(Photo by Don Reimer)
(Photo by Don Reimer)
As I was combing through a box of materials in preparation for the December 16th Thomaston/Rockland Christmas Bird Count, a dog-eared red notebook brimming with historical data from previous counts resurfaced. This simple notebook contained handwritten count tallies dating back to Rockland’s initial Christmas Count in December 1970. I had acquired the notebook as a Mid-Coast Audubon board member back in 1994, agreeing to maintain the chronicle of handwritten log entries. After count data records became readily available on the CBC website, however, I had stopped the notebook notations in 1998. But with my continuous involvement in the Thomaston/Rockland count over several decades, this old red notebook is somewhat nostalgic for me.

A letter typed by Porge Buck recounting background information about the counts was also enclosed. Porge Buck and her husband Lewis were co-owners of the Craignair Inn at Clark Island in the early 1970s. She wrote: “Lewis coordinated the CBC in 1971. It was the first year that the count was recorded officially in American Birds, I think, although there had been counts which did not get recorded. He did all the correspondence and the center of the count circle was set (at 2.8 miles south of the Knox Mansion). The Mid-Coast CBC for 1971 was on Dec 26; total species, 51; total individuals, 5697.”

While much has changed since those times, central aspects of the annual bird counts remain constant. The founding concept of recording birds found within set 15-mile count circles between the dates of December 14 and January 5 is unchanged. In 1900 Frank Chapman, an early officer of the Audubon Society, devised an annual “Christmas Bird Census” as an alternative measure to the traditional “side hunts” of those times. These were competitive hunting events usually held on Christmas Day, where a portion of American hunters shot as much wild game as possible in a daylong hunting session. Starting with a meager 27 dedicated birders and 25 counts in 1900, the CBC now spans the US, Canada, Caribbean islands and Latin America. With last year’s 73,000 participants covering 2,536 separate count areas, it is the longest-running database of the natural world.

Obvious technological innovations have occurred since 1971. The calculative number-crunching power of computers allows for broader, speedier analysis of data, highlighting bird population trends and the shifting distribution of particular species in response to warming climate and other conditions. Cross-continent data indicates that numerous species are expanding their ranges northward or wintering farther north. Familiar species such as Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove and Turkey Vulture were uncommon in Maine in past decades. Red-Bellied Woodpecker, a southern-based species, is found on the majority of Maine’s 31 CBCs and now nests in our state. Certain other species, such as Herring Gulls, have declined due to localized habitat changes: Rockland’s 1987 gull tally was 6,404; this year’s total was 538. What factors may have affected the gull numbers? In 1987, Rockland’s open dump site was in operation and the commercial fishing industry was prospering.

Since the 1970s, birding optics have undergone remarkable advances that produce brighter, crisper images. Add a spotting scope to the equation, and the odds of detailed bird discovery are heightened. Today’s birders also benefit from more comprehensive field guides that illustrate key diagnostic features of species.

My customary Rockland count sector consists mainly of city neighborhoods, the transfer station and portions of the waterfront. Scores of pigeons, starlings and house sparrows, for sure. Occasionally some unexpected wild treat registers on my radar, like a whisking Northern Harrier that nearly struck me in the chest as I lingered at harborside amid a heavy, wet December snowstorm.