Friday, December 11, 2015

Episode 294 (12-14-15): A Holidays History of Counting Birds

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (3:37)

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, photos, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 12-11-15.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of December 14, 2015.

SOUNDS – 8 sec

This week, the sound of Mallard ducks on a December day in Blacksburg, Va., is the call to explore the annual Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society.

Since 1900, the Society has helped organize volunteers to hold local daylong bird counts between December 14 and January 5.  On any single day within that period, volunteer counters follow specific routes within 15-mile diameter circles, counting every bird they see or hear.  The count provides a snapshot both of the species encountered and of the numbers of individuals within each species.  According to the Society, this effort is the “longest running citizen-science bird project” in the United States.  The results of such a long-term inventory help show the status of bird populations and the impacts of changes in habitat, climate, and other environmental conditions.

Of course, birds living around water and wetlands are part of the annual count; in fact, the Audubon Society’s founding in the late 1800s was due largely to concerns over commercial use of plumes from egrets and other wading birds.  So what kinds of water-related birds might Virginia Christmas bird counters find?  Have a listen for about 20 seconds to this sample, and see how many you know.

SOUNDS  - 21 sec

The Bald Eagle, Belted Kingfisher, and Canvasback duck are among dozens of water-related birds that inhabit parts of Virginia during winter.  Keeping track of these and other feathered Virginia winter residents is a holiday tradition for many Commonwealth citizens with patience, binoculars, and attentive ears.

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use the eagle, kingfisher, and canvasback sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  And we close with one more from Mr. Elliott: the wail of a Common Loon, which some lucky Christmas bird counter in Virginia might hear on a December night. 

SOUND – 4 sec

For more Virginia water sounds, music, and information, visit us online at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The sounds of Bald Eagle, Belted Kingfisher, Canvasback, and Common Loon were taken from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at and the “Music of Nature” Web site,


Mallards (several males, plus one female on right) on Virginia Tech Duck Pond, Blacksburg, Dec. 10, 2015.
Great Blue Heron in Virginia Tech stormwater pond, Blacksburg, Dec. 11, 2015.
Male Canvasback in Maryland.  Photograph by Eugene Hester, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library, online at


On Bird Counts

Another nationwide count, the Great Backyard Bird Count, organized by Audubon and the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, is held each February.  This count allows participants to follow a less strict protocol than the Christmas Bird Count (volunteers can observe for as little as 15 minutes), but its results also contribute to large-scale and long-term understanding of bird species distribution and health.  For more information, visit

On Audubon Society History and Waterbirds

“Outrage over the slaughter of millions of waterbirds, particularly egrets and other waders, for the millinery trade led to the foundation, by Harriet Hemenway and Mina Hall, of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896. By 1898, state-level Audubon Societies had been established in Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Illinois, Maine, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Minnesota, Texas, and California. ...In 1901, state-level Audubon groups joined together in a loose national organization....  In 1905, the National Audubon Society was founded, with the protection of gulls, terns, egrets, herons, and other waterbirds high on its conservation priority list.” 
National Audubon Society, “History of Audubon and Science-based Bird Conservation, online at

On Loon Calls in Winter

“Generally loons are silent on the wintering grounds, but occasionally on a quiet winter night one will hear their primeval, tremulous yodel.” – Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2006), p. 285.

“All calls can be heard in migration and winter, but compared to the breeding season, they are uncommon.” – Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online/Common Loon/Sounds,” online at (subscription required for this site).


Used in Audio

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at (subscription required for this site).

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2006.

National Audubon Society main Web site, online at

National Audubon Society, “Christmas Bird Count,” online at

Kathy Reshetiloff, “Chesapeake’s winter visitors include a couple of loons,” Bay Journal, 12/8/14, online at

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at

For More Information about Birds in Virginia

The Virginia Society of Ornithology is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.  The Society’s Web site is

E-bird Web site at
, maintained by the Cornell Lab and the Audubon Society.  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (

Previous episodes on the birds mentioned in this episode are the following:
Bald Eagle: Episode 117 (7/2/12);
Belted Kingfisher: EP224 (7/28/14);
Canvasback Duck: EP197 (1/20/14);
Loons: EP88 (11/14/11).

For an episode on winter birds, particularly, please see Episode 150 (2-25-13), Winter Birds of the Chesapeake Bay.

For an episode on the role of egrets and herons in the history of the Audubon Society and other conservation organizations, please see Episode 277 (8-10-15), Two Great Birds.


This episode may help with the following Virginia’s 2010 Science Standards of Learning (SOLs):

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme

4.9 - Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme

2.5 - living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.6 - ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 - ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 - natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course

LS. 4 - organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.8 - community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS. 10 - changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those

LS.11 - relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Biology Course

BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

The episode may also help with the following Virginia 2008 Social Studies SOLs:

World Geography Course

WG.2 - how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.
WG.7 - types and significance of natural, human, and capital resources.

Government Course

GOVT.16 – role of government in Va. and U.S. economies, including examining environmental issues and property rights.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at