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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Annual Christmas Count Is For the Birds

Annual Christmas Count Is For the Birds
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT – For 65 years, bird enthusiasts have been reporting to the Westport area in December to participate in an annual Christmas bird count. The concept of counting birds dates back even further – 112 years to be exact – when the National Audubon Society first launched the effort.

Sunday was no different, when volunteer bird watchers at all levels of experience spent all or part of the day going out into the field in various locations within a 15-mile wide “count circle”. The circle was centered at Westport’s Twin Bridges on Route 57 and included “hot” bird watching locales in Westport, Norwalk and Fairfield. Others conducted backyard feeder counts in the same areas.

The object of participants is to identify and count each species of bird seen and record how many of each type are seen in a day. All the data from the Westport count, as well as 16 other counts in Connecticut, is provided to the NAS.

Connecticut is not the only state that counts. Over 1,700 other counts are conducted simultaneously nationwide and throughout the Americas and results are published in a document titled “American Birds.” The NAS count is the longest running annual census of bird populations in the country, thanks to some 44,000 volunteer birdwatchers.

Frank Mantlik, a Stratford resident who works as a mailman in the Compo Beach area, has been participating in the CBC since 1977, close to 40 years. In fact, he was the Westport CBC compiler and captain from 1979 to around 1994. The area captain is now Mardi Dickinson.

Since the participants are all volunteers, the names and faces of counters continually change over the years, said Mantlik. The number of participants has also gone down over time due to people getting busy at Christmastime, he said.

Property development has been an issue for local bird populations, Mantlik explained. “Where there were nice thickets, there are now manicured lawns. Still, there are local parks and beaches for birds to explore,” he said.

And there’s usually an amazing sighting. “This morning, I found a yellow-breasted chat, considered a warbler species,” Mantlik said. “It’s unusual any time of year. I saw this one at Taylor Farm Park in Norwalk. I also saw a double-crested cormorant, which is unusual in the winter months. They are more common in summer, when they breed on our offshore islands.”

The day started early for Mantlik, at 7 a.m. He and others gathered at Veterans Park in East Norwalk, before covering Calf Pasture Beach, Taylor Farm Park, Canfield Island, the banks of Norwalk River and Westport’s Saugatuck River shores. Because the day was windy and temperatures were only in the 20s, Mantlik put on about five layers, including two sweaters. As to equipment, he carries binoculars, a spotting scope for long-distance viewing, and a digital camera in case of a rare sighting.

“I look forward to this,” he said, “and put off holiday errands to do it. It often becomes a competition to see who found the rarest bird. You try to get accurate totals, and have to be quick.”

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