Birders Fan Out to Count Feathered Friends

Gary Langham, chief scientist, National Audubon Society, Washington, D.C.

Richard Crossley, author, "The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds," Cape May, N.J.

The 112th Audubon Christmas Bird Count is underway. Citizen scientists armed with binoculars are recording data vital to monitoring bird health and conservation. But before you can count a Snowy Owl or a Rufous Hummingbird, you need to identify it. Birder Richard Crossley has some tips.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Every year, a group of people peer into the sky with binoculars while mimicking bird sounds on a cold winter day. No, it's not too much eggnog. They are volunteers for the annual Christmas Bird Count, now in its 112th year. These citizen scientists count birds across North America as they migrate south for the winter, and these bird enthusiasts are among the first to spot a bird like this Rufous hummingbird.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

FLATOW: Spotting it far from its natural habitat, they also keep watchful eye on endangered species like this great sage grouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

FLATOW: You knew what that was. The data they collect is vital for bird conservation. But before these bird lovers can count the whooping cranes, the prairie warblers and even the wood ducks, how do they identify them? My next guests know a thing or two about that. Dr. Gary Langham is chief scientist of the National Audubon Society, which manages the annual bird census. He joins us from our Washington, D.C., studio. Welcome back.

DR. GARY LANGHAM: Thank you. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: Nice to have you. Richard Crossley is a birder, photographer and author of the new book " The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds," which you can see all kinds of birds, every kind of bird from the East. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Richard.

RICHARD CROSSLEY: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Gary, how is the bird count going this year?

It's going well so far. We started, as usual, on December 14, and it runs through January 5. It's, you know, shaping up to be a pretty mild year in terms of weather. And, you know, when people do these bird counts, they are usually hoping for a rare sighting, but they're also looking for these really cyclical events. And this year's winner seems to be snowy owl invasion.

Snowy owl invasion. What do you mean by that?

LANGHAM: Well, apparently, it was a bumper crop for lemmings in the Arctic this year, and so it was also a bumper crop for snowy owls. And most years, that species should be very far to the north. But because there are more birds than there are food to feed them all, we're getting a whole bunch of really young birds moving very far south, as far south as Oklahoma, Kansas and lots of sightings in the Great Lakes Region so far.

FLATOW: Wow. Any other surprises popping up?

LANGHAM: Well, you know, every time people go out, they're always hoping to break their own personal record or have a high count for the circle or see a vagrant bird like the Rufous hummingbird you had at the top, which I gather there's one - was one in Central Park this year.

FLATOW: It shouldn't be there?

LANGHAM: It shouldn't be there. It should be, you know, somewhere between Alaska and Mexico, closer to Mexico this time of year.

FLATOW: Wow. We're talking about the Christmas Bird Count on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Gary Langham. And now, Richard Crossley, before anybody bundles up and heads out for a bird count, you can prepare for it, and you're a proponent of reality birding. What does that mean? I know in your books, in "The Crossley ID Guide," the birds are just not on stark white pages, but they're in their natural habitat. Is that what you mean by that?

CROSSLEY: Yes, it is. I mean, for an effort to learn today, I want to make anything lifelike. Thankfully, because of digital technology and Photoshop, we can make things more lifelike. So I created images that were in focus from near to far. If we look how the brain learns, how we teach kids and apply that to all the research that's being done, I think it's created something that's far more visual than the flat white background images of the past. And it's going to help people - hopefully inspire people - to go out and look at birds more closely. We have to understand their world, relate to it better and hopefully become better birders.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. In your bird book there are some gorgeous pictures of birds, but what role does sound play in identifying birds like the snowy owl or that Rufous hummingbird?

CROSSLEY: Well, not so much in the relative case of the snowy owl. We very rarely hear them, but sound plays a massive part in birding. You know, some people will say that 90 percent of birds are actually identified by sound before they're actually seen. So it's a huge part.

FLATOW: Hmm. Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking about the Christmas Bird Count. Let's go to the phones, quick call before the break. Steve in North High Shoals, Georgia. Hi, Steve.

