Community Bird Census: One birder at a time

Thu, 12/17/2020 - 5:30pm
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“December 26, 1920 – 7 a.m. Temp. 14. Loon 3, H. Gull 20, H. Lark 12, Starling 12, Meadowlark 5, Song 4. A little vapor. — Elizabeth Dickens Bird Journals

On Dec. 26, 1920 Elizabeth Dickens had been keeping her daily bird journal for just nine years; and had not yet started leading the Christmas count, that would not come until 1924.

I imagine that her 1920, Dec. 26 observation (above), was accomplished with little time outdoors, was confined to her Dickens Farm oasis, and was mostly a solitary endeavor.

Elizabeth Dickens’ journals span the years 1912 to 1963. Over those years, her observations increased: in the number of species seen, in the number of locations around the island and beyond explored, and, in the number of participants reporting observations. Neighbors, school students, participants in the Christmas counts (always held on Dec. 26), and visiting ornithologists and birders from afar, all became part of Miss Dickens’ bird life.

The island’s landscape has changed significantly since 1920. Gone are the wide expanses of open fields dotted by wetlands and swales. The wetlands remain, but the grassy fields are now largely a matrix of coastal shrub. And, with the disappearance of open fields, so, too, have the grassland birds vanished from our island — mostly.

Rarely — if ever — does it happen that all of the species recorded by E. Dickens on Dec. 26, are also observed on a Dec. 26 of the 2000s. It is unlikely to happen this year; but, with only six species recorded in 1920 perhaps 2020 will be the year that we match the list. The stumbling blocks will be the grassland species, meadowlark and horned lark. However, there is a glimmer of hope in the fact that both meadowlark and horned lark have been observed on the island this fall. Chris Blane has seen meadowlarks in the south part of the island in November, and Heather Hatfield documented a horned lark on the west side of the island in October.

This will be the 20th Community Bird Census (CBC) since it was reimagined in 2001 by the Ocean View Foundation. As was done in the days of Elizabeth Dickens, the census will take place on Dec. 26.

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This year’s Community Bird Census will be marked by meager — if any — gatherings, due to Covid-19 practices, will be mostly a solitary endeavor. Fortunately, one need only to look at the example of Elizabeth Dickens in 1920, and the examples of Heather Hatfield and Chris Blane in 2020, to realize that solitary observations, when recorded in a journal, shared via a phone call or a newspaper, or even over a Zoom gathering, will build a community census of birds — one bird observation and one birder conversation at a time.