Last holiday season, as they have since 1900, citizen scientists fanned out across America to count birds. The results from the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) demonstrate the importance of national wildlife refuges to birds.
At least 70 bird species have their country- or continent-wide high counts conducted at least partially on refuges. For example, nowhere else in North, South or Central America can a person find more snow geese than the 490,000 counted during the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge CBC in western Missouri. The same is true for the 37,000 tundra swans at Mattamuskeet Refuge in coastal North Carolina; the 30,000 sandhill cranes at Muleshoe Refuge in west Texas; and the 3,600 red-throated loons at Back Bay Refuge along Virginia’s southeastern coast.
Refuges in more than a dozen states and in every region host country-wide high counts for particular bird species.
“I have fond memories of visiting Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge every winter while I was growing up and marveling at the sight and sounds of 100,000 snow geese picking up off the water at once,” says National Audubon Society chief scientist Gary Langham. “The Christmas Bird Count data clearly show that refuges host enormous numbers of birds across the country.”
During the Christmas Bird Counts, volunteers nationwide follow routes within a 15-mile diameter circle and count all the individuals of all the bird species they see or hear. Some people count birds at their backyard feeders, while diehards are traipsing the backcountry well before dawn.
The CBC numbers are proof positive that the National Wildlife Refuge System, established in large part for migratory birds, is making a meaningful difference.
Many waterfowl species have their high counts on CBCs encompassing refuges, such as the 22,000 Ross’s geese at Merced Refuge in central California or the nearly 1,400 wood ducks at Pee Dee Refuge in the Piedmont of North Carolina. But refuges also host national high counts for a variety of other bird types, including falcons, hawks, cranes, galliformes, loons, petrels, albatross, shearwaters, boobies, tropicbirds, terns, plovers, sandpipers, dowitchers, rails, blackbirds, jays and flycatchers.
Merritt Island Refuge in Florida has the high count for federally threatened Florida scrub jays, Harris Neck Refuge in Georgia for clapper rails and Sabine Refuge in Louisiana for Forster’s tern. Even the ubiquitous red-winged blackbird has its continent-wide high count on a refuge-centered CBC: a staggering 3.2 million at Squaw Creek Refuge.
“National wildlife refuges provide quality habitat in strategic areas for migratory birds,” says Doug Brewer, manager at Virginia’s Back Bay Refuge. “The CBC high counts for red-throated loons and king rails here show the importance of this refuge at a critical time of year.”PHOTO CAPTION: Ross's Goose
Ross’s geese over California. The continent-wide high tally of 22,000 individuals of the species was found during a 2011-12 Christmas Bird Count conducted at least partially on Merced National Wildlife Refuge in central California. (Steve Emmons/USFWS)
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