Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Episode 607 (12-13-21): A Winter Holidays History of Counting Birds

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (4:08).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 12-10-21.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of December 13, 2021.  This revised episode from December 2015 is part of a series this year of winter-related episodes.

SOUNDS – 7 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 a 15-mile diameter circle, 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 community science bird project” in the United States, and it actually takes place now in over 20 countries in the Western Hemisphere.  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.  [Additional note, not in audio: This refers to the founding in 1896 of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the first state-level affiliate of the National Audubon Society, founded in 1905.  For more information on this history, see the Extra Information section below.]

So what kinds of water-related birds might Virginia Christmas bird counters find?  Have a listen for about 20 seconds to this sample of four possible species.

SOUNDS - 23 sec

The Bald Eagle, Belted Kingfisher, Ring-billed Gull, and Greater Yellowlegs are among the many water-related birds that inhabit parts of Virginia during winter, including shorebirds, ducks, herons, and lots of others.  Keeping track of these and other feathered Virginia winter residents is a holiday tradition for many Commonwealth citizens with patience, binoculars, and attentive eyes and ears.

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use the eagle, kingfisher, gull, and yellowlegs sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.

Here's hoping that Virginia’s Christmas bird counters find good variety and high numbers this year.  We close with a U.S. Fish and Wildfire Service recording of another Virginia water-related winter resident, the Common Loon, a species that some diligent coastal Virginia counter might spot or hear on a winter day or night. 

SOUNDS - ~6 sec


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close this episode.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This Virginia Water Radio episode revises and replaces Episode 294, 12-14-15.

The Mallard sounds were recorded by Virginia Water Radio at the Virginia Tech Duck Pond in Blacksburg on December 10, 2015.

The sounds of the Bald Eagle, Belted Kingfisher, Ring-billed Gull, and Greater Yellowlegs 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 the “Music of Nature” Web site, http://www.musicofnature.org/.

The Common Loon sounds were taken from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Digital Library, http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/; the specific URL for the loons recording was https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/audio/id/57/rec/1, as of 12-13-21.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at http://www.bencosgrove.com.


Mallards (several males, plus one female on right) on Virginia Tech Duck Pond, Blacksburg, December 10, 2015.

Great Blue Heron in a stormwater pond near the Virginia Tech Inn and Alumni Center in Blacksburg, December 16, 2021.

Canada Geese beside a stormwater pond near the Virginia Tech Inn and Alumni Center in Blacksburg, December 11, 2021.


On Bird Counts

Another nationwide count is the Great Backyard Bird Count, held each February and organized by Audubon, the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, and Birds Canada.  This count calls on volunteers to watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over four days (February 18-21 in 2022), and record the species and numbers of all the birds seen or heard.  Its results also contribute to large-scale and long-term understanding of bird species distribution and health.  For more information, visit http://gbbc.birdcount.org/.

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 http://www.audubon.org/content/history-audubon-and-waterbird-conservation.

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
https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/comloo/cur/sounds (subscription required for access to this Web site).


Used in Audio

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at http://www.allaboutbirds.org.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Birds of the World,” online at https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/home (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, online at http://www.audubon.org/.

National Audubon Society, “Christmas Bird Count,” online at http://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.

Kathy Reshetiloff, “Listen for the haunting call of loons on Bay’s frigid winter waters,” Bay Journal, 12/8/14, updated 3/31/20.

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

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries):
Fish and Wildlife Information Service, online at https://services.dwr.virginia.gov/fwis/.
The Bald Eagle entry is online at https://services.dwr.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040093&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18974.
The Belted Kingfisher entry is online at https://services.dwr.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040220&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18974.
The Ring-billed Gull entry is online at https://services.dwr.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040170&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18974.
The Greater Yellowlegs entry is online at https://services.dwr.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040130&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18974.
The Common Loon entry is online at https://services.dwr.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040001&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18974.

For More Information about Birds in Virginia or Elsewhere

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Birds,” online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.  Information is available online at http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at https://ebird.org/home.  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, “Animal Diversity Web,” online at https://animaldiversity.org.

