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December 23, 2012

Christmas count under way: Local volunteers look forward to their part in annual bird survey

— It’s been going on for 112 years and this year is no exception.

The annual Christmas Bird Count, a survey to identify and count birds across North American started Dec. 14 and continues through Jan. 5.

“Doing the bird count is great fun. Doing all of the paperwork is not so much fun,” said Jeff Payne, the Cambria-Somerset count leader for the annual count spearheaded by the National Audubon Society.

Payne, who lives in Allegheny Township, Somerset County, has been counting birds during the annual survey since the mid-1980’s. He said it provides a great time to be out in the winter woods, but does much more.

“Thousands of counts are done during the count and it can show long-term trends in birds,” Payne said.

A local group of bird-watchers, known as the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society, did their part for the count on Dec. 16. They started at 6 a.m. and stayed out until dusk.

The focus was a 71/2 mile area from Johnstown to Indian Lake in Somerset County, with 23 volunteers in eight crews spreading out to cover the circle.

The count always provides some surprises, he said, with some birds all but disappearing from the Cambria-Somerset region through the years and formerly hard to find birds now showing up in abundance.

One of the big surprises this year was the spotting of a parasitic jaeger, a species that pleasures itself in harassing other birds, especially during the winter when food is scarce.

“It’s the first time we ever saw that species in Somerset County,” Payne said. “They nest in the Arctic and winter at sea.

The Christmas bird count is the longest-running citizen science survey, relying on tens of thousands of volunteers to document what might be flying over and stopping in for a rest, spending the winter or making  a late exit south.

The goal is to cover and report bird activity in as much of North America as possible.

The information from each count is reported to the national Audubon group, which analyzes the data and studies trends.

While the region has seen a few cold days and a little bit of snow, the weather has remained relatively warm through November and December, impacting on the number and species of birds recorded, a bird watcher from the Patton area.

Dave Gobert, who terms himself a year round birder and counter who keeps an eye on the Cambria-Clearfield area, said he is seeing fewer birds than he normally does a week before Christmas, largely due to the weather.

“It’s because of the warm weather,” he said. “It takes cooler weather to bring the northern birds into his area.”

While temperatures are key, one of the greatest impacts on birds this year may be tropical storm Sandy, Gobert said.

Gobert, who keeps a close watch on Glendale Lake in Prince Gallitzin State Park, said he is seeing more waterfowl than he has for years.

“I’m seeing a lot of good waterfowl at Prince Gallitzin because of Sandy,” he said.

“Storm birds,” as they are being called, put down before a big storm hits and sometimes stay in an area for a while, Gobert said.

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