You don’t have to live in Kingston to join the Kingston Christmas Bird Count, held this year on Sunday, December 18. You don’t even need to be an advanced birder. Anyone with binoculars who cares about birds is welcome.
Co-founders Karen Linder, a doctor working in diagnostic drug research, Anne Zeman, a Hopewell township librarian, and Anne’s husband, Mark Peel, executive editor of Civic Research Institute in Kingston, brought the annual ritual to town in 1998. “If you love birds, you’re going to do this. It’s a chance to learn birds beyond your feeder,” says Zeman.
“Beginning birders are welcome,” says Linder. “You have to start somewhere. Their enthusiasm fires up the rest of us. Being on the count hones everyone’s skills.”
“Besides appreciating the sheer beauty of the birds, we concentrate intensely upon behavior,” adds Linder.
One quick aside: I can attest that Kingston Christmas Bird Counts (KCBC) alongside Anne, Karen, and Mark turned me from bird-watcher to bird-listener. All three are particularly attuned to birdcalls, eagerly sharing tricks to jog others’ memory in other fields on other days. The founders exemplify alertness, conveying intense attention to habitat itself, as well as to wild creatures likely to be found in each.
About the origin of KCBC, Zeman says, “We knew about the national CBC through Audubon Magazine. We’d known [Kingston neighbor], Ted Chase for years, leading the Princeton Circle CBC alongside the Stony Brook and the canal,” Zeman adds. “But we’d never done it.” So the group decided it should launch the Kingston part, to “put Kingston on the map, bird-wise.”
All were members of the newly formed Kingston Greenways. Its mission is to preserve the town’s “greenbelt.” A Kingston Count seemed literally a natural progression. In discussions with National Audubon, it was decided the new group would focus on Kingston. That includes the Princeton Nursery lands, especially their seedbeds; the surrounds of the Lock Tender’s House, and the Cook Property — sites chosen because each habitat attracts specific species.
One of the main benefits of Christmas Counts is that they reveal ornithological trends. For example, Linder says in the past there were “hundreds of [American] crows, but few to no fish crows. Now, every year we have more of that noisy bunch.” That presence — along with the increase presence of black vultures among the crimson-head turkey vultures — is attributed to climate change.
Kingston birders also chronicled avian decreases due to West Nile Virus. “In bad mast years (acorn crop failures), we have almost no jays. We could see very definite drops in house finches, due to eye disease.” But Linder would rather talk about the year we saw a flock of 350 mourning doves waving among the nursery seedbeds as we approached. And the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets that love the conifers on the Kingston Nursery property, around the Flemer house.
Asked about the types of people who join them, the founders readily list professions as diverse as the birds they find: scientists, librarians, writers, architects, politicians, executives, assistants, and so on. The result, says Linder, is “instant camaraderie, even though people don’t know each other.”
Linder’s key memories include the 2002 counting of 1,300 snow geese; as well as “a river of 1,671 Canada geese.” She says Linder has been known to explain attaining large tallies by “counting the feet and dividing by two.”
The trio also remembers having to prove their count of American bald eagles, which continue successfully to nest in trees near the seminary. Even so, Linder says, “The eagles don’t always cooperate.” Bluebirds are “always delights, but not a given. We traverse the fields for raptors, especially toward day’s end, when they’re looking for their last meal.” A favorite of the founders is the Eno Terra Garden, where they can come upon “21 bluebirds studding the fence, along with goldfinches beyond counting, all hawking for insects.”
Both women relish re-visiting counts of yesteryear: “We bird the cemetery for sapsuckers. The seedbeds give us flickers eating ants — huge numbers. We always get the local Cooper’s hawk. Always herons. Always kingfishers.” After a pause, Linder adds, “It’s very much the luck of the draw.”
Each spoke of the particular gift of wandering the Kingston fields near Christmas, for the birds’ sake: “You lose everything else. You’re outside your own little world. The counts we turn in [through Washington Crossing Audubon to the National Audubon Society] prove the significant blessings of saving open space, preserving habitats of great diversity, in Kingston.”
The designated site to meet is just south of Eno Terra off Route 27. Organizers recommend dressing in layers, wearing warm socks and comfortable walking shoes or boots, and bringing water, binoculars, and a bird guide book (if available). The event is free. The morning session begins at 7:30 a.m. and breaks at noon for lunch at the Kingston Diner, 53 Main Street, to compare results and to welcome afternoon participants.
For information or to register, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org , or visit www.kingstongreenways.org . For information on Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, go to www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.
#b#Bird Count’s Back Story#/b#
A little known yet beloved holiday tradition has a direct link to Garden State: the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count.
The idea was hatched in 1900 by Frank Chapman, pictured at right, the West Englewood ornithologist, staff member of the New York Museum of Natural History, and founder of New Jersey-based Bird Lore monthly — a precursor to Audubon Magazine.
More than a flight of whimsy, Chapman’s idea was actually seeded by yet another American tradition: hunting on Christmas Day. As Chapman noted in Bird-Lore, “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 cross their path — if they could.”
It was then he added, “Now, Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas tide hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census, and we hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their ‘hunt’ to Bird-Lore before they retire that night.”
Bird watchers from New York to California readily accepted the proposal by organizing 25 Christmas Day counts and reporting around 90 species.
Today the tradition continues as an Audubon Society project and attracts more than 76,000 American birders who tallied up a count of 58,878,071 in 2015. Audubon breaks down the number as follows: “54,531,408 in the United States, 3,723,228 in Canada, and 623,435 in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands. Diversity-wise, 2,607 species were tallied — roughly one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna.”
The methodology to get the number is more than just using fingers and includes counting only birds spotted within a fixed 15-mile diameter circle, between the established dates, and within the 24 hours from midnight to midnight.
Birders of all levels who want to participate in the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) are invited to go to the Audubon website to get informed and even sign up for the count, which has been enlarged from a single day to run December 14 through January 5.
Although the Audubon Society is the organizing force, local groups and individuals are an important force. That includes the local Kingston Christmas Bird Count.
— Dan Aubrey