STEVE: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

STEVE: We were on a bird count on Tuesday, the Lake Oconee Christmas Bird Count, and there are three of us in our party. And Rachel(ph) looked out the window and she's like, what's that bird with the green wing? And we looked up and it was a green-tailed towhee, and it was only the second time the bird has been recorded in Georgia. The first one was 1953. So, right now, every morning, people from all over Georgia have been going to that spot to see that bird.

FLATOW: Wow. Gary, what do you say about that?

Yeah. That's really one of the exciting things that gets people out, braving the cold, is looking for those rarities, and it's really - it's exciting when people will come from all over to add to their list. On the other hand, the reason we all do it is to get trends for birds that are supposed to be there.

LANGHAM: So, you know, it's a real privilege to be part of something that's been going on for 112 years to help the conservation side too. So you have your fun social event with your friends in your neck of the woods, but also building this much larger database that's useful for conservation science.

FLATOW: Well, congratulations to you, Steve.

STEVE: Thanks. And the only reason we'd ever be on that road was because it was a Christmas Bird Count. This is like in a farm area, a really kind of - in a cow pasture, basically. And so it got us out to an area where we normally wouldn't be birding. So that's another thing that's kind of interesting about Christmas Bird Count sometimes.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Have a happy holiday.

STEVE: Thanks. You too.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Richard, quickly, you have that bird in your book?

CROSSLEY: I do have that bird in the book, mate. Yep. It's such a very, very rare from the West. I think there was a big drought in the middle of the country this year so a lot of green-tailed towhees, sage thrashers were displaced. They're not really wintering where they usually are. A lot moved further south and east than usual. So that's probably one of the reasons why it's been seen in Georgia.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about birding with Dr. Gary Langham, who is chief scientist of the National Audubon Society. Richard Crossley is a birder of the highest order. He's a photographer and author of "The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds" out. Stay with us. We'll be right back. Get your binoculars after this break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about birds this hour. It's our annual bird, I guess, show where we talk about the Christmas Bird Count with my guest Gary Langham. He is chief scientist for the National Audubon Society. Richard Crossley is a birder, photographer and author of "The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds." And he's got some great photos in there of birds all on the East. Do you have an edition for the other parts of the country, Richard?

CROSSLEY: Yeah. I'm doing a Western one. I'm actually doing a British and Irish one. That might surprise some people with my accent.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CROSSLEY: We're also working on this concept of doing some other books on raptors, warblers and one on ducks as well. So the one for ducks is actually going to be for birders and hunters so, hopefully, we can bring these two groups together because both do a lot for conservation. And that's one of my goals is to get more people involved, see as one and, ultimately, help with saving the great outdoors and birds.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And in that vein, let - we're going to have our first SCIENCE FRIDAY bird sound quiz. Maybe we can make this an annual bird count event. We're going to play a sound, you know the thing. You guess the bird. And the first caller to get the right answer is actually going to win a copy of Richard Crossley's book, "The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds." So we're going to play the sound. I may play it a couple of times, so you can hear it. Here is that bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

FLATOW: OK. That was the sound of our first contest. If you think you know the answer, 1-800-989-8255. I would like to say you could tweet it in, but we have no way of getting back to you on Twitter on this sort of thing. So we're just going to take phone calls this time. Maybe next year we'll have a little bit more of an idea how to work Twitter better. I mean, let's - so let's - Neil(ph), let's play the sound again so that people who might have heard it now, they can perk up.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

FLATOW: OK. That was the mystery bird sound. I'm going to give you a hint to begin with. It's a shore bird that lives in the forest. So that's our first hint. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones and take some calls while they're guessing on that one. Let's go to John(ph) in Sacramento. Hi, John.

JOHN: Hi. How are you guys doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

JOHN: Hey, I just had a question for your guest. As far as the bird call, I would have no clue. But with them doing this every year for so long, did they notice anything in the migratory patterns that they think might be contributable to global warming? I would like to know their thoughts on that. I can take the answer off the air.

