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story.lead_photo.caption Red-breasted nuthatches were much in evidence during the 119th Christmas Bird Count at Hot Springs National Park, held Dec. 29, 2018, during the federal government partial shutdown. Special to the Democrat-Gazette/JERRY BUTLER

HOT SPRINGS — The 119th Christmas Bird Count, the nation's largest and oldest citizen-science project, hit an unexpected snag this year — the federal government's partial shutdown.

Audubon's annual bird census began in 1900 as an alternative to what was then a holiday tradition of "side hunts," shooting contests in which the goal was to kill more birds than anyone else and with no intention of eating the birds. An American ornithologist and magazine publisher, Frank Chapman, proposed counting contests instead. His idea took wing, evolving into today's annual international census.

Conducted from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, the Christmas Bird Count has rules that stipulate where and when individual birds and their species will be counted. And unlike the annual Backyard Bird Count held in February, the Christmas census limits how data are compiled and reported.

Five of this season's 22 counts in Arkansas were scheduled to occur on federal wildlife refuges on dates that happened to fall after the shutdown began Dec. 22, and their leaders were federal employees.

Case in point: Hot Springs National Park.

For the past five years, the annual Christmas Bird Count in Hot Springs has been coordinated by Hot Springs National Park's natural resources physical scientist Shelley Todd. It was Todd who sectioned off parcels of the count area to be covered and who found experienced bird-watchers to drive roads and walk trails in the right area to count birds at the right time on the right day.

She found other people to count birds at bird feeders within the right area — a 15-mile diameter known in the Christmas Bird Count lingo as "the count circle."

Typically, the work of actually counting birds was done jointly by national park employees and volunteers from area Audubon Society chapters. People join in with a will because it's a fun social event that's also educational, and because data from the Christmas Bird Count help ornithologists, environmentalists and wildlife biologists understand changes in avian populations.

However, the count day this year fell on Dec. 29 — while the nation's parks and many other federal agencies were shuttered.

The shutdown created some coordination and communication problems for the bird counts around the nation, may have left some geographic areas uncovered and has delayed complete compilation of the data. But the Hot Springs count did happen.

In spite of the shutdown, preliminary data for Hot Springs National Park indicate that at least 22 bird-watchers saw 100 different species of birds — and more than 6,000 individual birds were found within the Hot Springs count circle, which includes all the national park and most areas within the city limits. The center point of the Hot Springs circle is the National Park Office at 101 Reserve St.

A few trends in the unofficial numbers have been observed. These trends were also noted in nearby count circles in Arkadelphia and Hot Springs Village (which were not affected by the shutdown).

■ The total number of individual birds in and around Hot Springs was noticeably lower than in past winters. About 6,000 this year, nearly 9,000 in 2015.

■ The number of species seen (100) was about the same as those seen during other recent counts.

■ The number of red-breasted nuthatches counted (26 in Hot Springs) was exceptionally high. This tiny woodland songbird has been often reported in past years, but never in such high numbers.

In addition to those apparent trends, some specific information drawn from the Hot Springs count includes:

Cedar waxwing.
(Special to the Democrat-Gazette/JERRY BUTLER)
Cedar waxwing. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/JERRY BUTLER)

■ The most populous species counted, with 755 individuals, was the blackbird, more correctly known as the common grackle.

■ European starlings (646), dark-eyed juncos (523) and cedar waxwings (343) were the next most numerous.

■ Five species of birds were counted that are considered relatively rare for Garland County in this season: osprey, Pacific loon, vesper sparrow, palm warbler and common merganser.

■ The richest and most diverse area for birds within the count circle continued to be around the southern and western parts of Lake Hamilton near the Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery and west of Airport Road.

■ Five bald eagles and two roadrunners were reported.

Roadrunner (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Roadrunner (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The absence of Todd's services in compiling the data from the birders doing the counting was not totally unexpected. She warned birders that she would be changing jobs, transferring within the National Park Service to Padre Island, Texas, in early January and that she would be out of pocket when the data from the counters came in.

But she was committed to completing that task and had assured the Garland County Audubon Society she would do that work even if she had to do it from afar.

The glitch came when the shutdown restricted her from using her office, email and Internet services. Nor was she free to share the names, phone numbers and email addresses of all the people who had agreed to participate in the counting.

As a temporary measure, hoping the government would reopen soon, she asked the leaders of the Garland County Audubon Society to coordinate things on the count day and to take the lead later in compiling the data.

PLAN B PUT INTO ACTION

Using the online email subscription list ARBird (a Listserv) and rosters of area Audubon societies, most of those people who had agreed to count birds Dec. 29 were contacted and asked to send their tally sheets to this reporter, because I'm the current president of the Garland County Audubon Society.

Most, but probably not all, of those who counted sent a record of their observations. I put the data in a spreadsheet, which lists the 100 species seen and the number of each kind of bird seen in each section of the count circle. Then I forwarded the spreadsheet to the Arkansas regional compiler, Leif Anderson.

Anderson's task as compiler is to gather data from leaders in the 22 count circles around the state.

Anderson also was on federal furlough — he's a forester with the U.S. Forest Service at Hector and was restricted from using the Internet, etc. "If the situation continues into mid-February," Anderson said, "I'll call National Audubon and explain the situation to them."

He also was compiler for count circles at Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, Big Lake NWR and Lake Georgia Pacific/Felsenthal NWR. All units of the National Wildlife Refuge System nationwide were closed to public visitation and use.

The Pond Creek NWR count circle also includes federal land that was off-limits Jan. 5 because of the shutdown, but count leader Devin Moon of Little Rock said that census was more affected by flooding in the area and a lack of volunteers. Only about 40 percent of the circle lies within the refuge, and roads in the area connect to private residences, so they were open.

"I will say this, we had basically no participants other than myself and my co-compiler," he said. "Our attendance may have been negatively [affected] by the shutdown, as some may have thought it futile to count a federal refuge during this time."

The Garland County Audubon Society will discuss the findings of this year's CBC and compare it to data from past years as part of its next regular meeting, 7 p.m. Feb. 14 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 3819 Central Ave. in Hot Springs.

Celia Storey added information to this report.

Jerry Butler writes about Arkansas birds and people who enjoy them. He welcomes stories and comments at

jerrysharon.butler@gmail.com

Style on 01/28/2019

Print Headline: Arkansas birders rally to free 119th Christmas Bird Count from shutdown snare

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