Birders Converge On Area For Annual Ocean City Count

OCEAN CITY – Expect to see bird watchers armed with their binoculars this Friday, as dozens of volunteers travel to the area to participate in the annual Ocean City Christmas Bird Count.

Each year, from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, volunteers across North America, gather to count avian life in an effort to record data and research trends. The national count began in 1900, when ornithologist and early Audubon Society officer Frank Chapman recommended that a “Christmas Census” be taken of local birds in different locations.

Since then the Audubon Christmas Bird Count has become the largest citizen science event in the world. The count came to Ocean City in 1948 and has been occurring annually since then with volunteers traveling across Delmarva to participate in the event.

Each count is arranged around a 15-mile in diameter circle, totaling 177 miles. Locally, that circle covers downtown Ocean City, parts of Assateague, West Ocean City, Berlin and Ocean Pines. This year, the Ocean City Christmas Bird Count will be held on Friday, Dec. 28 and will cover the traditional area.

According to local Christmas Bird Count organizer Jay Sheppard, nearly 40 volunteers are expected to gather early Friday morning to commence the annual count. Sheppard reported that two-thirds of the volunteers typically travel across the Bay Bridge with the other one-third coming from the Eastern Shore.

The Ocean City Count has grown increasingly since 1948, and Sheppard attributes part of the increase to travel ease. Sheppard explained that when the Ocean City Count first began, it would take volunteers from across the Bay Bridge up to six hours to travel to Ocean City. Since then, highway and bridge additions have enabled volunteers to reach Ocean City in two hours, bringing more observers to the event.

“A lot of data is gathered, and almost all of it is related to habitat,” Sheppard said, explaining that the bird lovers typically look for trends and increases and decreases in species.

The data collected from the count also contributes to conservation, giving scientists and ornithologists a clearer picture of bird populations. Changes to the count target area over the past 60 years have resulted in changes in bird populations. Sheppard explained that improved rock jetties have brought more birds indigenous to the area. He added that the rock jetty at the Inlet has become a popular spot for year-round bird watching.

Rare birds such as the Bald Eagle have become more prevalent over the past 60 years. Sheppard noted that in the 70’s and 80’s there would be years where one or two eagles were spotted and some years when no eagles were seen. “Now we’re getting all-time high counts,” he said.

Sheppard attributed higher counts to an increase in efficient birders and better technology. Advancements in binoculars and telescope lenses have given bird watchers a better eye.

“We’re probably able to cover the area better now,” Sheppard said.

Although improvements in some areas have resulted in an increase in species, other areas have seen a loss of species. According to Sheppard, development in the West Ocean City and Berlin area has resulted in the loss of piney woods and a decrease in birds indigenous to piney woods.

As the area has become more developed, public areas for bird observing has decreased. As a result, observers knock on property owners’ doors and ask permission to walk through their back yards. Although most are happy to oblige and aid the bird observers, it can be time consuming to go door-to-door.

According to Sheppard, observers look for certain habitats as target areas.

“Interesting habitats tend to attract interesting birds,” he said. Marsh, flooded forests and even backyards with bird feeders are a few of the areas that observers try to target during the count, he added.

Friday will not be the only day that bird observers will be seen on Delmarva. Sheppard explained that the Ocean City Christmas Bird Count is scheduled to coincide with other counts across Delmarva, so that observers can travel from one count to the next each day. Crisfield will hold their count Thursday and Chincoteague will hold theirs on Saturday.

As for the Ocean City Christmas Bird Count, observers will be out early on Friday morning, with eyes open and ears perked, waiting for the avian species to emerge. Sheppard explained that around 4 or 5 a.m., they typically begin listening for owls.

Sheppard added that they would be observing and counting regardless of the weather.

“Rain or shine,” he said. “We generally expect rain, and if we don’t get rain we’re happy.”