FLATOW: OK, John. Thanks for calling. Gary, Richard?

CROSSLEY: Yeah. Actually, yes. When I first came to Cape May, to America, things were quite different. For example, willets didn't winter now in the neck of the woods. Now, there's - hundreds of them winter here. And so there's several other species were clearly the birds are wintering further north. And the hummingbird, Rufous hummingbird that you just mentioned, it's also quite clear that different species of hummingbirds, every winter, there's and more of them sort of reaching further and further north. And basically, what they're probably doing is just expanding their range further northwards, certainly, their wintering range because of the mild winters. Now, there are other examples, but, you know, but that's definitely the case, yeah.

FLATOW: Gary, you agree?

LANGHAM: Yeah. Absolutely. There are a number of species, you know, including things like black skimmer that have been documented to be progressively moving north. But a few years ago, we also did an analysis based on 40 years of Christmas Bird Count data in addition to breeding bird survey data to show that the birds are really spoken on this topic with their wings. They - if you look at where their centers of range abundance are, we looked at 305 species, they had moved, you know, 58 percent of them had moved around 100 miles north, their center of their range.

And we - we're doing a different kind of analysis right now. We're right in the middle of it for 600 species in North America based on the same counts that everyone goes out. They have a good time. They collect data to understand the relationship where birds occur and climate so that we can project forward under all future climates in 2020, 2050 and 2080.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go Debra(ph) in Marquette, Michigan. Hi, Debra. You got a guess?

DEBRA: I do. I wasn't positive about it. It's just a wild guess, but I wanted to find my bird book before you got me but - oh, done. But I was thinking a booby?

FLATOW: Oh, I wish Flora were here with the sound effects.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: No. No, it's...

DEBRA: I think the guy - the guy who took my call didn't believe. He thought I was being funny. And I'm like, no, that's a kind of bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEBRA: It is, isn't it?

FLATOW: Well, I'll ask the bird experts. Gary, Richard, is it booby?

DEBRA: But I want you to know I'm a bird fanatic and I have to say...

CROSSLEY: No.

DEBRA: ...we have a dead tree in our - in the backyard, a dead Schwedler maple. It's been a home to - birds just love it. And I'm telling you, they just like - it's a perfect setting. We're north of a big park and we have such of wide variety of birds in our yard, but the birds like woodpeckers were - four woodpeckers were born in this tree and they - the babies come back and they're carving this tree to shreds, but it's just amazing and fun to look at.

FLATOW: Well, it sounds great. Well, you didn't get it right but thanks for - it's a great call. Thanks for calling.

DEBRA: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Have a happy holiday. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to second guess in Jessie from Linville, North Carolina. Hi, Jessie.

JESSIE: Hi. How are you, Ira?

FLATOW: Hi. Got a guess for us?

JESSIE: I was going to guess black-crowned night heron.

FLATOW: No.

CROSSLEY: Nope.

JESSIE: OK.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks. We're going to - just go down...

JESSIE: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. I'm just going to go down the phone list here and just in the order that they're coming in. Let's go to Mary in Richmond. Hi, Mary.

MARY: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

MARY: Hi, there. How are you?

FLATOW: Fine. How are you? You got a guess?

MARY: Yeah, American woodcock.

FLATOW: Bingo.

CROSSLEY: Yay.

FLATOW: You said it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

FLATOW: All right. You rang the bell, American woodcock.

MARY: Yeah.

FLATOW: How did you know that?

MARY: Because I'm a birder, and I actually work for National Audubon Society.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CROSSLEY: We should disqualify you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Let's...

MARY: That's not fair. You didn't say that in the beginning.

FLATOW: No, that's true. OK, let's listen to the sound again just so that - OK, now, will note what to listen for the American woodcock.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

FLATOW: We can hear those frogs chirping in the background. Ah, it's terrific. All right, Mary, stay on the line because someone is going to - I'm going to put you on hold. Someone's going to take your phone - your address so we can send you the new book, "The Crossley ID Guide."

