Mark Omascik summed it up best in his 2003 book “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession,” which sparked the 2011 comedy “The Big Year,” starring Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black: “Birding is hunting without killing, preying without punishing, and collecting without clogging your home.”
That’s the mindset the Lewis County Christmas Bird Count volunteer group took into the annual counting of bird populations and species on Dec. 18.
The group, formed four years ago, registered a record-breaking year, notching both 104 species and 26,289 total birds during the one-day event. The previous record of 98 species was recorded last year, and the group has been striving to break 100 since its inception in 2016. A record 26,289 total birds were also counted this year, beating the previous record by 6,202 individuals.
Lewis County Christmas Bird Count Coordinator Dalton Spencer said it was a rewarding day finally surpassing the goal of 100 species.
“It was something that we’ve tried for for a couple years now and we finally got it, which was cool,” Spencer said. “We saw not only more species than we’ve seen before but also more birds themselves than we’ve ever seen.”
These numbers were gathered by 26 field participants and 10 feeder watchers spread across the county. It’s a similar amount of participants as previous years, but Spencer reckons the reason they were able to count more species and total birds this year is due to the pandemic.
With COVID-19 guidelines, what used to be larger groups in previous years were now broken up into smaller groups this year to keep everyone safe and socially distanced. That allowed the group to cover areas that normally wouldn’t get counted.
Founded on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman came up with the idea for a new holiday tradition: a Christmas bird census where citizens document all bird species and numbers observed in one area on a designated day.
Today, the Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen wildlife project in the world. Twenty-five separate Christmas Bird Counts were held that Christmas Day in 1900, tallying around 90 species. Now, each year between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, tens of thousands of volunteers take part in the effort to assess bird populations and guide conservation action.
Four years ago, Lewis County opened its own chapter of the annual bird count. The volunteers count every bird they see in a 15-mile diameter, from as far west as Adna, as far south as Napavine, as far north as South Thurston County and as far east as Big Hanaford Road.
The most surprising find was a White-breasted Nuthatch, a small, gray-blue songbird with a large head and almost no neck, which was spotted in Chehalis among a cluster of oak trees. It was the first one spotted north of Kelso since 2015.
“That was a pretty good bird, especially for one that’s not in Lewis County, really,” Spencer said. “Getting one all the way up in Chehalis, and in a residential neighborhood, was pretty cool.”
Also new to the count for the first time was a Ring-necked Pheasant. The group had 15 species recorded in all nine sections that were covered, which showed how varied the habitats are in the coverage area, he said.
The five most common species on the count this year were: Pine Siskin (3087), European Starling (2587), Cackling Goose (1653), Northern Pintail (1522) and the Green-winged Teal (1316).
Of species that have occurred in three or more previous counts, Pine Siskin had the greatest surge over its original high count with an increase of 759.89 percent. Coming in second was Lesser Scaup with an increase of 550 percent over its previous high count.
The group had 59 species record a high count, three species record a low count, six tie their previous high count and two tied their previous low counts. Only 33 species were within their normal range of values.
The three low counts, meaning below their usual numbers, were Wood Duck (two), American Pipit (two) and Double-crested Cormorant (35). In comparison, the group counted around 200 American Pipits in 2019.
Anyone interested in joining or learning more about the Lewis County Christmas Bird Count can email Coordinator Dalton Spencer at email@example.com.