Don’t ask Gary Clark about the bird he’s most looking forward to seeing on the longstanding Christmas Bird Count.
What the AAAS Member will tell you is every bird has its own story and life history. These are the things on his mind whenever he watches birds.
“My favorite bird is whatever bird I’m studying at the moment,” Clark says.
Gary is a long-time fan and volunteer of the Christmas Bird Count that began in 1900 as a way to counteract a holiday hunt the same day in North America. Today, it has morphed into an international tradition of its own, attracting nearly 80,000 volunteers to count and categorize 48.6 million birds all over the Western Hemisphere last year.
Clark, a business and developmental studies professor at Lone Star College, has spent four decades taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Counts that commence during any 24-hour period between December 14 and January 5.
Here’s how they work: volunteers count all the birds they see within a 15-mile radius. Once they’re finished, observers turn all of the data into the team leaders who fill out forms and get them validated, then send them to the National Audubon Society. Scientists there collect and analyze the data, and produce several reports based on what they saw.
Last year, 2,615 Christmas Bird Counts commenced in the Western Hemisphere, setting a new record. Of the total, 1,974 counts occurred in the United States, 460 counts were tallied from Canada, and 181 took place in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Pacific Islands, according to the National Audubon Society.
Birds are the linchpin of all the nature systems because they breathe the same air as humans, drink the same water, and experience the same vegetation as we do, Clark says.
Over the years, Clark has served as a volunteer coordinator for the National Audobon Society, organizing the local bird counts and recruiting volunteers. Currently, he participates in one or two counts a year in Texas, working as a volunteer who helps identify the birds. He expects to see snow geese, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks, and visitors, like the Carolina wren, northern mockingbird, and white-throated sparrows this year.
Clark also writes a column every week for the Houston Chronicle focusing on nature, and he’s authored 10 books. He often writes about his love of birds.
“It’s remarkable to me — every time I write about it, I get excited,” Clark says. “It’s a citizen science project and it’s gone on without interruption even through two world wars.”
Clark says he never set out to be a scientist. After earning his Master of Business Administration from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, he went to work at Lone Star College, where he’s held various positions including dean, vice president, and department chair. Being a naturalist is his self-described hobby.
He joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science more than a decade ago to keep his finger on the pulse of what’s happening in science. The Christmas Bird Count is part of that.
“It’s a chance for anybody to get involved in science and real science,” Clark says. “This is not play-like science, this is real science and I think that’s a very special thing.”
This year, the bird count has special meaning for Clark and many other scientists. Recent studies have shown how birds are not only decreasing in size but also in population overall. Clark also points to how the global warming catastrophe is forcing birds to change their migration patterns. The loss of bird habitats due to development is another reason for shrinking numbers, Clark says.
“It breaks my heart to see what once was a beautiful coastline and they’re throwing up all these beach houses,” Clark says.
The data collected by Clark and others on the bird counts is critical. For example, one of the reasons we know about declining bird populations is because of this count, Clark says. But the count also indicates which birds are holding their own, like pigeons, house sparrows, mockingbirds and great-tailed grackles.
Clark has noticed that the Christmas Bird Counts help volunteers become more aware of and excited about the birds in their community. In his experience, when you know about birds you want to conserve them, which is why he loves talking and writing about birds, shedding light on the things they do, how they live and why they’re relevant.
Anyone interested in joining the Christmas Bird County should contact their local Audubon Society Chapter who can direct them to a list of local counts. Once you’re out in the field, be sure to bring binoculars and a camera to document what you’ve seen.
But before going out, Clark recommends that newbies read a bird identification guidebook and take notes before you go out — not after.
“You tend to put whatever bird you saw in the field guide, versus vice versa,” Clark says.
Next, novices should watch and listen to the birds in their backyard to learn more about the birds they’ll see on a local bird count — it’s easier to identify birds if you’ve heard their music.
“When you learn the voices of birds, then you can recognize the species because you know their voice and you know their song,” he says. “…You discover, ‘My god, I had no idea so many birds were here.’”