It’s long been known that it’s bad for canaries to spend too much time in coal mines. On Dec. 20 the Lewis County Christmas Bird Count will attempt to figure out how many birds are still hanging around the Twin Cities and surrounding areas, including Centralia’s decommissioned coal mine.
This will be the 120th rendition of the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. The avian survey utilizes volunteer birdwatchers from all over the western hemisphere to tally the number and variety of bird species that can see in one day within established “counting circles”.
In Lewis County the counting circle, with its 15-mile diameter, covers both Centralia and Chehalis as well as swaths of the rural surrounding area. According to Dalton Spencer, organizer of the Lewis County CBC, the counting circle extends west to Galvin and then south to Adna and Napavine, then east toward Onalaska, and back north along Centralia-Alpha Road until it reaches the coal mine on the northeastern edge.
Spencer, a graduate of Adna who is currently a freshman at Montana State University, is about as bird crazy as they come. That’s how he wound up establishing the Lewis County CBC while still in high school. And it’s why he’s still in charge even though he’ll have to make like a bird and fly home for the CBC this year.
“I started it three years agao so just keeping that going is definitely a big thing,” explained Spencer. “The fact that this is the 120th Christamas Bird Count that’s another thing that makes me feel like I’m a part of a bigger picture.”
Spencer noted that about 28 people participated in the local CBC last year and he’s hoping to grow that turnout this time out. The coordinated effort will send multiple groups fanning out across Lewis County to conduct the count between sunrise and sundown. As such, there is no limit on the number of people who can join. There will even be a group that undertakes a half day effort at Borst Park for folks who may have limited mobility or experience.
“It brings people from the surrounding areas into a place together that I love and call home,” said Spencer.
Spencer explained that all of the data from the assorted bird counting efforts is submitted to the Audubon Society and compiled in their lengthy historical record. Those results can vary wildly from year to year but over the course of time they numbers provide a birds’ eye view of the bird population in the western hemisphere.
Spencer says that weather plays a large role in the variation from year to year. For instance, in 2017 when the counting day came on a cold and dry stretch of winter, there were far fewer birds in the area. Last year’s count, though, came during a time of moderate temperatures and typical rainfall so birds of all feathers were plentiful. He noted that in 2017 there were only five American Goldfinches spotted whereas last year there were more than 150 tallied. Moreover, there were flocks of waterfowl last year that returned in swarms to the seasonal ponds and puddles around the area.
“Ducks and geese and swans are just fun to have around and they tend to be in big flocks,” said Spencer.
The rarest sighting last year was a Northern Mockingbird, which was only the second time that species have ever been documented in Lewis County. Spencer noted that the rare bird was spotted for just 20 minutes and never seen again.
“That was probably the best bird I’ve ever seen in the count as far as rarity wise,” said Spencer.
However, the trajectory of the North American bird population has been falling rapidly over the last 50 years. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey, which included data from the CBC dating back to 1900, noted that since 1970 the overall bird population has fallen by nearly 30 percent in the United States and Canada. That equates to nearly three billion birds.
“It’s kind of the benchmark for bird populations for not only North America as a whole but you can break it down looking at state and even county populations,” said Spencer, who is a board member of the Black Hills Audubon Society. “The numbers matter and the numbers are all going toward something,”
Spencer noted that Christmas Bird Counts have been going on “forever” in areas like Portland and Seattle while Olympia started tracking their feathered friends in the 1960s. As a result, those areas have a data sets that tell a more complete picture. His hope is that by growing the Lewis County CBC the numbers will one day be able to tell a story more specific to this nook of southwest Washington.
“They have always been happening around but there had never been one in Lewis County before this,” said Spencer. “There’s so much good habitat locally. But there’s not really a birding community here like there is in Olympia.”
Spencer added that he typically makes it out to three different Christmas Bird Counts each year. This year the Olympia CBC will take place on Dec. 15 and the Wahkiakum County CBC will happen on Dec. 30. The Cowlitz County CBC is slated for Jan. 1, and the Grays Harbor CBC is scheduled for Jan. 4. Pre-registration is requested for each counting effort but there is no cost to participate.
Spencer advises aspiring birdwatchers to “dress for the weather,” bring a pair of binoculars, a notebook and pen. He added that anyone who lives within the counting circle can stay home and simply count the birds in their backyards.
“There’s so many feeders around the two cities and you don’t want to be creepy looking into all of the backyards. I have had that happen before,” admitted Spencer. “That’s actually hugely important to the data set.”
At the end of the day participants will gather at Fire District 6 on Jackson Highway for a potluck in order to share the particulars of their findings.
To sign up for the Lewis County Christmas Bird Count send an email to Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Dave Hayden at 360-388-1317. Folks who would prefer to particpate in the half day counting effort at Borst Park should email Kathleen Snyder at email@example.com.
A map of official counting circles for the CBC can be viewed online at https://tinyurl.com/svotc8z.