Kay Zagst of Marble Falls isn’t a scientist, but, every winter, she takes part in a 120-year-old science research project. She and thousands of people just like her participate in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, one of the biggest and most critical citizen-science programs in the world. This year, the count runs from December 14 to January 5, 2020, around the globe, including in Burnet County.
“It’s fun,” Zagst said. “There’s this camaraderie. You’re out there in sometimes cold and even wet weather, but you’re having fun.”
Zagst organizes for the Burnet County Circle, which is Friday, January 3. She and husband Fred have been counting Burnet County birds in the annual project since 2011. Their first count was at Chisos Mountain near Big Bend National Park in 2010. Both retirees, the Zagsts stay active in community service. Fred is on the Marble Falls Planning and Zoning Commission and is a member of the Texas Rivers Protection Association. Both belong to the Highland Lakes chapter of Texas Master Naturalists.
During the bird count, volunteers are broken into a number of teams, each with a leader, and spread out across a designated geographic area — called a circle — to tally birds and species. The same circle is used year after year, which allows researchers to compare controlled data over time.
Other area circles include the Georgetown-Andice Circle (Saturday, December 14), the Balcones Canyonlands Circle (Monday, December 16), and the Westcave Preserve Circle (Tuesday, December 17).
The count is conducted across North America and at a few international locations. Each circle picks a date for counting. Birds are counted by species, and the numbers are recorded, tallied, and added to the ever-growing database on bird populations. Researchers use the data in a number of ways, but one of the most important is tracking bird numbers and populations.
“It helps gather a huge set of data for scientists to use,” Kay Zagst said.
The Christmas Bird Count evolved from a practice of “side hunts” popular at the end of the 19th century. Rather than counting live birds, participants in this Christmas tradition shot them and then counted. The more a person killed, the more likely they were to win local prizes and collect on any bets.
This led to a huge drop in the population of birds and other animals. When ornithologist Frank Chapman noticed the declining numbers, he proposed a different idea: a Christmas bird census. Instead of killing birds, he countered, why not count them live?
Chapman held the first official bird count on Christmas Day 1900, starting with 27 birders and 25 counts.
Side hunts faded away as people became more aware of the importance of wildlife conservation, but the Christmas Bird Counts grew and now number more than 2,500 across North and South America with more than 76,000 birders participating.
The counts go on no matter the weather, which only adds to the fun and adventure, Zagst said.
“A lot of people ask me why I love birding, just in general,” she said. “It’s a perpetual scavenger hunt. You never know what you’re going to see.”
Burnet County counters gather in the morning to be assigned routes covering a 15-mile-wide circle. The center of the circle is just south of Texas 29 on Hoover’s Valley Road. Each team takes an area within the circle, which includes parts of Lake Buchanan and Inks Lake and many areas of mixed woodlands and grasslands.
After the count, the teams regroup, usually at Trailblazer Grille on the courthouse square in Burnet, to share their stories. Zagst compiles the data, which is sent to the Audubon database for easy accessibility by researchers, scientists, and others.
It’s not a completely “controlled” collection of data, but Zagst said scientists take that into consideration when using the information.
The numbers are valuable, especially as scientists have noted a recent major drop in North American bird populations. According to a study published in the online journal Science, North America alone has lost almost 3 billion birds. Information gathered from events such as the Christmas Bird Count help researchers determine the cause.
Participants are asked to bring binoculars and a bird identification tool, which can either be a book or a smartphone app. Two popular apps are eBird or Merlin Bird ID.
Also important: Dress appropriately for the weather.
“It can be cold and wet or a sunny day, but it doesn’t matter,” Zagst said. “We’re outside, just having a great time, and it makes a difference.”
For more information or to join a count, email Kay Zagst at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also attend the Highland Lakes Birding and Wildflower Society meeting at the Burnet County AgriLife Extension Building, 607 N. Vandeveer in Burnet. The group meets the first Thursday of most months at 9:30 a.m. Prior to the meeting, members hold a bird walk at 8:15 a.m. at Haley-Nelson Park, 1624 Buchanan Drive in Burnet.