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MARBLE FALLS — Sammye Childers confessed to the members of the Highland Lakes Birding and Wildflower Society that she is in no way a expert birder.

“I enjoy watching them though,” she said with a smile at a club meeting Dec. 4. Despite her lack of expertise, Childers still agreed to be the local compiler for the longest-running citizen-scientist wildlife survey in North America, maybe even the world: the Christmas Bird Count.

When the Christmas Bird Count window opens Dec. 14-Jan. 5, 2015, it will mark the survey’s 115th year. Burnet County bird enthusiasts have participated in the local 15-mile circle since 1972, when Ursula Kramer got involved. The location and size of the circle never changes, nor does the local count date, which is Jan. 2, 2015.

Volunteers are needed for the Christmas Bird Count on Jan. 2, 2015, in Burnet County. You don’t have to be knowledgeable about birds, just have eyes to spot them. Contact Sammye Childers at (830) 693-5061 or for more information. File photo
Volunteers are needed for the Christmas Bird Count on Jan. 2, 2015, in Burnet County. You don’t have to be knowledgeable about birds, just have eyes to spot them. Contact Sammye Childers at (830) 693-5061 or for more information. File photo

As a scientific survey, certain things must remain constant, Childers said, two of which are the circle’s location and the date of the count. Other circles across North America can hold their counts on any day during the window of time previously stated.

For Burnet County counters, the Jan. 2 date typically means a two things: spotting birds and getting a bit cold.

But that hasn’t dissuaded volunteers from signing up for the count. In fact, the number of participants have climbed over the years, though more are always welcome. More eyes means a better count, Childers said.

Participants don’t need birding skills or to know much about birds at all. Childers will team newbies up with seasoned bird watchers, including a team leader. Even if a person doesn’t know a particular species, he or she can “spot it” and let one of the more experienced counters identify it.

Kay Zagst, a member of the society, and her husband, Fred, didn’t really have any birding experience several years ago when they first learned about the Christmas Bird Count. They were vacationing in the Big Bend National Park area when they noticed a flier on a message board seeking volunteers for the annual count.

The Zagsts showed up and expressed an interest.

“But we told them we didn’t know anything about birds,” Kay said. “They said, ‘That was all right, you just go with him.'”

The “him” turned out to be Mark Obmascik, who was working on his book “The Big Year,” which centers around three men’s competitive obsession with bird watching.

“It was like having our own bird guide,” Kay said.

Childers explained learning from each other is one of the benefits of participating in the bird count.

But the real reason, she stressed, is the incredible benefit the surveys mean for researchers. With 114 years of data on hand, scientists can use the information to gauge the health of species and other pertinent issues.

“It’s created a huge database at Cornell University and (the National) Audubon Society,” Childers said. “Scientists use that information to do so much. It’s one of the leading databases to be used to track climate change across North America and how it affects the bird populations and other wildlife. That data wouldn’t be available without this count.”

It’s something the National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold concurred.

“The Audubon Christmas Bird Count harnesses volunteer power to gather knowledge that shapes conservation policy at enormous scales in this country. I couldn’t be prouder of the volunteers who contribute each year,” Yarnold said. “Christmas Bird Count data is becoming increasingly important not only in documenting current climate change but in predicting the future effects of climate change on North American bird populations. If we know what to expect, we can start taking action now to do something about it.”

This year, the society anticipates more than 70,000 volunteers taking to the field at more than 2,400 locations. That’s quite a contrast from when Frank Chapman, the publisher of Bird Lore magazine, held the first Christmas count in 1900. He held the event as an alternative to the popular practice of “side hunts,” which occurred during the weeks around Christmas. During these hunts, people would head to the fields and the woods with the goal of shooting as many animals – fur and feather – and a person could often kill more than a hundred creatures.

Chapman, seeing this practice could eventually lead to the demise of animal species, offered up the bird census instead.

“Imagine the mockery he endured,” Childers said.

The first event included 27 participants counting birds in 27 circles. Last year, 71,659 volunteers held counts in 2,408 circles and counted more than 66 million birds and 2,403 different species.

While that sounds like a lot of birds, Childers said scientists have concerns regarding the numbers of many species after studying years of data compiled by the Christmas Bird Count. Some species about which researchers are concerned are crows, jays, owls and raptors, which have been affected by the West Nile Virus. Childers added the count has also documented falling numbers in song birds and woodpeckers.

The count isn’t all doom and gloom, though. Thanks to the annual tallies, researchers and volunteers have marked the return of the American bald eagle and the trumpeter swan.

They’ve also tracked the expansion of the whitewing dove as it encroaches on new habitat farther north. While that sounds positive for this particular species, Childers added that the whitewing’s expansion has come at the expense of other bird species.

All this information owes itself to the Christmas Bird Count volunteers.

On Jan. 2, local volunteers will break up into nine teams. Each group will count birds in a particular area of the 177-square-mile circle with its center located southwest of Texas 29 on Hoover’s Valley Road.

“Every single road and trail is assigned to a group,” Childers said. “They check everything available to them.”

But, she added, they don’t venture onto private property or into gated communities without an invitation.

It’s an eight-hour day regardless of weather. Along with data on birds, Childers said the teams record weather conditions throughout the day. After the count, volunteers gather at the “Count Down” for some camaraderie. Then, as the local compiler, Childers begins pouring over the information before submitting it for the regional compiler’s audit and eventual addition to the 114 years of previous research and data.

“And all that information and data is there because of volunteers, these citizen-scientists,” she added.

Anybody interested in volunteering or supporting the Christmas Bird Count may contact Childers at (830) 693-5061 or Go to for more information on the annual count or simply do an Internet search for “Christmas Bird Count.”