It's 104th time for birds to fly up and be counted

OUTDOORS

December 14, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

In this season of geese a-laying and swans a-swimming and turtle doves doing whatever they do, it feels right that folks would take to the field to count our feathered friends.

The National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count will be conducted at 24 locations around Maryland between today and Jan. 4. The event, in its 104th year, is the largest science project in this country run by just-plain folks.

At the turn of the 20th century, bird surveys were conducted on post-hunting carcasses (that would be a cartridge in a pear tree).

But on Christmas Day 1900, 27 conservationists at 25 sites carried out the first live count of 18,500 birds. Last year, about 55,000 volunteers counted 73 million birds.

This year, volunteers will be concentrating on the songbirds that breed in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska and move down here to more hospitable conditions in winter.

If you've never been birding but would like to learn from veterans while doing a good deed, this might be the ticket.

Geoff LeBaron, national director of the Christmas Bird Count, says most people recognize local birds such as northern cardinals, chickadees and finches. When an unfamiliar bird flutters by, the entire team can help identify it.

"You don't have to know what a bird is as long as you see it first," he says.

Why count the common?

"We want to make sure they stay that way," LeBaron says.

A perceived decline can be documented and quantified and the location pinpointed through the survey, he says.

That's why the emphasis this year is on the songbirds that breed in the boreal forests, which cover 2 million square miles across the top of North America and are threatened by logging, mining and oil drilling.

Earlier this month, conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, native tribes and four energy and timber corporations signed an agreement to protect 50 percent of the boreal forests from development.

"The bird count is another way to bring awareness about the region," says Marilyn Heiman of the Boreal Songbird Initiative. "People have been worried about the wintering grounds in South America because they have been so threatened. It's time to think about the breeding grounds to ensure their protection."

To find the local survey site near you, go to: www.mdbirds.org/counts/xmas.

While I have birds on the brain, let me mention that the Chesapeake Audubon Society is having field trips this winter to introduce people to some of the wonderful birding destinations here. Three of them -- Cromwell Valley Park, Patapsco Valley State Park and Centennial Park -- are close to home.

The Cromwell trips on Jan. 10 and 24 and Feb. 7 and 21 will be led by park naturalist and Chesapeake chapter board member Kate Manrodt. Each two-hour trip begins at 8 a.m. To register, call 410-254-1881 or 410-254-0673.

On Jan. 24, the bird spotters move to Patapsco's Avalon area for a mid-afternoon walk and talk by Marian Dodson. On Feb. 28, Dodson will lead a group on a casual morning stroll around the lake at Centennial Park in Howard County, with waterfowl and wintering birds the focus. To register, call Dodson at 410-852-9913 in evenings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., or email chesauduboninfo@aol.com.

Couple of bucks short

Just before the holidays, the organizers of Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry find themselves deer rich and dollars poor.

The Hagerstown-based program that turns hunter's trophies into venison meals for soup kitchens and food pantries is having a banner year, with more than 2,000 deer donated this season.

Unfortunately, FHFH is about to run out of money to pay processors and might have to stop accepting deer before the second part of muzzleloader season begins Saturday.

It seems venison donations are up 80 percent and some of the participating butcher shops have raised their fees from $35 to $70 a deer. FHFH has gone through a $100,000 Department of Natural Resources grant like a deer through an azalea garden.

"At this pace, the total deer processing costs will amount to nearly $156,000," says Josh Wilson, the state FHFH director. "By comparison, the total meat processing cost last season was $86,655."

Wilson attributes the increase in donations to more publicity, higher bag limits and more hunting opportunities.

"The increased number of donated deer is a wonderful problem to have, but we will not be able to take advantage of this opportunity to feed the hungry unless we can come up with about $70,000 in the next week," Wilson says.

Sportsmen's groups are scrambling to raise the money, but it's tough to get people's attention during the holidays.

"We need a Christmas miracle," says Bill Miles of the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus.

Last year, FHFH provided 50 tons of meat -- 400,000 meals -- to charity. With an infusion of cash to keep things running, the program could easily receive 3,600 deer this year, which would provide a record 90 tons, or 720,000 meals, Wilson estimates.

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