Birding from Dawn ‘til Dusk: A Beginner’s Look Inside the Christmas Bird Count

By Samuel LeGresley
Communications Coordinator at Nature NB

Maybe you haven’t heard, but as each year comes to a close, numerous bird enthusiasts throughout the continent eagerly anticipate the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) with a fervour that rivals their excitement for the holiday season. While this might appear unusual to some, the act of counting birds plays a crucial role in monitoring the (unfortunately, largely declining) bird populations. This tradition has persisted for an impressive 124 years!

In this inaugural edition of the NB Fieldnotes (a new feature bringing you into the field with Nature NB), I explore this unique activity that has the power to kindle a passion for birding, especially when shared with someone more knowledgeable. Let’s head to the Shediac Count Circle, where 17 individuals tallied 8,339 birds spanning 60 different species.

5:30 AM to 6:30 AM – Four back-to-back alarms were going off to remind me to wake up in time. I’m not a morning person when it’s so dark out, but I make an exception when the occasion motivates me as much as this one did. I scratched off the ice from my car’s window and went to meet my teammate, Pierre, at his residence in Dieppe. It looked like the day wasn’t going to be as cold as I thought.

We hopped over to Shediac on the Northumberland Strait to start the count. Our circle was exactly the same diameter as the thousands of other zones across the Americas. From its centre at Shediac Bridge, its diameter was 24km, or 15 miles, across. This encompasses a lot of land, but covers a whole section of coastline and a lot of ocean, too. We were assigned to the letter H (pictured), which covers most of the Eastern region.

8:00 AM – Sunrise. A great Pileated Woodpecker made its presence known with a flap of its wings and a call, its silhouette swooping across the sky. We arrived at our first location for a morning walk on the path leading up to the Scoudouc River Bridge. We could hear a Chickadee singing, and saw our first Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Once we arrived at the bridge, we heard a strange squeaking sound that turned out not to be a bird at all, but the ice melting and echoing on the river as it fell. The pillars of the old bridge, though picturesque, were not accompanied by the sight or sound of any new birds. We continued the walk to the highway, where we saw a quick bird with brown wings flying away. A female Pheasant or Grouse, maybe, but we were too uncertain to make the call.

9:00 AM – Our second walk took us to the nature trail of the Shediac Outdoors Association. We were greeted by a tree with the bark stripped off, most likely a sign of Porcupine activity. There, we tried an audio recording made to attract birds. I usually shy away from this activity for fear of annoying the birds too much with a specific call (this can be a real problem in mating season, with rare birds, or when you’re just doing it for fun), but in the case of winter birding in a scientific context, it definitely helps to attract them this way.

There were Chickadees and Kinglets all around, competing for our attention. We saw a few Brown Creepers climbing up the birches and conifers, and a Nuthatch doing the opposite, climbing down as it usually does. A pair of White-throated Sparrows made themselves known.

Photo : Pierre Janin

We then visited Sainte-Anne Road, a dirt road in the area. There didn’t seem to be much out there apart from more Chickadees and Kinglets. Our circular zone ended at this backroad.

10:00 AM – At the extreme east of the count circle was a new subdivision with rows of scraggly conifers that seemed to have been planted there long ago. More Chickadees and Kinglets were competing to see which would be represented in greater numbers. The Chickadees, of course, would eventually win out.

Heading out from there, we saw some European Starlings.These naturalized birds from Europe fly around a lot, sometimes forming mesmerizing in-air formations called murmurations, but are easier to count when they’re perched on a telephone wire in an orderly fashion.

11:00 AM – We drove to Pointe-aux-Bouleaux on the coast, the first cape of the three in our sub-zone. Technically there are four, but Parlee Beach, Pointe-du-Chêne, and the Bluff were taken care of by a kind local volunteer. The beach at Pointe-aux-Bouleaux and the others all have several species of sea ducks that were not known to me. Thankfully, my teammate knew them. I’m hoping to learn them all, but ducks tend to have kind of a steep learning curve. In addition to the three most common Gulls for this time of year, we saw a pair of Long-tailed Ducks, a Red-Breasted Merganser, and a Barrow’s Goldeneye. We also saw a flock of birds, which were known immediately to Pierre as Plectrophanes, a long French name for Snow Buntings. We couldn’t see them up close, though, and they all vanished into the distance.

12:00 PM – After a quick lunch break we headed to the second cape of the day, Cap-Bimet, where the Snow Buntings were all lying down in the grass. They are beautiful birds. I would later find out that they are currently being reclassified in French to Plectrophane due to another European bird with the same name, but they used to be called a Bruant, which is French for “Sparrow” or, “Bunting”. A short walk next to the tall grasses of the wild marshes revealed no more residents.

Photo : Pierre Janin

1:00 PM – It’s time for the lagoon. This sewage filtration centre, built by the Greater Shediac Sewerage Commission, is not only the place for birds to go, but also birders! The local nature club has a long-established viewing platform for seeing all of the bird activity that goes on there. Quick research after the trip led me to this article by a Birds Canada expert. This not only showed me that birds love lagoons because of the midge larva that proliferate there, but also that some birds, like the Ruddy Duck, were brought here because of the lagoons that sprang up in recent years. Among the Gulls, we counted more than 200 Geese, of course, but also many American Black Ducks and a few Wigeons, many Common Goldeneyes, and three Scaups.

In cottage country, after seeing some more ducks in the distant waters, two American Tree Sparrows – recognizable by their red crest – graced us with their presence.

2:00 PM – By this time, we still had over two hours of daylight left. We finished off with a walk back to square one, in the Shediac Outdoor Association’s trails from the beginning of the day.

A long dirt road led us to the Scoudouc River, where Chickadees and Kinglets abounded once again. On our way back, we noticed a black mass on the trail. We hid quietly among the shrubs to let a Porcupine pass. It was a great ending to this fascinating birding trip.

4:30 PM – Sunset. Everyone gathered at the Shediac Multipurpose Centre to tally the birds we counted that day. The birders were all very experienced, and I was glad that Pierre had enough expertise to allow me, a relative beginner, to be successful in this endeavour. We counted by going through a list of birds one by one, then moving through the count circle alphabetically to report how many of that species were seen that day. Once all was tallied, we took a group photo; for a single circle, it took 17 birders to count a whole zone in a single day!

I’ll never see birding the same way again, and would do it again next week if I could! Let the CBC continue to introduce new birders to the fold, and to sharpen the senses and recognition skills of those who are already experienced. I realize that bird numbers might not mean much to the uninitiated, but it’s when you compare them with your own count, and to the past years, that it becomes clearer. This aspect for me is where participation becomes interesting. Being my first count, I can only guess as to how surreal it must be to see the same zone across the years in a quantitative way, to see its change in bird numbers, and the development of its buildings and the transformation of its nature.

As we await the report summarizing the 2023-2024 Christmas Bird Count, you can read about the history of the Christmas Bird Count in NB in our special issue of the NB Naturalist.

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