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Local Christmas Bird Counts Successful

Annual Christmas bird counts last month in Mariposa, Oakhurst and Yosemite yielded fewer birds than last year, yet organizers of the three local events nonetheless judged them successful–and, as always, fun!

The counts were part of the National Audubon Society’s 113th Christmas Bird Count, an annual avian census held between Dec. 14, 2012 and Jan. 5, 2013.

Begun on Christmas Day in 1900, this event is now the longest-running wildlife survey and the oldest citizen-science project in the world. Ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed this annual bird count as an alternative to the traditional “side-hunt,” a competition for hunters to shoot as many birds as they could kill on Christmas Day.

Chapman’s brainchild has grown from its original 25 locations, mostly in northeastern North America but including Pacific Grove in California, to more than 2,100 counts ranging from the Arctic to South America.

Twenty-seven hearty souls participated in the first count; today volunteers number in the tens of thousands, all of them helping amass data that collectively inform scientists of bird population trends and patterns and, in turn, decisions by the agencies responsible for bird conservation.

Like all Christmas bird counts, each of the three local tallies takes place within a fixed 15-mile-diameter circle established by the count originators. The compiler selects a date within the prescribed window of time for the count. On that one day participants, assigned to specific zones, fan out inside the circle to cover the area as widely as possible and to count all the birds observed and identified. At the end of the day the results are compiled for submittal to National Audubon.

This year, the second annual Mariposa CBC, held Dec. 15, attracted 17 participants who reported a total of 89 species and 5,492 individual birds (88 and 6,788 in 2011). Notable sightings included a great gray owl, a state-listed threatened species, and a yellow-shafted northern flicker, a subspecies generally seen in the eastern U.S. and only occasionally in California.

The 81st Yosemite CBC the following day, Dec. 16, drew 41 birders who hit the trails early despite cold and potentially unsettled weather.

Within the count circle that encompasses El Portal (2,000 ft.), Yosemite Valley (4,000 ft.) and Badger Pass (7,000 ft.), seven parties logged 2,257 individual birds in 63 species (2,584 and 70 in 2011). Highlights included a northern harrier in El Portal, a northern goshawk carrying a large brown mammal in its talons near Mirror Lake in Yosemite Valley and two peregrine falcons, one in Foresta and one in the Merced River canyon between the Valley and El Portal.

The second annual Oakhurst CBC on Dec. 21 brought out 15 participants, who recorded 85 species numbering 5,715 individuals (96 and 4,094 last year). The bird of the day was a merlin, a speedy falcon, not commonly seen, that preys on small birds.

National Audubon president and CEO David Yarnold has commented, “The Audubon Christmas Bird Count harnesses volunteer power to gather knowledge that shapes conservation policy at enormous scales in this country. I couldn’t be prouder of the 60,000-plus volunteers who contribute each year.”

Christmas bird counts are among a number of citizen-science projects that engage members of the Yosemite Area Audubon Society, the local chapter affiliate of the National Audubon Society and its state affiliate, Audubon California, in bird conservation and in habitat protection, restoration and education.

YAAS invites area residents to discover the fascination and fun of birding by attending its monthly programs, participating in monthly field trips and getting involved in some of its exciting projects. Call (209) 966-2547 or visit www.yosemiteaudubon.org for more information.

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