MARY: Oh, I'm so excited. Thank you.

FLATOW: OK. Don't go anyway. All right, here we go. I got her on hold there. Tell us about that bird. Tell us about the woodcock, Richard. What is it?

CROSSLEY: It's - well, they did, as you mentioned, it's a shorebird that lives in the woods, usually in deep forest. It's fat thing with a quite a long, stout bill. It has wacky eyes that's on the side to the head, so it looks backwards as much as it looks forward. I guess it really looks sidewards. And it makes that noise in the spring. It's called peenting. And you can often see it right at dusk. It's crepuscular. It comes out, you know, in the twilight, and in spring you can see often flying in a road and over the woods as its displaying. And otherwise, it's a bit of a pain in the neck to see actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CROSSLEY: It runs around in the floor and it's color is a camouflage, so it just blends in with the leaves, and when you go near it, it just freezes. And until you got too close and then it just flushes and flies off, not to be seen again.

FLATOW: What was your most challenging photo to take in the book?

CROSSLEY: Well, you must know your stuff, Ira, because that was actually the one.

FLATOW: That was it.

CROSSLEY: I'm a - that was it. Trying to get that at night, at dusk in flight was the hardest one - other than the ones that I didn't get, of course. But it took me probably five, six full days time-wise, but maybe about 30 attempts before I finally got it.

FLATOW: And he now...

CROSSLEY: My wife wasn't happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Are all birders this, you know, intense at what they do?

CROSSLEY: No, no. But I think it's like many sports. If you start as a kid like I did - I started when I was 7, it becomes an obsession. Now, it's really not - certainly not a hobby, debatable whether it's even a sport. It's more like life. So a number do become totally obsessed like you would guess I am, you know?

FLATOW: Yeah, I am. Yeah, I understand it. Gary, is too late to get in on this year's Audubon Society bird count?

LANGHAM: On the Christmas Bird Count, no. I mean, you can go to the Audubon website and find where - circle in an account that's upcoming, is still happened. In some cases, they're already full because there's a compiler in charge of each of the 2,200 and, you know, they spend a lot of time in effort making sure that they're being well covered.

But people can still get involved. You know, and it's not the only thing that people can do that's socially fun and for conservation. There are lots of things through the year, so I would - if people can involved this year, they don't need to wait till next Christmas Bird Count. They could do the Great Backyard Bird Count in February over President's Day weekend, or enter stuff into eBird. You know, there's lots of ways to get involved. Go to an Audubon chapter. Just get involved in your community. That's the main message.

FLATOW: Can you stay in your backyard and just tell you're - or are people interested in what comes to your bird feeder?

LANGHAM: Yeah. A few years back, we made it possible for people to just watch from their feeder, so. The only trick is the place where they're watching has to be within the count circle for a Christmas bird count. For Great Backyard Bird Count in February, you could just be anywhere.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-2855. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Laurie in Gladstone, Michigan. Hi, Laurie.

LAURIE: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

LAURIE: Hi. I am listening to your show while driving back up north to Northern Michigan after doing some visiting in Southern Michigan for the holidays. On the way back, I stopped at a landfill to chase a rare gull that's been sighted there.

FLATOW: But what...

LAURIE: And I think that's pretty typical for birders to odd things like that.

FLATOW: Well, I was going to interrupt you and say, what do you mean? You get out of your car, and you just chase this bird. Where does this...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAURIE: Well...

FLATOW: Into the landfill?

LAURIE: ...chasing, meaning I'm going, I'm driving out of my way to hope to see this bird that has been reported. And - but...

FLATOW: Did you get a picture of it at all?

LAURIE: I'm sorry. What?

FLATOW: Did you get us a picture or something?

LAURIE: I did take some pictures, and I'm actually going to have to review them to be sure that it's the bird I think it is. I'm actually not positive, but it has been sighted by others.

FLATOW: Let me remind - go ahead. Sorry.

