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‘It takes you away from everything else in the world’ — Christmas Bird Count is underway

harlequin duck
Doug Pfeiffer
A harlequin duck that was spotted along the New River during the Blacksburg Christmas Bird count.

In addition to the bustle of shopping and travel, there’s a quiet holiday tradition that you may not know about unless you’re a fan of bird watching — the Christmas Bird Count. Thousands of volunteers across the United States, Canada, Mexico and some counties in South America spend a 24-hour period, between mid-December until January 5th, counting as many birds as possible.

Some of the watchers in Blacksburg recently began their day at 5:30 a.m., trying to spot owls. No owls made an appearance, but the group did get to see the sunrise.

One of the volunteers, Bruce Grimes, tallied each bird in a small notebook. “We’re carrying on a long tradition,” said Grimes, who has been volunteering with the Blacksburg Christmas Bird count for 30 years.

The National Audubon Society began the counts in 1900, as a way to inspire people to protect birds, rather than kill them. “Before that, the holidays were a time to go out and shoot as many birds, particularly hawks,” Grimes said. “And the Audubon people thought that it would be a good thing to have people count instead.”

Cedar Waxwings
Bruce Grimes
Cedar Waxwings that were counted outside Blacksburg at the Christmas Bird Count in 2022.

Over the day, the volunteers with the New River Valley Bird Club counted dozens of species, including kestrels, goldfinches, mallard ducks, a blue heron, and a northern flicker. They stopped along roadways, farms and parks.

In the car, one of the counters, Beth Lancaster, pointed out a red-tailed hawk on a telephone wire. Lancaster is the co-compiler for this year’s count in Blacksburg and has been helping with the Christmas Bird Count for 20 years.

“It’s just a fun day. You get to bird all day long,” Lancaster said. “And it really takes you away from everything else in the world.”

The records during the Christmas Bird Count are compiled by the Audubon Society and will be released in a few months. The data helps track changes in bird populations over time.

Last year, 42 million birds were counted across the world as part of the Christmas count. Over 800,000 birds were counted in Virginia alone in 2021, including owls, hawks, songbirds and ducks.

Ducks in Blacksburg that were spotted by volunteers with the Christmas Bird Count.
Bruce Grimes
Ducks in Blacksburg that were spotted by volunteers with the Christmas Bird Count.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.