1, 2…18,611: counting the birds

Keeping track of birds at Trinidad’s annual Christmas Bird Count

Illustration by Marlon Griffith

It’s 5 am on December 31, 2006. As the sky slowly brightens, you step into a pair of shorts, wrestle yourself into a t-shirt, slather yourself in insect repellent, and drape a pair of binoculars around your neck. You’re going to meet Vishnu Debie in Wallerfield, Trinidad. You’re off to count birds. You won’t return home until nightfall.

Each year since 1969, birders like Debie have taken part in the Trinidad leg of the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count. Debie has been the proud holder of the mantle of statistical compiler since 2002. He can tell you, for example, that in the 2005 count, birders saw or heard 5,767 birds from 183 species. But in 1999, bird counters identified a grand total of 18,611 birds from 211 species.

The bird enthusiasts fan out in groups of six to eight. On an average year, there’ll be about thirty or forty in total, counting in habitats ranging from wetland to savannah, in a circle with a fifteen-mile diameter in north Trinidad. In 1992, a smaller, separate count was started in Tobago.

On the count, you might have the rare pleasure of spotting a chestnut-sided warbler (first recorded on a Trinidad count in 2000), or see a glossy ibis (unlisted on local counts until 2004). “You want to catch some rare species that no one has gotten before,” says Debie, who teaches secondary school chemistry when he isn’t out tracking avifauna. “I remember one year we saw a yellow-bellied seedeater in the Arena Dam area.” That type of seedeater isn’t all that common. Its habitat is being destroyed. Sighting one, Debie says, was “quite accidental.”

The very first Christmas bird count was organised by the Audubon Society of the United States in 1900, when a group of conservationists decided it was better to count birds rather than hunt them. It was, and still is, a means of tracking changes in bird populations — today, at 1,800 locations worldwide. It aims to record every bird, no matter how common.

So rather than hunting that rare species that turns your fellow birder green with envy, you might go out with Winston Nanan and be assigned the mundane task of counting hundreds of all-too-common yellow-hooded blackbirds. Nanan, who describes himself as an ardent and affectionate bird person, has attended several Christmas bird counts. He usually heads the group that counts in the Caroni wetland area. He runs a bird sanctuary there, but is well versed on all the birds of Trinidad and Tobago. He is fully aware of the value of statistical information earned by a bird count. “If you look at our sensitive species list, concern is shown for certain species, like the piping-guan,” says Nanan. “That kind of concern comes out of our collection of statistics.”

The piping-guan, or pawi, is a blackish-brown, medium-size bird that feeds on fruit in the forest canopy. The Trinidad sub-species is the island’s only endemic bird, and has been relentlessly hunted, until its population has dropped so low it’s become a prize for bird counters.

Ian Lambie, himself a bird count compiler for more than twenty years, remembers sitting and watching a pawi at close range for some ten minutes on a bird count one year. He says it was the best view he’s ever had of the bird.

Lambie says the Trinidad bird count was started by the English ornithologist Richard ffrench, author of the definitive Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago. When ffrench returned to England, he passed the position of chief bird counter onto Lambie.

Lambie also served as president of the Asa Wright Nature Centre for 24 years. He promotes the bird count as an important marketing tool for attracting bird watchers to the world-renowned birding hotspot. He says the US$5 registration fee for each bird counter is a small price to pay for keeping Trinidad on the bird-watching map. After all, the results of the bird count are published each year in the Audubon Society’s prestigious Birds magazine. Audubon organisers are particularly interested in the results of the Trinidad bird count because it’s the only one in the world that records the cave-dwelling oilbird.

The bird count is open to locals and foreigners alike. Occasionally, foreign bird watchers staying at the Asa Wright Nature Centre join Debie and Nanan for a sweaty day of counting. (Lambie no longer attends the counts. He’s 73 years old and says he’s far too lazy.) There are advantages to having foreign eyes. “Sometimes foreigners are able to identify a bird we have never seen before,” says Lambie. “They would have seen birds from up north that we don’t know . . . We have to look up book and ting.”

In his years as bird count compiler, Lambie recorded a reduction in the numbers of migrating warblers. He thinks he knows why: the warblers’ South American forest habitat was being destroyed. But an environmental issue is not always so far removed. Even within the small area of the Trinidad bird count, conditions vary, and so do bird populations. “What happens is that you have slight shifts in the normal habitat,” says Debie. “You also have seasonal migration within the island.”

Consider the case of the purple honeycreeper. In 1999, after several years of very low numbers, the bird count recorded zero purple honeycreepers. Not one single bird was sighted or heard by dozens of eagle-eyed enthusiasts. And, from its description, the purple honeycreeper would be hard to miss. Debie says it’s all purple, except for yellow legs that make it look as if it’s just stepped in a can of paint. But one year later, the record indicated 78 of these jaunty birds. Debie calls it a remarkable increase, and ascribes it to possible food and climate changes on a local scale.

Two main factors account for large variations in the number of birds and species sighted from year to year. The first is the experience of the counters. Debie says an experienced birder will notice things a novice would not. When he’s dividing the groups, he tries to mix it up. Second, the weather on the day of the count also influences the tally. According to Audubon Society rules, the count spans 24 hours. The society assigns a three-week window around Christmas, and it’s up to the local birding body to decide on the exact date. Debie has fixed the Sunday after Christmas as Trinidad’s count date.

If the day is hot and dry, the number of sightings is likely to be low, as the birds seek shelter. But if it’s overcast with a light drizzle, you better keep your sighting pad close at hand — you’re going to record a lot of birds.

Hot or overcast, drizzly or dry, the Christmas bird count is a time to clean your binocular lenses and make a few friends. If you’re considering getting involved, contact the Asa Wright Nature Centre for details.

Oh, and you might want to try your best to get into Debie’s bird counting group. Christmas in Trinidad is a time for local delicacies, and the bird count boss says he likes to ensure that his fellow birders get their gullets filled.