Birding In The National Parks: In The Wake Of The Christmas Bird Count

How many bird species did you count during the 2012 Christmas Bird Count season? Vulture at Everglades National Park by Kirby Adams.

Did anyone partake in a Christmas Bird Count in or around our national parks? Preliminary reports from the field indicate some robust species counts.

It’s difficult to pin down the reasons for ever-increasing diversity on CBCs. More birders and more skilled birders taking part in the counts is one sure factor. Another, more ominous cause could be the warm winters the north has had lately. As snow-cover days continue to decrease, more and more birds may choose to stay put rather than migrate to typically more hospitable climes. Why leave town when you can find earthworms in January?

There were robins singing in Acadia National Park last week. The most telling part of that report is not that it happened, but that it’s not all that noteworthy anymore.

Speaking of breaking records, two married couples set out to crush the Washington State Big Year record in 2012. Eric and Tammy Bjorkman of Vancouver, Washington, squeaked past the old record of 359 species by ticking off 360 last year. Not to be outdone, their friends from Vancouver, Arden and Sherry Hagen crushed the record with 370 species.

Impressive numbers, which beg the question of how many birds species could be seen in one year just within the confines of Washington’s big three national parks. Sounds like a job for me to tackle someday.

Speaking of Washington - Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades national parks have all been historic or current nesting sites of the endangered Marbled Murrelet. This tiny Alcid (a relative of puffins) spends its non-breeding days on the Pacific coast from the Aleutians to California. Somewhat unique among seabirds, however, it nests in inland old growth forests. Habitat loss has reduced the murrelet to as few as 22,000 individuals in 2001.

Now a study from several federal, state, and private agencies has estimated the population in 2012 to be only 16,700 birds. A slew of factors are responsible for the sharp decline. Continued habitat loss to logging, fires, and windstorms is cited as the primary concern. Reduction of available food in Pacific waters due to warming oceans is likely a major player. Finally, nest predation by crows and ravens, attracted by campgrounds and developments, is increasing. It’s clear this bird is not doing well, and we aren’t doing it any favors.

On a lighter note, down in the warmer part of the country, the ongoing battle between vultures and windshield wipers continues in Everglades National Park. I alluded to this in this column back in 2011 after my rental car was eyed suspiciously by a gang of Black Vultures at the Anhinga Trail parking lot. No damage was done to my car that day, but the reports kept rolling in.

It seems vultures love to eat rubber. Everglades National Park has now begun handing out loaner “anti-vulture kits” to visitors at Anhinga Trail and Flamingo. The kit is simply a tarp and bungee cords used to cover the vehicle and all its tasty rubber parts.

Park wildlife biologist Skip Snow is philosophical about the battle. “It’s recognition on our part that [the vultures] are part of the park and we’re the intruders in their world,” Mr. Snow says. “The vultures are doing what comes naturally.”

That’s a valid point, although it could be argued that synthetic rubber isn’t a natural part of anyone’s diet. Regardless, reports of vehicle damage have dropped since the tarp program was launched.