carry on one of the longest-running wildlife censuses in a socially distanced fashion.

For the 121st year, the National Audubon Society is organizing the annual Audubon CBC. Starting Dec. 14 and going through Jan. 5, bird-loving volunteers will participate in counts across North Carolina and across the Western Hemisphere all while abiding by Audubon’s COVID-19 guidelines. Audubon North Carolina is a state program of the National Audubon Society with offices in Durham, Boone, Corolla and Wilmington.

The 12 decades’ worth of data collected by participants continue to contribute to one of only two large existing pools of information notifying ornithologists and conservation biologists about what conservation action is required to protect birds and the places they need.

The Audubon CBC is one of the longest-running wildlife censuses in the world. Each individual count takes place in a 15-mile-wide circle and is led by a compiler responsible for safely organizing volunteers and submitting observations directly to Audubon. Within each circle, participants tally all birds seen or heard that day — not just the species but total numbers to provide a clear idea of the health of that particular population. Wearing masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements for participants.

“So many of us have been turning to birds during this difficult year to find joy and reconnect with nature,” said Curtis Smalling, Audubon North Carolina director of conservation. “The Christmas Bird Count is a great way to enjoy birds and give back by participating in community science. This year’s count will be different, of course, but we’ll be following proper safety and health guidelines. All the data you help collect contributes to 12 decades of observations that help inform conservation efforts.”

When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, the Audubon CBC provides a picture of how bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years in North Carolina and across the continent. The long-term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well. For example, last year, Science published a study using decades of Audubon CBC data to describe a grim picture: a steady decline of nearly 3 billion North American birds since 1970, primarily as a result of human activities. Audubon CBC data have been used in more than 300 peer-reviewed articles.

Audubon CBC data are also used to measure how birds are already responding to climate change. By tracking how bird ranges have moved over time, conservation efforts can be prioritized in areas that are important for birds today and in a climate-altered future.

With two-thirds of North American bird species at increasing risk of extinction by the end of this century, Audubon CBC data is more important than ever for effective conservation.

In 2019, the 120th Audubon CBC included a record-setting 2,646 count circles, with 1,992 counts in the United States, 469 in Canada and 185 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands. This was the 10th-straight year of record-breaking counts. In total, 81,601 observers out in the field and watching feeders tallied up more than 42 million birds representing more than 2,500 different species — around one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna. Unfortunately, this total of birds represents around 6 million fewer total birds than last year’s Audubon CBC total, which was itself a very low number historically. Audubon scientists are unclear what is responsible for the back-to-back lower-than-expected totals, but further research has already been discussed. To observe the trends of any particular species over the last 12 decades, visit www.audubon.org/conservation/where-have-all-birds-gone.

In North Carolina, the Audubon CBC consisted of 52 counts last year. All told, participants counted 815,827 individual birds and 235 species (much greater than the prior year’s 222 species). The highest species count came in from Morehead City, where counters tallied 156 species. Read the full summary by visiting www.audubon.org/news/the-120th-cbc-north-carolina.

Some species-level highlights from North Carolina:

• Three Yellow Rails on the Bodie-Pea Island Count provided rare detections of this extremely secretive species.

• Sandhill Cranes increased in the state, with seven at Pettigrew, four at Rocky Mount, and three at Morehead City. This species seems to have established regular wintering locations for the last handful of years at these three sites.

• A lone Summer Tanager that has spent the winter in Wilmington for 11 years returned again, while one Western Tanager turned up on the Alamance County Count.

• Two Rough-legged Hawks were noted, with singles at Lake Mattamuskeet near the coast and at New River in the mountains.

• Very rare inland Green Herons were found at Greensboro and Rocky Mount.

The Audubon CBC is a community science project organized by the National Audubon Society. There is no fee to participate. The Audubon CBC is open to birders of all skill levels and Audubon’s free Bird Guide app makes it even easier to learn more. For more information and to find a nearby count, visit www.christmasbirdcount.org. To view Audubon CBC-branded apparel, accessories and other items for purchase, visit audubon.threadless.com/collections/121st-cbc/.

To sign up for an Audubon CBC and ensure your bird count data make it into the official Audubon database, find the circle nearest you and register with your local Audubon CBC compiler on a map at tinyurl.com/AudubonMap. All Audubon CBC data must be submitted through the official compiler to be added to the long-running census.

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