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “List of Native and Naturalized Fauna in Virginia, August 2020,” online (as a PDF) at https://dwr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/virginia-native-naturalized-species.pdf.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.org/.  The Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation, online at http://www.xeno-canto.org/.  This site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Birds” and “Weather/Climate/Natural Disasters” subject categories.

Following are links to several other winter-related episodes, including episodes on some birds that reside in Virginia typically only in winter (listed separately).  Please note that some of these episodes are being redone in late 2021 and early 2022; in those cases, the respective links below will have information on the updated episodes.

Frost – Episode 597, 10-4-21.
Freezing and ice – Episode 606, 12-6-21 (especially for grades K-3).
Ice on ponds and lakes – Episode 404, 1-22-18 (especially for grades 4-8).
Ice on rivers – Episode 406, 2-5-18 (especially for middle school grades).
Polar Plunge® for Special Olympics – Episode 356, 2-20-17.
Snow physics and chemistry – Episode 407, 2-12-18 (especially for high school grades).
Snow, sleet, and freezing rain – Episode 461, 2-25-19.
Snow terms – Episode 300, 1-25-16.
Surviving freezing – Episode 556, 12-21-20.
Winter precipitation and water supplies – Episode 567, 3-8-21.
Winter weather preparedness – Episode 605, 11-29-21.
Water thermodynamics – Episode 195, 1-6-14.

Bird-related Episodes for Winter

American Avocet – Episode 543, 9-21-20.
Brant (goose) – Episode 502, 12-9-19.
Canvasback (duck) – Episode 604, 11-22-21.
Common Goldeneye (duck) – Episode 303, 2-15-16.
Green-winged Teal (duck) – Episode 398, 12-11-17.
Grebes (Horned and Red-necked) – Episode 233, 9-29-14.
Loons – Episode 445, 11-5-18.
Fall migration – Episode 603, 11-15-21 (with sounds of Broad-winged Hawk, Green Heron, Least Tern, Osprey, Piping Plover, Snowy Egret, and Sora).
Northern Harrier – Episode 561, 1-25-21.
Snow Goose – Episode 507, 1-13-20.
Tundra Swan – Episode 554, 12-7-20.
Winter birds sampler from the Chesapeake Bay area – Episode 565, 2-22-21 (with sounds of American Coot, Dunlin, Hooded Merganser, Horned Grebe, Snow Goose, and Tundra Swan).


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2018 Science SOLs

Grades K-5: Scientific and Engineering Practices
K.1, 1.1, 2.1, 3.1, 4.1, 5.1, 6.1 - Understanding scientific and engineering practices.

Grades K-4: Living Systems and Processes
1.5 – Animals, including humans, have basic life needs that allow them to survive; including animals can be classified based on a variety of characteristics.
3.5 – Aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems support a diversity of organisms.
4.2 – Plants and animals have structures that distinguish them from one another and play vital roles in their ability to survive.

Grades K-5: Earth Resources
4.8 – Virginia has important natural resources.

Grade 6
6.6 – Water has unique physical properties and has a role in the natural and human-made environment.
6.8 – Land and water have roles in watershed systems.
6.9 – Humans impact the environment and individuals can influence public policy decisions related to energy and the environment.

Life Science
LS.1 – Understanding of scientific and engineering practices.
LS.8 – Change occurs in ecosystems, communities, populations, and organisms over time.
LS.9 – Relationships exist between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.
LS.11 – Populations of organisms can change over time.

BIO.1 – Demonstrate an understanding of scientific and engineering practices.
BIO.6 – Modern classification systems can be used as organizational tools for scientists in the study of organisms.
BIO.7 – Populations change through time.
BIO.8 – Dynamic equilibria exist within populations, communities, and ecosystems. 

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels (* indicates episode listed above in the “Related Water Radio Episodes” section).

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15
– on density, for 5th and 6th grade.

Episode 282, 9-21-15
– on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16
– on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16
– on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
*Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
*Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
*Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19
– on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20
– on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20
– on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.
Episode 539, 8-24-20
– on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.

*Episode 606, 12-6-21
– on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.