Seeking bird watchers

Published 6:00 am Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Natchez portion of the 107th Annual National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Census will take place Dec. 30, the approximate date that John J. Audubon spent in Natchez in 1820.

A few of your neighbors will arise before dawn and spend most of the day scouring the countryside for birds while keeping track of how many of each species they find. Others will simply watch their yards or neighborhoods and record what they see.

Anyone may invest exactly as much time or energy as they choose. Then, that evening, those who wish will meet for food and drink at 114 Pecanwood to tally up their results, while others call in their findings.

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The level of excitement will rise as we approach the end of the species list to see how many total species we have counted compared to almost five decades of other Natchez CBCs.

Last year, there were 91 species, a little lower than average. Over almost 50 years, 178 species have been counted here on CBCs, two of them — the western meadowlark and dowitcher — for the first time last year. It’s always a thrill to identify an unusual or previously uncounted species (what birders call a “bragging” bird).

While chasing and counting birds and competing with one another for bragging birds once a year is great fun and a good way to burn off some holiday calories, there is a very serious purpose to this custom. The results of our count will be edited and analyzed here, then sent to the National Audubon Society, where they will be further edited and analyzed, and, sometimes, challenged or conducted by, perhaps, 60,000 other volunteers and published in an annual edition of the publication, American Birds, a Bible for professional ornithologists who use it to track changes and trends in bird species distributions.

While many species have stable populations from year to year, others may fluctuate or even disappear. On Dec. 26, 1820, Audubon reported flights of “millions” of “Irish geese” (now called double-crested cormorants) over the river at Natchez. We will probably see thousands, but not millions.

We might also spot another cormorant species he probably never saw, the neotropic cormorant. We are also likely to find Inca doves. Both used to be considered Mexican species, but have moved into our area in the past few years. Some species Audubon might have considered common, such as the passenger pigeons of Carolina Paraquets, went extinct because, by the time it was realized they were endangered, it was too late to save them.

The Christmas Bird Census might prevent future extinctions, because a drop in a species’ population is quickly noticeable. So, while “nailing” a rare bird is fun, it’s also important to carefully track the numbers of common birds.

Each of the CBCs takes place within a 15-mile circle. The center of the Natchez/Vidalia count circle is just east of the National Cemetery, so it straddles the River. Its western extent is about at Spokane on Lake St. John. Its Northern extent is about a mile above Thornburg Lake in Anna’s Bottom. To the east it includes the Natchez airport and its lake (where snipe always seem to show up). To the south, it includes IP and Trinity and most of the Whitehall lakes south of Vidalia, formerly a wonderful magnet for wildlife, which were, for some reason, drained earlier this year.

If you would like to participate in this year’s Natchez Christmas Bird Census in any way please contact me at 601-446-7012 or

Bill McGehee is a Natchez resident.