For 117 years, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count has seen thousands of birders organize for what is the oldest citizen science project in the country. It began in 1900 as a proposed alternative to winter hunting traditions. Today, the data helps Audubon and other organizations monitor the health of bird populations and inform conservation work.
At the ground level, it involves small groups of volunteers undertaking count circles that are 15 miles in diameter and making a note of every single bird they see or hear. Often starting in the pre-dawn hours, participants are out almost all day, with tallies compiled in the afternoon. This winter, the count was conducted from December 14th through January 5th. The tally is still moving upward, but last year’s total for the United States was about 54 million birds.
Along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay near Deale, Maryland, Marcia Watson and Gene Scarpulla began counting gulls and other shorebirds at a private harbor where they had secured permission ahead of time.
“This area is a little tough because it's mostly private property; there's very little public access,” said Watson, a retired professor and college administrator.
While scanning the water, Watson described how she and other birders have observed pelicans farther up the Bay this year, possibly because of below-average rainfall letting saltwater come farther north.
Watson said she has observed another change in the various counts she and Scarpulla have participated in—fewer birds in general. For example, she said the Chesapeake Bay region used to host huge mixed flocks including common grackles, red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, and brown-headed cowbirds.
“I remember counting twenty-some years ago in Cecil County, standing in one spot from about 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., and counting continuous streams of blackbirds coming in to roost,” Watson said. “They numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Now, you might see one or two flocks numbering in the hundreds.”
At another count circle in Baltimore County, Kevin Graff left his vehicle near the bank of the Back River and started making sound by forcing air through his teeth, spotting a chickadee and a few song sparrows while scanning some trees.
“It’s a trick that bird watchers use when they want to bring some more of them in, so they can see them,” said Peter Webb, a member, along with Graff, of the Baltimore Bird Club.
Webb said the pishing sound resembles the noise that Carolina wrens make when scolding, which attracts a lot of small birds.
Graff and Webb, like Watson and Scarpulla, have also had issues with public access during the count.
“We actually used to do it including the harbor in downtown Baltimore, but most of the places we had access to we lost access to,” Webb said. “Gradually more and more places got industrialized and ‘no trespassing’ signs came up on fences all over the place.”
Webb said it got to the point where it wasn’t worth doing the count there anymore, and they moved to the new circle about five years ago.
But on this count, which happened to fall on New Year’s Eve, Graff and Webb came away with a satisfying list of birds. Among the species they spotted or heard calling were bald eagles, red shouldered hawks, American black ducks, winter wrens, several kinds of woodpecker, greater and lesser scaup, red breasted mergansers, vultures, a kingfisher, a kestrel and a rusty blackbird.
Not much further into the new year, Audubon returns with the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), happening from February 17th through the 20th. While the Christmas Bird Count is an all-day affair, the GBBC makes it even easier for everyday folks to participate. People of any age can count birds for as little as 15 minutes and report their findings using an app called eBird. And, as you might guess, they don’t have to leave their backyard.
Photos and text by Will Parson
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page
A lion's mane jellyfish visits Spa Creek in Annapolis, Maryland, on January 18, 2017. Sometimes called the “winter jellyfish,” the lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) visits the Chesapeake Bay region from late November through March. Their preference for frigid, Arctic temperatures means they only venture down from northern latitudes when waters are sufficiently cold.
The type of lion’s mane jellyfish that visits the Bay is planktonic, meaning it floats where the currents take it—so while the lion’s mane is not an uncommon sight in the Chesapeake Bay, its presence can be unpredictable. When water currents and chilly temperatures align to bring them to the area, though, they’re easy to spot, because they prefer to float near the water’s surface.
Like the sea nettles that are prevalent in summer months, lion’s mane jellyfish have stinging tentacles. But since fewer people are out swimming in the chilly waters of January—except, perhaps, those participating in a Polar Bear Plunge—swimmers are less likely to suffer the lion’s mane’s sting.
Lion’s mane jellyfish that visit the Bay average about four to six inches in diameter, similar in size to the sea nettle. Travel further north, however, and you may encounter a much larger specimen. In 1870, the largest recorded lion’s mane jellyfish washed up along a beach in Massachusetts: its body measured more than seven feet in diameter, and its tentacles were 120 feet long.
Learn more about jellyfish that can be found in the Chesapeake Bay.
Image by Will Parson
Hutch Walbridge, Wildlife Biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, places an identification band on the leg of a female American black duck on a farm in Church Creek, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, on March 5, 2013.
Not truly black, the dark, dusky-brown plumage of the American black duck (Anas rubripes) appears black from a distance. This shy, native waterfowl can be found year-round along the quiet, isolated tidal wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. When food sources in the north become scarce in colder months, additional ducks migrate to the Bay region to overwinter.
Black ducks were once the most abundant dabbling duck in eastern North America. But as the Bay’s wetlands disappeared, black duck populations dropped dramatically. In the 1950s, close to 200,000 black ducks spent their winters in the Chesapeake Bay region. But recent estimates show that, from 2013 and 2015, just over 51,000 black ducks overwintered on the Bay each year.
Marshes and wetlands in the Bay region are critical to the long-term survival of the black duck. Protection of the area’s remaining tidal marshes—along with large-scale habitat restoration projects like Poplar Island—helps provide the birds with the habitat and food sources they need. Under the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, our partners are working toward having enough habitat to support 100,000 wintering black ducks by 2025.
Learn more about what experts are doing to conserve habitat for the American black duck.
Image by Will Parson
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has reported a modest improvement in Chesapeake Bay health since 2014. The nonprofit gave the estuary a grade of “C-” in its biennial State of the Bay report, noting reductions in water pollution and increased abundance of blue crabs, oysters and other fisheries.
The score of 34 on a one-to-100 scale marks an improvement of two points from the 2014 report—which gave the Bay a “D+” grade—but remains well short of the Foundation’s goal of 70, representing an “A+” or a “saved Bay.”
According to the report, nine of the 13 indicators of Bay health showed signs of recovery, including dissolved oxygen, water clarity, underwater grass abundance and populations of blue crabs, striped bass, oysters and shad. Of those indicators, blue crabs showed the greatest improvement, with the number of adult crabs having roughly tripled since 2014. Three of the indicators—toxic contaminants, wetlands and resource lands—showed no change from the previous report, and one indicator, forest buffers, declined.
The report attributed improvements in water quality in part to continued implementation of the “Clean Water Blueprint,” or Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load—a comprehensive plan to reduce pollution going to the Bay and its rivers and streams.
The Chesapeake Bay Program will publish Bay Barometer, its annual snapshot of watershed-wide health and restoration, later this month. The Bay Program is a voluntary partnership that includes the six watershed states of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia; the District of Columbia; the Chesapeake Bay Commission; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representing the federal government.
Read the 2016 State of the Bay report.