As birders prepare for the Rainier Audubon Society’s 40th annual Christmas Bird Count, this year’s event is much closer to home.
The Rainier Audubon Society encompasses the South King County areas of Auburn, Federal Way, Kent, Des Moines, Redondo, Renton and more while also extending out toward Mount Rainier. Co-founded in 1980s by Federal Way resident Thais Bock, the society aims to connect people with nature through conservation, education and environmental policy advocacy of local bird populations.
Washington state has 25 local Audubon chapters, the Rainier Audubon Society (RAS) being the third after the formation of Seattle Audubon and Tahoma Audubon societies, said Cindy Flanagan, field organizer and education chair of the RAS.
“We have some really unique territory, in terms of having saltwater, lakes, the forest, the mountain terrain,” she said of the South King County area.
In accordance with COVID-19 guidelines, the Rainier Audubon Society is encouraging participants to take part in the upcoming Jan. 3 Christmas Bird Count in their own backyards.
The Christmas Bird Count started about 120 years ago and has since grown into an international event with societies across the United States and Canada participating. The purpose is to better understand what’s going on with the population shifts with winter birds, Flanagan said.
The RAS epicenter is in Kent. On a typical year, the Christmas Bird Count takes place within a 15-mile radius divided into eight sub-areas. Groups of both new and expert birders spend the day tracking every species of bird seen or heard.
However, this year is anything by typical.
So, the Rainier Audubon Society created the first-ever Christmas Bird Count at home. On the day of the count, Sunday, Jan. 3, participants are encouraged to document the species they see and hear in their backyard. Information about the weather, how long their survey lasted, and the environment of their backyard is also helpful — and necessary.
In the 10 years RAS Leader Calen Randall has been involved, the bird populations have shifted significantly.
“In terms of backyard birds, obviously with a lot more urbanization in our South King County region, birds favoring more urban habitats, such as the Dark-eyed Junco, we’ve seen their numbers increase,” Randall said.
The numbers of American crows have increased greatly, along with birds such as Black-capped Chickadees and Northern flickers of the woodpecker family. Barred Owls, whose presence was nearly non-existent until the late 1990s, are now the most commonly seen and heard owl, Randall said.
You will most likely see Anna’s Hummingbirds in your backyard. In 1980, the RAS counted one; in 2019, they recorded 221 of the species.
The Black Phoebe species has not yet been sighted in Federal Way, but has been seen in the Tacoma, Kent and Seattle areas, Flanagan said.
The Rainier Audubon Society usually counts about 120-125 different bird species a year, which includes summer birds. At Federal Way’s former Weyerhaeuser Campus, a 425-acre forested property, about 120 different bird species are found year round, Flanagan said.
Annual bird counts also reveal the impacts humans have on the bird populations.
Increased building of residential and industrial areas results in major habitat loss and the fragmentation of forests, Flanagan said.
The RAS recorded 80 Band-tailed Pigeons, which thrive in forest cover, in 1980. In 2019, they recorded only two. Other species, such as the Wilson’s Snipe found in marshlands, or Canvasback duck, which enjoys small isolated lakes, have dropped to zero sightings in recent years.
“We’re really changing the face, and what we replant isn’t necessarily the big leaf maples and the Douglas firs and those sort of trees,” she said. “As [cities] increasingly grow, we really need to pay attention to what’s going on with the bird populations.”
The RAS is working with the King County Land Conservation Initiative to ensure some habitats remain untouched. One conservation project includes the 50-plus acres of land on Federal Way’s North Lake area.
Data collected at bird counts is provided to the National Audubon Society and helps craft climate reports and predictions of the climate change impact on bird populations around the nation.
Flanagan said giving the public an opportunity to experience what’s in your backyard is important – and a safe hobby to enjoy in a time of social distancing.
“You don’t really know what’s in your surroundings unless you’re out exploring,” she said. “It’s just so fun.”
“It’s quite amazing how many different habitats and ecosystems you can encounter just within South King County,” Randall said. “I think that’s one of the real allures of participating in the CBC is getting to experience how fortunate we are to have so many just in a 15-mile radius.”
The RAS has about 170 members, but people do not need to be a member to participate in the upcoming Christmas Bird Count. To help first-time birders, the society is hosting a “How to” webinar Sunday, Dec. 27.