Time for annual bird count

By Wayne Bryan Published December 12, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Steve Rudd of the U.S. National Parks Service and Jean Wallace of the Hot Springs Parks and Recreation Department look over a spot near Hot Springs Creek where birdwatchers can take part in the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Court in Garland County on Dec. 22.

HOT SPRINGS — Quick, up in the tree! Is it a bird? Yes, what kind? Cardinal, so mark it down.

Along with colder weather, Yuletide carols and frantic shopping, it is time for the 113th annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count.

Since 1900, volunteers have been going out into the woods and fields or visiting city parks and backyard feeders for a day in December to count the number of kinds of birds they see.

Members of the Audubon Society, which oversees the event, gather what they call “citizen scientists” to cover a territory and just count and identify the birds they see. The information is compiled by the society and published as a scientific report.

“It is a means of tracking trends and patterns in the bird population of an area,” said Ranger Steve Rudd, natural resource program manager for Hot Springs National Park. “Knowing the number and kinds of birds we can see in the count allows us to better protect birds from pesticides and polluted ground water.”

The information about the birds collected across North America allows researchers and conservationists to study the long-term health of the general bird population and specific species, according to the Garland County Audubon Society.

“You don’t have to be an expert birdwatcher to take part,” said Jean Wallace, director of the Hot Springs Parks and Recreation Department. “If you enjoy getting out in nature and want to look at the birds, you can be part of the count.”

Groups will take part in the count all over Arkansas. In Clark County, the special counting has attracted more than 100 birdwatchers and nature lovers for years.

The Audubon organization for Garland County and Hot Springs Village has joined up with Hot Springs National Park and the city of Hot Springs over the last several years to hold a count, and Rudd believes this will be the biggest one ever.

“We started in 2010, but we didn’t get going until November, so it was just a pilot program,” he said. “Last year, we instituted some changes to make it better by partnering with the city.”

Rudd had taken part in the annual bird counts at other national parks around the nation, such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

The bird counts are organized in circles, with the largest being 50 miles wide. The circle in Garland County covers not only the national park but the city limits of Hot Springs and into Hot Springs Village, including all the city parks in Hot Springs, Wallace said.

The count will be held Dec. 22 in the Hot Springs area, and the city’s park department, along with Hot Springs National Park personnel and members of the Audubon Society, will conduct an open house from 3:30-5 p.m. today at the Transportation Depot, 100 Broadway Terrace, next to the Hot Springs Farmers Market Pavilion.

“We will have information about the city and its trails and parks where people can take part in the count, as well as the 28 miles of trails in the national park,” Wallace said. “All you have to do is record every bird you see. There will be checklists given out to help make that easier.”

There will be maps showing the city parks and guides to identify the birds. One of the reasons the count is held near Christmas is that youngsters are usually out of school, and more importantly, there are few leaves left on the trees — so birds are easier to spot and identify.

“If you are counting in the parks, you can have a snack on the picnic tables and enjoy some of the other amenities of the parks,” Wallace said. “Birdwatching is a wonderful natural sport, if you want to think of it as a sport. I just think it is fun.”

The annual bird court in the state has made it possible for the Audubon Arkansas organization to discover some dramatic drops in the populations of some of the state’s most recognized birds.

The organization’s Common Bird in Decline List includes once-familiar species, such as the Northern Bobwhite and the Eastern Meadowlark, that have declined in number by 60 to 80 percent.

The information gathered in the annual counts is being matched with the results of the annual Breeding Bird Survey, conducted by the U.S.

Geological Survey, to work out a plan to reverse the trends and rebuild the bird populations.

For more information about the count and the open house, call Ranger Rudd of Hot Springs National Park at (501) 620-6751 for details.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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