As the rest of us are snuggled up with hot cocoa this holiday season, Michigan birders have been heading out in the snow and cold for the annual Christmas bird count.
"The first Christmas bird count actually did happen on Christmas back in 1900,” says Rachelle Roake, conservation science coordinator for Michigan Audubon.
But these days, the 118-.year-old tradition takes place over several weeks in December and January. The Christmas bird count is the longest-running wildlife census in the world, according to the National Audubon Society.
And for many birders in Michigan, it’s become a beloved holiday tradition. They wake up early, bundle themselves in warm clothes, and spread out in groups across an assigned area.
"If you're really hardcore you can go out before dawn and look for owls, try to hear them calling," Roake says.
Groups of birders record what species they see and hear throughout the day. That data is then compiled by the Christmas bird count organizers and sent to the National Audubon Society.
Roake says some people assume that most of the birds have already headed south by Christmas time. But she says winter is actually a great time to see how they survive in the winter.
"You can also find a lot of irruptive species, so species that will come down in large numbers depending on the weather and food distribution, and whether or not they had a good breeding year,” Roake says.
That includes finches, crossbills, pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, and snowy owls. Roake says it is a particularly good year for seeing snowy owls, and some researchers think this year’s migration could rival the last large irruption during the 2013-2014 winter.
The Christmas bird count isn’t just a fun holiday tradition. It is also a valuable tool for studying the behavior of different species, as well as long-term changes in their population.
"I know that they've really found steep declines in the rusty black bird using Christmas bird count data," says Roake.
There are still several counts happening across Michigan in the next couple of weeks. If you’re a bird lover (and can shake yourself out of the holiday sugar coma), you can find one near you on Michigan Audubon's interactive map.