Counting feathered friends

Dec. 22, 2013 @ 06:13 PM

How many of the birds that frequent Durham and Chapel Hill in the winter can you accurately identify?

Members of the New Hope Audubon Society make it seem easy as they call out the types of birds based on chirps and songs alone for the 114th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

A tw-week window is all that’s allowed for local bird watchers to identify and count the birds calling Durham and Chapel Hill home for the winter, no matter how briefly.

Tom Driscoll led two groups out this year, one into Durham’s Duke Forest on Dec. 15 and the other into the more urban neighborhood of Booker Creek in Chapel Hill Sunday, to take an inventory of the area birds.

“We may see some birds every few years,” Driscoll said. “Some of it’s cyclic. For a lot of our count we’re just listening and we record.”

Called the longest running citizen science survey in the world, the annual count brings together data from all over the country to be added to a national database for information and research.

According to the National Audubon Society, the Christmas count began as the counter activity to the Christmas bird hunt and has aided in growing conservation efforts. The society reported more than 60,000 observers across the northern hemisphere.

Driscoll is a retired environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency and has been participating in the Christmas bird count for about 30 years.

He began watching birds before then, an activity he shared with his first wife. Driscoll put down his binoculars after she lost her battle with cancer. His then mother-in-law sent him her daughter’s binoculars and said, “you need to get back into this.”

And he’s been back at it ever since.

Leading groups on the Christmas and Spring bird counts, Driscoll and the New Hope Audubon Society work with other organizations and groups wanting to learn more about area birds.

This year’s count brought newcomers and veteran bird watchers, equipped with mobile apps that play bird calls on a loop, devices that track where the group has been counting birds, binoculars and an unrivaled love of birds.

“This is the first winter I’ve ever done a Christmas bird count in a short-sleeved shirt,” Driscoll said. “There’s never a bad day walking in the woods. Often people come out with me and we see all kinds of birds.

“I’m fostering interest in other people and I am doing citizen science,” he continued. “We have data in a way we never would. There’s no substitute for actual data on population. It takes people going out and counting these birds to get that data.”

Driscoll explained that after 100 years of bird counting analysis can be done on any trends of various bird populations.

Maria de Bruyn was in Driscoll’s Chapel Hill group participating in her second count. Armed with a camera and a telephoto lens, de Bruyn said that she appreciates the way Driscoll helps bird watchers on all levels.

“There are certain birds that you see all the time but Tom will point out a bird even if he’s seen it a lot and it’s really good for beginning birders,” she said.

He said that by helping other bird watchers as de Bruyn described, “it’s made me a better bird watcher. It’s rewarding for me. I stop and look at all the birds I see and I know the calls better.”

Driscoll will be participating in the Jordan Lake bird count Jan. 5 and the spring bird count in April. He will also teach a bird identifying class in February. For more information, visit