On an unusually warm December day, a group of avid birdwatchers gathered to partake in an annual tradition a little different from typical holiday customs. Armed with binoculars and tally sheets, they set out to shape the future.
This tradition, known as the Christmas Bird Count, represents one of the largest community science projects in the Western Hemisphere.
The data collected is essential to informing science policy and conservation efforts here in South Carolina and beyond.
Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, and in its 122nd year, Christmas Bird Count brings together local chapters across the Western Hemisphere to share the longest-running wildlife count.
The Hilton Head area count included more than 300 volunteers, among the largest of more than 2,600 counts. On December 15, participants counted 26,681 birds of 135 different species within a circle 15 miles wide.
The circle includes various habitats ranging from beaches, maritime forests and salt marshes to golf courses. Teams covered much of it, including the area’s beautiful public parks and nature preserves, such as the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, Audubon Newhall Preserve and Sea Pines Forest Preserve.
About 100 volunteers even counted the birds at their backyard feeders.
Participants saw common birds including northern cardinals, blue jays, snowy egrets, Carolina wrens, hooded mergansers and bald eagles, as well as rarer sightings like roseate spoonbills, a western tyrant, a peregrine falcon and American white pelicans.
These sightings, when compiled with other Christmas bird counts, help scientists discover patterns that make our work here in the Lowcountry even more impactful.
Bird populations are declining at an alarming rate.
Data collected by the Christmas Bird Count and other studies estimate that North America has nearly three billion fewer birds today than 50 years ago. Overall, our bird populations have declined by 29%, with some species experiencing much greater losses.
In January, scientists from the National Audubon Society published a study based on Christmas bird count data in Biology of global change who analyzed the response of eastern US birds to climate change and habitat availability. Using 90 years of this data, they determined that bird wintering grounds have shifted in response to climate change.
By tracking how bird ranges shift over time, conservation efforts can prioritize areas that are important to birds now and in the future.
With two-thirds of North American bird species threatened with extinction by the end of this century, community science is more important than ever for effective conservation.
Our feathered friends have shown that we’re connected in ways that many of us don’t see. When our bird population thrives, so do we humans.
After all, we share the same ecosystem.
Audubon’s work is rooted in common sense science and politics. We aim to create healthy spaces and safe and inclusive access to the outdoors for the benefit of all. We champion policies that not only protect birds, but also protect South Carolina’s clean air and water, iconic landscapes, and $20 billion tourism industry.
Programs like the Christmas Bird Count are changing the way we see the world in real time. Decreasing numbers demand our attention. Climate action and the promotion of healthy natural spaces are essential for a better future.
The birds tell us that it is time to act.
We will be back to count with the Great Backyard Bird Count from February 18 to 21 and invite you to participate. You don’t need any previous experience or specialist knowledge. This event is for everyday citizens who share a love for the outdoors and a desire to contribute to something greater.
Hilton Head Audubon volunteers are at local schools this week teaching students how to spot and identify local bird species right on their school campuses.
Visit https://www.birdcount.org/ for more information and become a citizen scientist where you live.
Susan Murphy is the Hilton Head Christmas Bird Count coordinator and Robert Rommel is a Hilton Head Christmas Bird Count reviewer and local nature photographer.