Christmas Bird Count tallies Kitsap's feathered friends

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet pauses for a snack.  - Don Willott/Courtesy photo
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet pauses for a snack.
— image credit: Don Willott/Courtesy photo

Bird counters scour Kitsap County searching tree and sky, searching for species, both common and rare.  

Although “rare” is relative.  

  “I’ve traveled around the country and talked with local birders who say, ‘Oh! We’ve got this rare bird that you’ve got to see,’” said Gene Bullock, Kitsap Audubon Society member. “Turns out it’s a bird that is common as dirt from where I come from.” 

On Saturday, Dec. 18, Bullock will organize local birders to tally our feathered friends in this year’s Christmas Bird Count.

In the yearly bird census, participants record each and every bird they see within a 15-mile diameter circle. Bullock expects about 50 participants to rummage through the county, tracking down our avian neighbors.

In 2009, Kitsap birders reported seeing 20,137 birds on the one-day count. The most common bird was the American Widgeon with a count of 5,411. Hawk, quail and Wilson’s Snipe were among those seen only once.

Kitsap’s count circle is one of 2,000 count circles in the western hemisphere. The data collected is used to track migration patterns and population tendencies.

Bird territories tend to ebb and flow.  Due to population pressures, young birds strike out and find new territories. 

During unusually warm winters, birds extend their range north. All is well until a particularly harsh winter arrives, and the weather is so severe that the birds don’t survive. Bullock said this winter could be a tough one for the birds.   

For 111 years, bird spectators have gathered each December to count birds. The original Christmas Bird Count was founded by ornithologist Frank Chapman. He began the event as an alternative to the then-popular Christmas Side Hunt. The goal of the Side Hunt was to kill the most game and fowl. Chapman was concerned certain bird species were close to being wiped out, not only from game hunters, but from market hunters as well. This was the early 1900s when it was fashionable for women to wear feathered hats and for men to place a feather in their cap.   

Over the course of seven years,  Bullock noticed an increase in Kitsap’s eagle population. Fish are eagles’ preferred food, but due to decreasing fish populations, eagles have branched out and become more resourceful. They have started preying on other birds like the great blue heron and buffleheads.

“Birds and wildlife are so much smarter than we give them credit,” Bullock said.

Case in point, Bullock tells of watching a pair of eagles attack a bufflehead.  The pair took turns diving at the bufflehead, forcing the small duck to dive under water.  The eagles were relentless.  They took turns diving at the bird, until it eventually drowned and the eagles carried it back to their nest.

Blue herons also have fallen victim to eagles.  Bullock said eagles are responsible for wiping out an entire blue heron rookery on Bainbridge Island.  Again, hunting in pairs, one eagle will lure the blue heron away from the nest.  Then the hunting partner will swoop in and take a baby.

Blue herons have adapted to this siege by nesting in more secluded spots.  Local birders have noticed some blue herons now build their nests near osprey.  Osprey are very aggressive and won’t put up with eagles, Bullock said.  They provide good protection for the herons. 

Bullock compares bird watching to fishing.   If someone has never gone fishing, the idea of sitting around for hours in a boat might sound boring.  

“Then you hook a big one and you’re hooked for life,” Bullock said.  

  The same thing goes for bird watching. Watching birds takes patience. The excitement comes from not knowing what you will see.

The equipment needed for bird watching is a good set of binoculars and a field guide.  For beginners, Bullock stressed that the best way to learn is by birding with an experienced watcher.  It’s frustrating to try and learn exclusively from a book.  Plus, he said, bird watching is infectious.

“It’s about being outdoors and being with a group of people who enjoy sharing the experience,” Bullock said.  “We have all these wonderful winter birds right here, waiting for us to see them.” 

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