‘Tis the Season for Counting Birds

By Anne Smrcina

December 2020

The National Audubon’s traditional 15-mile-diameter Christmas Bird Count (CBC) circle used everywhere else, looks different in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Here, the birders who annually attempt to tally all the birds they see and hear, use an elongated kidney bean-shaped series of east-west track lines superimposed on the nearly rectangular boundary of the sanctuary. These parallel tracks crisscross the sanctuary’s most prominent feature, the underwater plateau that gives the sanctuary its name.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s shift from a count circle to survey tracks in 2009 was built upon earlier whale and marine wildlife surveys in the sanctuary, which ultimately has become the foundation for a larger, multi-season citizen science program, the Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards (S4). The seasonal surveys are contributing to a detailed long-term, year-round database of sanctuary seabird species and filling a critical need for information.

The effort to maintain continuity in both the National Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count series as well as the all-season sanctuary research database were critical factors in the decision to proceed with this year’s bird count. The cruise plan incorporates a minimal number of observers in addition to strict adherence to COVID-19 safety standards for small boat operations. With masks, physical distancing, and other precautions to prevent COVID transmission, a small group of seabird experts hope to spend a day logging the various bird species spotted and the quantity of each in what is the only all-water Christmas Bird Count data collection site in the country.

Here’s how it all started.

Stellwagen Bank and the Christmas Bird Count

Pre-COVID-19 cruises included a full complement of bird spotters. This year participation will be minimized, with social distancing and mask wearing required. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

The Christmas Bird Count program of the National Audubon Society has been an annual event since 1900. In fact, the 2020-2021 count will be the 121st year that this annual holiday citizen science tradition will take place. The event now includes hundreds of sites throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and even islands in the Pacific. All of these early winter bird censuses are conducted between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

The Stellwagen Bank CBC had its start in 1988, when it was first organized by staff and volunteers from Mass Audubon. Each year, count participants pooled their funds and chartered a whale watch vessel for a full-day trip out to Stellwagen Bank, with fingers crossed that fair weather and calm seas would make the trip a reality. An additional constraint was the need to have enough participants to cover the considerable costs of chartering the vessel. Unfortunately, all too often, one or another of these constraints caused the late December trips to be cancelled, despite all the best intentions.

Person using binoculars on a boat
Bundling up is key to surviving a Christmas Bird Count on the water at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

In 1999, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary officially joined the effort. “Our goal was to get a better idea about the types and numbers of birds using Stellwagen Bank in the winter. The sanctuary agreed to guarantee the excursion, by providing supplemental funds to cover any shortfall on the charter rental,” said Anne Smrcina, the sanctuary’s education coordinator who initiated the partnership. “Unfortunately, the sanctuary had no pull with Mother Nature, so again, trips were cancelled,” she noted.

For the early Stellwagen Bank counts, the 15-mile diameter circle covered the southern portion of Stellwagen Bank and also touched the outer reaches of Cape Cod. Because of this, when the vessel could not leave port, birders were still able to contribute data for the annual CBC from shoreside locations. “Because of the annual fluctuations in numbers created by these two different count boundaries, it was difficult for anyone viewing data from the Stellwagen Bank study area to make meaningful comparisons,” said Smrcina.

Research Vessel Auk Joins the Effort

The black-legged kittiwake is an oceanic gull seen in the sanctuary during winter months. Photo: Peter Flood

A major change in procedures occurred in 2009, when the sanctuary’s research vessel Auk became the platform from which the birders worked and the count area changed. Use of the Auk afforded greater flexibility in count scheduling by allowing the team to avoid bad weather days and select a day with more favorable conditions. “The number of participants shrank considerably, but we had a much better chance for success,” said Wayne Petersen of Mass Audubon, who has been both a long-time participant in the Stellwagen Bank CBCs, and also is the regional editor for all the New Regional CBCs.

Petersen, director of Mass Audubon’s Important Bird Area (IBA) program, was part of the team to originally select Stellwagen Bank for IBA status in 2003. According to the Audubon Society, “An Important Bird Area is a site that annually provides essential habitat to one or more species of breeding, wintering, or migrating birds. Important Bird Areas generally support high-priority species, large seasonal concentrations of birds, exceptional bird habitat, and/or have substantial research or educational value.”

“Stellwagen Bank certainly meets these criteria,” noted Petersen. “Data from Stellwagen Bank Christmas Bird Counts helped provide support for the IBA nomination, clearly demonstrating the area’s importance as a wintering ground for alcids (a group of birds that includes puffins) and a migratory stopover for northern gannets, among many other seabird species,” he noted.

Building a Long-Term Database

Anne-Marie Runfola, who coordinates S4, uses field glasses in search of seabirds. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Since 2009, the Stellwagen Bank survey tracks have been refined and data collection has expanded beyond the requirements for the Christmas Bird Count. “We are now using these monitoring cruises – both the CBC and our other seasonal trips – to build a long-term database to improve knowledge of avian species in the sanctuary, to assess the health of key species and the sanctuary ecosystem, and identify changes over time,” remarked Anne-Marie Runfola, the sanctuary’s volunteer coordinator and creator of S4, a popular volunteer citizen-science effort. “In addition, these surveys provide an additional data layer for other research projects that sanctuary managers use to make decisions for resource management.” Runfola also pointed out that seabirds are now being used as proxies for the presence of other species, like whales and fish.

The volunteer birders in the count and other S4 cruises also play an important role in outreach by sharing data widely through outlets, such as National Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count database, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s e-Bird database, and the Boston Globe’s regular weekly bird reports. The work of the S4 program is also gaining recognition in the recreational birdwatching and avian research communities.

How to Participate in the Christmas Bird Count Program

The football-shaped dovekie is the smallest of the alcids, a group of seabirds that move south in winter to the sanctuary from their summer nesting grounds in Maine and Canada. Photo: Peter Flood

Although Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is the only national marine sanctuary that co-sponsors a Christmas Bird Count, numerous other sanctuary areas are included in other counts. The National Audubon Society website maintains a map indicating where counts are being offered each year. National Audubon Society requests that interested birders directly contact the count organizer for each CBC to get details and to see if there is space in the group for extra participants.

Want to volunteer for the Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards (S4) program? Visit the sanctuary’s volunteer page.

Anne Smrcina is the education coordinator for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.