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Land Between the Lakes Hosts 69th Annual Christmas Bird Count

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The first Christmas Bird Count was held on Christmas Day of 1900.

Land Between the Lakes started the annual tradition of censusing local birds to collect trend data in 1950. Almost seventy years later, the Woodlands Nature Station prepares for another year of data collection. John Pollpeter, the Woodlands Nature Station's lead naturalist, visits Sounds Good to discuss the count and what type of birds might be seen during the survey.

At the start of the 20th century, conservation was only in its beginning stages. Many observers and scientists were concerned at the rapidly declining population of birds across the country. Ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer in the newly developed Audobon Society, proposed a Christmas bird count on Christmas Day in 1900. This holiday tradition was a conservation-minded counterpart to another pre-20th century tradition of a "Christmas side hunt," in which hunters would compete to see how many feathered or furred animals they could hunt each holiday. 

Fifty years after Chapman's first bird count, western Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes joined in the tradition. "It's a program that's citizen-science based," Pollpeter explains. "So anybody can participate. Volunteers, expert birders, amateur birders...it's not just the staff of the Land Between the Lakes. The naturalists at the nature station will all be participating in it because of their expertise level. They'll be leading groups of people out into the northern parts of Land Between the Lakes to monitor and census a certain section of that area. [Some volunteers include] Murray State people, professors and students...so it's a huge number of teams of people [trying to] get a good, accurate number of data for our area."

"We get about 20-25 different people," Pollpeter continues. "[They all] come out to Land Between the Lakes and the surrounding communities...and they go and count as many of the birds as they can find in that area. That kind of gives that trend data over the years on what the status of many of these species are across our nation. [This data] is more on the expansion of time. So if you are noticing in 1950 that you counted 3,000 American black ducks...and then now when we do this survey census, we don't see hardly any American black ducks, that tells us quite a bit that we need to start looking in that direction of what's going on. Maybe it's something to do with climate change. Maybe it's something to do with habitat change. Maybe it's something to do with...they've simply moved to a different location in the South. When you look at this kind of data, you have to extrapolate certain facts from it as best you can."

All present birds, not just those indigenous to the area, are counted in this annual census. "You just record what you see because...we're going to be even recording species that are not native to the Land Between the Lakes area. If you're up near the dams, you're probably going to get pigeons...starlings...house sparrows. In Land Between the Lakes, you're going to get some of the rare things that you don't normally see in other places. You might get a loon, for instance," Pollpeter says. 

"Some of the things I know the Christmas bird count has noted [in the past] were some range expansions of many of the backyard birds we have...cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers...more into northern areas. That could be [due to] America and Canada becoming more suburban, making it more conducive towards those types of species. Or, it could be an indication of some warming climate," Pollpeter explains. "In Land Between the Lakes, it's always interesting because you also see species that may [have] their populations getting a little bit higher. They're coming back from a much lower number. I would say American white pelicans are [in that category]. Also bald eagles - we definitely over the 70 years have seen an incredible increase of the amount of bald eagles we've seen over that time period, especially during Christmas bird count."

"During the winter months, we have less birds than we do in the summer months. The summer months, we have our breeding bird population...orioles, hummingbirds, purple martins...that fly south into Central and South America. During the winter, we actually get a lot of winter migrants...that move into the Land Between the Lakes area. Some are common year-round birds that we see all the time, we just see more of them during the winter, like American robins and bluebirds, and some of them are like your white-throated sparrows, your rusty blackbirds. Even from time to time in Land Between the Lakes, it's always kind of exciting if you get one, is a golden eagle. We'll get close to 2 to 3 golden eagles in Land Between the Lakes during the winter months, and that's something you just don't see in our area because it's just not as common in the South as it is in the Midwest and the Mountain West," Pollpeter says.

Land Between the Lakes' central mid-South location is a primary contributing factor to the diversity of species found in the area. "I always like to think of [LBL] as a crossroads," Pollpeter explains. "We have the Mississippi Flyway, for one thing. There's a lot of natural public lands in our area. This allows for a lot of these birds to be able to have a nice haven, a safe area, a refuge during the trying times of the winter months. The other thing about our area is we're kind of halfway between southern forests and northern forests. We're in that nice middle zone where we get both scopes of species. We're also kind of in the western prairies and the eastern forest type of region. So we get a really good mix. Typically on our bird count, we get 90 to 100 species of birds."

During the Land Between the Lakes bird count, "each team gets assigned a checklist. During that time period, they're just trying to write down how many [of the birds on the checklist] they see. They try to get that total number, turn it into the National Audobon Society, their number crunchers take that data, and put it to use."

The bird count is an accessible activity for birders of all levels. "We definitely encourage anybody who's interested in birding, maybe they're an expert birder, or maybe they're middle of the road. We love even having amateurs because...it's a big, giant scavenger hunt. You're not sent out there by yourself if you don't know how to bird. You're sent out with teams, or you can develop your own team if you want. But we do encourage it because it's a good opportunity to get out in the outdoors, get to enjoy your natural resources, and to learn a little bit about the natural world," Pollpeter concludes. 

The LBL Christmas Bird Count will take place in the early morning of Saturday, December 14th. For more information on the bird count or the Woodlands Nature Station, visit the Nature Station's website or call 270-924-2299.

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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