On an overcast Thursday afternoon, Grays Harbor Audubon society president Arnie Martin sets up a tripod on the damp boardwalk winding through the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. A well-worn pair of binoculars, purchased in 1973, hang around his neck. He peers through the large scope atop a three-legged metal rest, giving him a close-up view of the far-away mallards floating calmly in the water and the nearby swallows picking through the brush. The roar of a plane taking off from Bowerman Airfield echoes behind the line of trees separating the wooden trail from the asphalt. The birds seem unfazed, used to the steady growl of the landing strip next-door.
Bird watchers from throughout Grays Harbor and along the I-5 corridor will be descending upon areas like this today for the annual Christmas Bird Count. This annual event organizes interested parties into groups covering 11 areas in a large circle that centers around an area near Point New. The circle encompasses much of Hoquiam, Westport and Ocean Shores but barely touches into Aberdeen.
Although Martin’s usual counting area begins on the other side of Bowerman Basin, through Hoquiam, he shows how it’s done by the Tacoma residents who count the refuge area each year.
The bird numbers recorded here are reported to the national count, which happens in various areas across the country between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. This is the only circle on Grays Harbor, as the Satsop area no longer has a compiler.
This event began in the early 1900s, when Frank Chapman, editor of Bird-Lord Magazine, began encouraging people to count instead of kill birds to celebrate the holiday season. Grays Harbor has been part of this count for the past 112 out of the total 114 years of the national bird count.
Dianna Moore, who is another member of the local Audubon Society, is the compiler of this information.
“This has been a very strange year. I don’t know if it’s because more people are free but we’re actually full. I’ve had to break some areas into two,” she said. “It’s an embarrassment of riches, I’m usually scrambling to find more people.”
The Christmas count is not something one can do dressed in pajamas while sipping coffee. Participants in this count should dress for cold and rainy weather. Moore said.
“Most people who do the Christmas Bird Count are thrashing through bushes and freezing their butts off. We have to actively find (the birds),” she said.
There have been interesting finds on certain bird counts, including a turkey vulture Moore found last year. These birds are rarely found in this area during the winter, she said.
Martin said this count also serves as a way to look at trends over time, not just individual years.
“When I first moved here to the Harbor in 2005, it was a rarity to see a Western Scrub-Jay, mostly what you saw were stellar jays. We would get like one scrub jay and now we have seen dozens in the intervening eight years,” he said. ” … It’s interesting to be able see that year to year.”
Mourning Doves were once easy to count but slowly the Eurasion Collared-Doves have displaced them and become more prominent, he added. These changes are important to note in a time when environmental study grants are rare, meaning it is up to the “citizen scientists” to take time out of their day to find these trends, Moore said.
The best event for beginning bird watchers who want to help assess the health of bird populations is an event that occurs every spring with the Great Backyard Bird Count.
“This event is a great way to introduce new people to birding, especially kids. It’s a great educational tool and it’s a great success with that.” she said. “Hopefully the people involved with that will graduate into Christmas bird counts.”
The groups of between three to five people generally start early in the morning and don’t return until the sun sets. However, there are those who often go owling, or searching for the birds more active at night, long before the sun comes up that day. Moore said the groups all meet at the Aberdeen Pizza Hut once they’re done and wait for everyone to show up before eating.
“It’s a bunch of happy people, generally, and we have a good time or we wouldn’t keep coming back year after year,” she said.
For those who want to join in but haven’t signed up, Moore said space is limited but she is always trying to plan for the next year. She can be reached at email@example.com. For those who aren’t participating, Moore has a cautionary tip.
“Be aware of all of the counters out there with binoculars and a scope, they’re not looking into your house, they’re looking for birds,” she said.
Alexandra Kocik: 360-537-3928 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_AKocik on Twitter
Tips for beginning birders
Dianna Moore and Arnie Martin of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society passed along a few tips for those interested in bird watching:
• Pick an area where you can sit and wait for birds to become comfortable with your presence
• Get a good guide that focuses on birds in the Western United States
• Binoculars are a must, even a cheap pair shows birds that may have been missed otherwise
• Hanging a feeder in the backyard to attract birds is another option
• There are online guides, the Seattle Audobon Society has one available for free, for info on bird appearance, habits and recordings of their songs to help with identifying them
To learn more about the Christmas Bird Count and other activities visit: