Soon after daybreak just south of Washington in Virginia, a small group of bird watchers peers through binoculars, excited about seeing a variety of birds. They wander through wetlands, adjacent to the Potomac River on Mount Vernon, the former 18th century plantation of George Washington, the first U.S. president. Stuart Davis uses a more powerful scope to get a closer look. The avid birder has traveled to other countries in search of his favorite wildlife.
“They come in so many different shapes and sizes; their feathers are so beautiful,” he explained. “They do remarkable things like their acrobatic flying.”
Davis is among the more than 70,000 bird enthusiasts in more than 2,400 locations in the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, who took part in the 115th Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, a U.S. bird conservation organization.
“I think it’s really exciting to know that you’re part of an event that includes thousands of people all over the country," Davis said.
From mid-December to the beginning of January, the volunteers count birds in one of the world’s largest longest-running citizen-science efforts. They keep a list of every bird seen or heard. Data collected from the annual event is helping scientists better understand avian population trends.
Harry Glasgow has been taking part in the Christmas Bird Count for a decade.
“I think it’s a tremendous use of a lot of unofficial talent around the nation to keep track of birds,” he said. “Birds are one of the surest indicators of the health of the ecology.”
Gary Langham, Chief Scientist of the National Audubon Society, agrees and says many birds are in trouble. He cites conclusions from the past four decades of bird count data that were crucial to last year’s report, “Common Birds in Decline.”
“The Audubon climate report says that half the birds in North America - 314 out of 588 species - are seriously threatened by climate change. The impact cuts across all birds, all sizes, all kinds, all places,” said Langham.
The data show that because of warmer winters, a number of North American birds are shifting their winter ranges farther north. Birder Jamie Reidy, looking in the bushes for birds at Mount Vernon, has noticed the difference in Virginia.
“You get to see them often at odd times of the year, some a little earlier, staying a little later," she said.
Langham warns that other factors are also affecting bird populations.
“The birds that live along the beach or along the rocky shore line as sea levels are rising around the world, that is impacting them doubly so. We've reduced wetlands, for example, upwards up to 95 percent across the globe," he said.
Langham thinks that fossil fuels contributing to climate change must be curtailed, and he calls for more conservation efforts to protect birds and their habitats. Without these steps, he cautions, countless bird species around the world will be gone by the end of this century.
These bird watchers at Mount Vernon hold out optimism that more birds can be saved when they spot a bald eagle in trees far in the distance across the Potomac River. The bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States, has been making a comeback in recent years after once being on the endangered list. Although not common, eagles are being seen more often along the Potomac River.
For Nancy Vehrs, looking through her binoculars, it’s a sign of hope.
“I think it might be a juvenile eagle,” she said.