The Christmas Bird Count: It’s for the Birders!

Outdoor fun meets citizen science in the annual birdwatching festival under California’s Pacific Flyway.

By Elliot Figueira

Dec. 5, 2023—From tiny hummingbirds to gargantuan albatrosses, billions of migratory birds pass through the Pacific Flyway each year. Spanning from the northern Arctic to the furthest reaches of South America, this passage becomes especially busy during the early winter months of December and January. As temperatures drop, many bird species pass through California en masse, seeking the promise of warmth further south.

Just like their avian counterparts, birders flock together over the holidays – participating in the migration by collecting important data. Birds Canada calls it the “longest-running Citizen Science project in North America.” The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) offers anyone, including beginning birders, a chance to make a difference.

Bird Watching Groups Are Always Looking for Newcomers

Birdwatching organizations in the area are very welcoming to newcomers. We spoke with Mike Azevedo of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, who recounted an unexpected source of bird-related education:

“My first bird count was 37 years ago. At that time, I was a park aide in Pacifica, California. I was told that a twelve-year-old boy wanted to join the Pacifica Christmas Bird Count and he wanted to do it at San Pedro Valley Park. Well, this kid was amazing. I still consider him one of the best birders I've ever worked with and he knew how to bird this park very well. I was literally taught how to do the Christmas Bird Count by a twelve-year-old.”

How Does the Christmas Bird Count Work?

Thousands of CBC volunteers set out to collect as much wildlife survey data as possible. Conservation biologists and other scientists then use this data to gain important insights into bird population changes – and the distribution of species across the Pacific Flyway.

Usually, volunteers follow predetermined routes and try to count as many birds as possible. Veteran birders rely on their eyes and ears when counting birds. Knowing what birds sound like allows a birder to count them without ever laying eyes on them. At the end of the day, volunteers should be left with a tally of individual birds across many species. Those new to birdwatching will team up with an experienced birder who will show them how the CBC works in detail.

The Christmas Bird Count takes place from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, although specific dates may vary depending on location:

Peninsula & South Bay

Santa Cruz, Monterey, & San Benito

If you plan on participating in any of these bird counts, consider bringing along a pair of binoculars and warm clothing.

What Kind of Birds Will I See During the Christmas Bird Count?

First-time birders can expect to witness plenty of interesting birds – including species that they’ve never seen or even heard of. Spotting a bird that is particularly rare might even make for a news event in the scientific community:

“I know when I am seeing a bird that is not normally seen in my parts,” Azevedo says. “While working along a stream with two expert birders, I saw what I initially thought was a nuthatch. I called my fellow birder's attention to it, and it turned out to be a "black and white warble", a bird rare enough that it was big news for days after, being visited by oodles of eager folks who had never seen one.”

Those interested in birds of prey may also see Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and many others. The Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society publishes its data each year, and a quick review of the data gives a sense of which species to expect. That being said, one of the most interesting things about the Christmas Bird Count is its unpredictable nature.

Consider Volunteering

Volunteering with a local Christmas Bird Count helps provide crucial data to conservationists and naturalists, as well as insights they need to protect the most vulnerable bird species.

“I've been able to use the data to measure success of our nest box programs,” Azevedo says. “For example, as the nest box coordinator for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, I was able to look at tree swallow populations using CBC data. Suddenly, in 1998, the number of Tree Swallows seen began to build, from very few to the point that Tree Swallows are now seen regularly, in fairly large numbers, in five or our eight sectors.”

In truth, the Pacific Flyway is not what it used to be. The Audubon Society reports seeing only “a fraction” of the birds that once passed through California a century ago. It is more important than ever before to monitor, preserve, and in many cases restore these migratory routes. While the Christmas Bird Count might be “for the birders,” anyone can get involved with this rewarding endeavor.