LAURIE: My question was just it seems like there's more and more of these very odd of way - you know, out-of-their-range birds that we've seemed to be hearing about, and I'm wondering - my question for your guests is do these odd sightings seem to be increasing?

FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Gary Langham and Richard Crossley, author of the "The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds." Gary, Richard, are we seeing more rare birds around?

CROSSLEY: Yes, but I think only because our knowledge is getting better, so we know what to look for a little more. I don't think reality is any different. You know, but I think the other thing your caller said, you know, the birders are like this, we're going to landfills. I think one of my points would be that we need to get away from creating the image of birders being a little whacky and eccentric. I mean, I think birds in - and this was really the point of the book - birding should be for the masses. I mean, I think we all want to love the outdoors. It's fantastic to be outdoors. Birds are around us everywhere, whether it'd be in suburbs, cities.

And so it's just about being out, enjoying the birds. Not necessarily putting a name to them but just relating to them, being aware of the environment around us and understanding birds. Not try to put a name to them but learning the bird, how they live, what they do, when do they occur in the garden. Watch how birds come through our gardens - different birds at different times a year - and just become more aware of our environment, so we relate to it better, enjoy it more. And so really, that was the purpose of my book, to help people look at things a little differently, because of their - knock on fur - conservation as well as lifestyles.

FLATOW: You know, I found one interesting remark you made in your book that I think we're all guilty of. Certainly, I even like to look at birds as - you say we look too much at the color of the birds. I mean, and that's all we're all looking at, isn't it?

CROSSLEY: Well - but it shouldn't be. When you describe people, you know, you might describe me as a white guy. Well, maybe my derriere is white, but the rest of me is pale brown. And my face is brown, and add a couple of drinks, it gets red, you know? And my clothes change every day. Well, birds are much the same. The colors are always changing, but the size, the shape, the behavior, where they live, what they do, just like in people, always stay the same. So the best birders, that's how we look at birds. But not only that, but it's more interesting. As people, we're interested in people's lifestyles, what they do, how they behave. And it's the same with birds.

I think birds are more fascinating because of, you know, how they live, what they do, and I think once people start looking at birds on that level rather than just on the level of color, they become much more engaged and fascinated by them, which, again, with all the knock ons of, you know, getting people doing it more often and conservation. I just think it's where we need to be going, and we need to deemphasize color and just make it more about enjoying birds, environment, and that's really the purpose of the book. That's why the plates are made into lifelike scenes, so you can just enjoy the beauty of it.

Research shows that anything that's more entertaining, anything that's more lifelike and reflects reality, you know, people are going to understand it and relate to it a lot better. So that's the purpose of the book.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a quick call in. Last call from Don in Bristol, Tennessee. Hi, Don.

DON: Hi, guys. My question is for Gary. And, Gary, I participated in two CBCs so far. I have one more to go this upcoming weekend. But this year, for our CBC, we had very low numbers of birds. We had great species but low numbers, and it was just inactive days, just what we called them, and the birds just weren't active. They were hard to find. We were beating the path, but we just won't - wasn't finding them. And my question to you is when you received the data, do you have a way to account for that? Or how...

FLATOW: Let me get a quick answer because we're running out of time. Good question.

DON: OK.

LANGHAM: Well, I mean, I think it's a really interesting observation, and something that are - that were being reported in other counts that have happened so far. And at the moment, we think it probably has to do with the mild nature of this winter season so far. So the so-called half-hearty birds may not have moved south yet. We haven't really had a lot of cold snaps. But, you know, Don, I think this really underscores the importance of doing this, not just one year at a time but year over year so that you can really do the good science to understand the real trends and differentiate between a weather event and real changes. But it's really interesting.

FLATOW: I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us today. Dr. Gary Langham is chief scientist for the National Audubon Society. Richard Crossley is birder, photographer, and author of "The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds." Thank you for joining us today.

LANGHAM: Thank you.

CROSSLEY: Thank you.

FLATOW: Have a happy holiday. Have a great holiday season. Merry Christmas, and if you're taking a long vacation, have a happy new year. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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