Since 1899 the National Audubon Society annual Christmas Bird Count has taken place, and this year it will take place for Anne Arundel on January 3, 2021. This highly-anticipated outdoor holiday excursion that birders young and old have gleefully grabbed their binoculars for will be the same as it has for ages, but local participants will find some things a bit different.
"Typically it's the biggest birding event all year.," said Chris Eberly, head of the Anne Arundel Bird Club, and executive director of the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership.
Eberly said people are lamenting that the usual group get-togethers that takes place after individual bird-watchers conduct the count is not taking place in person.
Normally groups of 2 to 10 birdwatchers will go out explore a specific natural area and observe and count birds. The birdwatchers get back together and swap stories and tabulate what species were found and how many individual birds there were located.
"Every one gets together and shares stories and has a good time," Eberly said. "I've done some in the past. It's just a lot of fun. It's not a competition (but some birders do vie to have something to tell when they get back). If there's a rare bird around...word spreads very quickly."
This year the word will likely spread electronically. The post-counting get together will take place on Zoom.
"It will still be done," Eberly said. "Just virtually. It's what we gotta do. We'll make do."
Discovering a bird species that is rare to the area during the Christmas Count usually takes place at least once, the bird-lover said. But in recent years it has become more common--and this year even more so.
The 2020 holiday season is an "irruption" year for some species. There's been a cone crop failure in the Boreal forests of far northern Canada and many finch-type birds have been forced to fly south to secure their holiday dinners.
Eberly explained that birds like Pine Siskins and Evening Grosbeaks,are showing up in Maryland in considerable numbers to forage.
They eat the seeds of evergreen cones--including spruce and fir. They will also eat sunflower seeds.
The Evening Grosbeak is particularly beautiful to observe, but also under grave threat. Flocks of the grosbeaks often congregate at feeders in groups of around 25. But their populations have crashed by 90 percent in recent years, Eberly said. The culprit is thought to be habitat loss and climate change. The Boreal forests of Canada are heavily logged.
"It (Evening Grosbeak) kind of looks like an American Goldfinch on super-steroids," Eberly said. "If you get 25 to 30 they'll clean out a feeder. They're just gorgeous. I've seen reports of them this past week all the way down in southern Virginia."
A study came out not long ago that concluded over 30 percent of the American bird population has disappeared since the 1970's. The culprit is thought by some to be habitat loss, climate change and even outdoor housecats are believed to be heavy predators of native bird populations.
While Eberly thinks climate change and habitat loss are impacting the bird population, he indicated the jury is out yet on definitive causes of the loss of billion of birds over less than half a century.
"It's not like we can point to one specific cause," he said. "There are some people that are looking for the smoking gun for overall bird population."
There are things residents everywhere can do to help birds. Bird feeders augment the diet of birds, but they are not the biggest aid to bird population. If property owners would plant native -berry shrubs that bore fruit throughout the year, there would quite possibly be a considerably larger beneficial impact on Anne Arundel birds.
"The focus on that would be planting natives," Eberly said. "You can plant native shrubs so that there would be bushes year round."
He said Doug Tallamy has done extensive work on determining native species that wildlife forages on. The National Wildlife Federation offers a zip code-directed catalog to native plants, based on his work.
In a strange way climate change has been something of a boon to bird watching. Bird species have been moving more in response to temperature and weather changes that birders get to see rarer species more often. Eberly said that it has happened so often that some birds would no longer being considered rare, but just unusual.
A pair or two of Brown Boobys have showed up regularly in Baltimore Harbor and near the Chesapeake Bay for the last five years. The bird normally breeds on Caribbean Islands where, according to one researcher, there is so much trash now washing ashore, most of the birds nests are constructed from plastic refuse.
"The thing is, it's gradually growing warmer up in the north," Eberly said. "So these birds are just wandering further."
He said the phenomenon of wandering birds is great for bird watching, but probably not so great for the overall environment.
Like many American residents this year, the birds have been enduring. With bald eagles starting to pair up again now, the wild places of Anne Arundel are continuing to move through their natural cycles. It has perhaps, been a bit harder for both us and them in 2020.
"Overall birds are still around," Eberly said. "They're hanging in there. They're doing the best they can."
If you want to try your hand at birding and join the local Christmas Bird Count to start the new year contact Hal Wierenga at firstname.lastname@example.org or Lynn Davidson at email@example.com.