Thursday, December 6, 2012

The CBC Countdown Dinner – What It's All About

Christmas Bird Counts – citizen science? “No,” retorted my friend Dave Irons. “It’s all about the food.” 

Indeed, as we finish a long day in the field, pishing at every bush, scanning every power pole, and quickly counting every flying flock of pigeons and starlings (and some of us hiking 12 miles straight up and down the mountains), we’ll all certainly be looking forward to a hearty meal at the end. But no matter how hungry and tired I might be, my mind is thinking more about what species were seen…and which were missed. How many species of warblers were seen? (There are at least 12 in the circle right now, including two never before seen on the Tucson Valley CBC!) How did our Cooper’s Hawk numbers compare to the average – or the all-time national high, which we broke just last year? Did the mountain groups get Black-chinned Sparrow? Was the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker found? Are Inca Doves still in decline or will we be able to see an increase this year? And finally, how many species total did we get? When you get so many people birding in one area on the same day, covering patches that never get birded otherwise, all kinds of surprising things are discovered.
Black-chinned Sparrow – if found on the Tucson Valley CBC it will be in the steep canyons of the Santa Catalina Mountains in small numbers. It's been missed twice in the past 10 years.

For me, any day spent birding is a good day, but on a CBC, the Countdown Dinner, where many of these questions are answered, is half the fun.

Here’s how it works: First, everyone arrives on time (by 5:45), bringing their field notes, tally sheets, and their salad, side dish, and dessert (meat and veggie chili, clam chowder and non-alcoholic beverages are provided on the Tucson Valley CBC this year). As you refuel, someone in you area makes sure the final species list for your area is filled out – tally marks all totaled up, miles and hours entered, and that kind of stuff. Then the Count Compiler interrupts your repast to begin the Countdown Tally.
Alan Contreras has conducted many CBC Countdowns in Oregon over the past 40 years.

The Compiler begins by simply reading off a list of bird names, pausing after each one. Everyone (not just area leaders) responds by calling out “YES!” if they saw that species, and remains silent if they didn’t.  For example:

Compiler: “Redhead!”

Three counters call out: “Yes!”

Compiler: “Ring-necked Duck!”

Thirty-eight counters respond: “Yes!”

Compiler: “Greater Scaup!”

Silence. An expected miss.

Compiler:  “Lesser Scaup!”


Compiler: “What? No Lesser Scaup??!”

One meek counter, who had been remaining silent the entire time and thought his area leader was calling out (but didn’t because she had her mouth full of salad) blurts suddenly: “Yes! We had 13!”

OK, your first warning: don’t scare the Compiler like that.

At the end of the reading, we have a preliminary total, as the Compiler has only read down a list of the expected to moderately rare species. Now there's an opportunity for a representative from each team to share with everyone any additional species that weren’t called out, some of them known, staked-out rarities, some perhaps with a surprise or two tucked up their sleeves. Any other unusual or memorable experiences can be shared at this time as well.

After all 27 teams have had a chance to chime in, we’ll have our semi-official total (barring the unthinkable faux pause of a team not delivering their list to the countdown), and then everyone can go home and get some rest. The compiler, on the other had must now take every team’s list, enter it into a spreadsheet and upload the data to the National Audubon CBC website. The veracity of the rarities must also be judged and details sorted out. That part isn’t so fun, but that’s where we start to see trend data. Stay tuned for all that.


  1. Our count in Western MD (the Allegany Count) used to have a tally rally (and dinner). We don't have much support on the count and since only about half the participants bother to come to the tally, it seems like more work to do the tally than to not do it.

    Its always fun though to go to the tally for a large count. The OC Md count is a fun time similar to how your describe the Tucson Valley CBC. It is often as much entertainment as all the good birds!

  2. I know that on some CBCs with few participants and species they do the final compilation of numbers at the countdown dinner. Each team calls out how many they saw of each species while the compiler comes up with totals right there on the spot. I suppose it can be fun to know how many of each then and there, but for the participants that can be a drudgery; I see that as the compiler's job. I lived through such a compilation on the Portal CBC once, and with some 53 participants, 18 teams, and 137 species, it was excruciating. The compiler would get lost halfway through the Bridled Titmice, and we'd have to start over back with group 1. It went until 9:00 p.m., and I still had a 3 hour drive to the CBC I was doing the next day.