In a 1900 issue of the Audubon Society’s Bird-Lore Magazine, ornithologist Frank Chapman told of a barbaric Christmas Day custom that prompted him to come up with an idea for a kinder and gentler way to spend the holiday.
“Sportsmen were accustomed to meet on Christmas Day, ‘choose sides,’ and then, as representatives of the two bands resulting, hie them to the fields and woods on the cheerful mission of killing practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path.”
Hundreds of non-game birds were slaughtered during these hunts and so Chapman proposed “a new kind of Christmas side hunt in the form of a Christmas bird census.”
Thus began the 117-year-old tradition of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, the nation’s longest-running citizen science bird project.
In 1904 Orient resident and renowned naturalist Roy Latham established the Orient Christmas Bird Count which has now become one of the nation’s longest-running CBCs. His findings were published in the January-February 1905 issue of Bird-Lore Magazine.
Each counts take place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle approved by the NAS; the Orient circle was mapped in the 1960s by local environmentalist Paul Stoutenburgh and is still in use today.
“The count provides very helpful information in terms of bird diversity and distribution,” says CBC compiler and NAS board member Patrick Hanly. “It teaches us a lot in terms of how well the species is doing, how they’re changing, how the landscape is changing. There’s a lot you can learn from it.”
Former CBC compiler MaryLaura Lamont of Riverhead, who led the Orient CBC for over 20 years, still participates in the annual count and believes very strongly in its usefulness.
“These counts are so significant,” says Lamont. “For instance 30 years ago it was unusual to see a robin in wintertime in our area. Now we see hundreds or even thousands. That tells us that they’re no longer migrating as far south as they used to.”
She adds that it’s a great way to get outdoors in the winter for an excellent cause and enjoy time with people who have similar interests.
Volunteers agree to spend at least eight hours on a designated day to count birds within the count area. Results are sent to Hanly, who submits the numbers to the NAS. Typically there are 50 to 60 volunteers participating in the Orient count, said Hanly.
In the past few years species spotted in the Orient circle, which includes Orient, Greenport, Southold and a bit of the South Fork, have included snowy owls, bald eagles, turkey vultures and even a Northern Waterthrush, a song bird that typically migrates to the tropics.
Although excited by the unusual species showing up in the Orient count, Hanly is disheartened by the declining numbers of sea ducks.
“It’s hard to say what is causing the decline,” Hanly said. “It could be related to water quality, food supply or water temperature.”
This year’s Orient Christmas Bird Count takes place on Dec. 30 and volunteers of all experience levels who live in the count area are welcome to participate.
Registration is required. Interested bird and/or nature lovers can contact Pat Hanly at 631 312-0824 or send him an email.