For the Birds: Cayuga Bird Club keeps up tradition, breaks records

By Jamie Swinnerton
Tompkins Weekly

Photo by Jamie Swinnerton
Wes Blauvelt, President of the Cayuga Bird Club, waits patiently for birds on the Ithaca College campus to appear.

Despite the frigid temperatures and occasionally windy conditions, Jan. 10 was a beautiful day for bird watching. Just as it has for the last 55 years, the Cayuga Bird Club and bird watchers of all enthusiasm levels were out on New Year’s Day for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

The count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, has been going for 118 consecutive years now. At the turn of the century, the count was started by ornithologist Frank Chapman as a humane alternative to the traditional “side hunt,” a shooting competition. Instead of trying to kill the most birds, the goal became to count them. According to the Cayuga Bird Club, the count has grown to over 60,000 participants in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Bermuda, West Indies, Pacific Islands, and South and Central America, and is the most intensive wildlife survey in the world.

President of Cayuga Bird Club, Wes Blauvelt, started his count in the morning near the Fall Creek area and up to Varna when it was around 6 degrees. In the afternoon he made his way to South Hill to cover the Ithaca College campus. By then the temperature had risen to a balmy 14.
“The Cayuga Bird Club, which has been around for over 100 years, has been doing the Christmas Bird Count for 56 years,” Blauvelt said while still keeping an eye out for birds. “Each club or group of people who do the bird count all over the United States can choose their day. And our tradition has been to do the count on New Year’s Day.”

Some of the birders, Blauvelt included, use an app called eBird, developed at Cornell University, to keep track of what birds they see, and how many. When a birder is done tracking the app can tell them how long they’ve been tracking, and if they have the GPS on it can calculate how far they’ve traveled.
“The count area is a 15-mile diameter with Ithaca as the central point, and so the circle goes out 7.5 miles in every direction from downtown Ithaca,” Blauvelt said. “We made up nine different areas inside that circle and they’re all assigned, there’s a leader for each of those areas.”

This methodology, like the count itself, was created by the National Audubon Society.
Blauvelt’s first stop on the Ithaca College campus for watching is next to the frozen-over pond by Muller Chapel.
“I’ve birded here once before, which was two years ago, to do the count,” Blauvelt said while explaining why there is already a pin in his eBird map not far from the pond.

Before he even gets out of the car Blauvelt has already identified the call of a House Sparrow. After surveying the area and seeing a decent number of birds Blauvelt decided to try a technique called playback that some birders use to bring birds to them. Using a small portable Bluetooth speaker that he places on top of his car, he plays a track of bird calls compiled and published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“What I’m going to play is something called ‘Eastern mobbing.’” Blauvelt said. “That Eastern is referencing an Eastern Screech Owl. So, what you’re going to hear is the haunting call of the Eastern Screech Owl, and Chickadees are mobbing it because they want to make it go away, so they’re going to be calling in this soundtrack.”

Playback is not a technique that Blauvelt said many birders use, especially not novice birders.
A few Tufted Titmice, a Northern Cardinal, and several Chickadees and House Sparrows will be the first birds recorded in Blauvelt’s eBird tracker for the Ithaca College trip.

Blauvelt’s interest in birds started when he was very young and would watch all the birds feeding on his mother’s bird feeder. Part of the appeal, for him, is that birds can be found in practically every corner of the world.
“Birds are a really fascinating animal and you can find them everywhere,” Blauvelt said. “So, no matter how much you travel or where you go, there are birds.”

He has been a member of Cayuga Bird Club for about 10 years and all of his Christmas counts have been here in Tompkins County.
After several more stops around the campus, using the playback technique a few more times, Blauvelt adds around 30 Canadian Geese, a Red-tailed Hawk, and more Chickadees, among others, to his tracking list. His next stop will be to Danby to give his tracking numbers to the area leader in order to compile a comprehensive list of all the birds spotted during the count.

Preliminary results from the count include several club records that were broken this year. The total count of individual birds came to 40,536, which was above the 10-year average but not enough to break the 2016 record of 59,611. But, the species count this year came to 102, beating the 2013 record of 99. The club also added three species never seen on the count before: Black Vultures, Tufted Ducks, and European Goldfinches.

The data collected has proved to be valuable information on the health of local bird populations. Since the data is given to the National Audubon Society, it also helps inform and guide the organization’s conservation action initiatives.