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Citizen Science
Birds of a Feather: Extended Version
For more than 100 years, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count has drawn thousands of people of all ages. One grandmother–grandson team does it for conservation—and kinship.

 

The predawn December light is gray and hazy as Kathleen “Betty” Anderson steers her car down an icy side road in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Middleborough. But Anderson, 85, radiates energy that belies both her age and the hour. In the passenger seat, her 21-year-old grandson, Andrew Brissette, is quieter but equally focused. He’s scanning the scenery—a mix of stubbled fields, frozen marshes, and housing developments in this once-rural area. When Anderson chides him good-naturedly for forgetting his binoculars, he accepts hers with a shrug and a grin.

They’re in the final stretch of the three-week Christmas Bird Count (CBC) held each December so that volunteers can survey and tally winter bird populations. Dating back to 1900, the CBC is the longest-running citizen science project nationwide, attracting more than 50,000 participants and covering all 50 states as well as foreign countries. The data collected from each count and submitted to National Audubon are invaluable to mapping winter bird distribution and identifying populations trends, such as declines in common bird species—including evening grosbeaks and terns, whose numbers have dropped by 78 percent and 71 percent, respectively, over the past 40 years—as well as northward shifts in many birds’ ranges during recent decades (which have likely occurred in response to global climate change). For example, participants in northern locales, such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and New York’s Adirondack Mountains, are counting more tufted titmice, mockingbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, and other species that historically wintered farther south.

The CBC is also an annual happening for Anderson and Brissette. Neither one is sure of how many counts they’ve done together, but their easy rapport suggests years. “There’s a certain amount of competition among the teams,” says Anderson, laugh lines crinkling around her eyes. “We all want to get the best sightings.”

Today the pair is covering one slice of a “count circle” in Middleborough and the neighboring town of Taunton that measures 15 miles in diameter. After a day of spotting and scribbling numbers, birders from across the circle will meet to pool their tallies and compare sightings. “It’s wonderful because it gets you out in the winter, and you see all your friends at the roundup,” says Anderson. “I’ve known many of the people in my group for years.”

Although her curly gray hair doesn’t fit the part, Anderson is something of a rock star in New England’s conservation world. A self-taught naturalist, she worked as an ornithologist at the Encephalitis Field Station (created by the U.S. Public Health Service) in southeastern Massachusetts, then founded the coastal Manomet Bird Observatory (now the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences) in 1969 and ran it for 14 years. Since retiring, she’s been busier than ever, working on projects for Massachusetts Audubon and other groups and working as a member on the state’s natural heritage and endangered species advisory committee.

Anderson’s father, one of the first U.S. forest rangers, encouraged her love of the outdoors from an early age. Now she’s passed down her passion for birds to Andrew. “She put a pair of binoculars in my hands as soon as I was big enough to hold them,” he says. At age five Brissette traveled to Montana with his grandparents, saw a golden eagle from a car window through his spotting scope, and felt the birding buzz. “I swear that golden eagle looked right into the scope directly into my eyes, or so I thought,” he says. Raptors really hooked him on birding—despite a confrontation once with an angry pair of breeding northern goshawks that spotted him near their nest, an experience he recalled in an article he penned at 13 for Bird Observer, a New England birding journal. (Anderson helped him escape his pursuers.)

While children may take to birding at a young age, if only to be out with their parents, grandparent–grandchild partnerships are more unusual, according to Geoffrey LeBaron, who directs the CBC and who has birded with Anderson and Brissette. “The dynamic between Betty and Andrew is fabulous,” he says. “They’re both interested in bird behavior, habitat, and what environmental trends mean for the birds they’re seeing. And Betty doesn’t push it on him—Andrew is totally stoked when we find something he wants to see.”

After spending a summer monitoring shorebird nests and banding chicks on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Brissette worked at a restaurant and a store, saving for college and planning for a career in conservation. He usually goes on one or two CBCs a year; Anderson may do as many as five. While they’ve made some special finds at the Middleborough count, such as snow geese, their most unusual sighting occurred several years ago on outer Cape Cod, where Andrew helped identify a male calliope hummingbird—a three-inch pollinator that migrates nearly 5,400 miles round-trip each year between Mexico and southwestern Canada—at a bird feeder, no less.

“That was my rarest sighting in 50-odd years of Christmas counts, Anderson says. She and Brissette have also enjoyed the more common, but still dramatic, sight of hundreds of alcids—a group of stocky black-and-white seabirds that includes puffins and murres—flying down to ice-free waters off Massachusetts from their nesting sites farther north.

As Anderson and Brisette patrol suburban roads, office parks, and wooded stretches along the Taunton River by car and on foot, their conversation turns to bird behavior and plants they identify. “Some people are into birding as a sport and others are more focused on the scientific aspects,” says Brissette. He and his grandmother are clearly in the second group. One highlight today is a common raven perched in a treetop near a small stream. Although the species is widely distributed across the western United States and Canada, logging, farming, and hunting pushed them out of the Northeast and Midwest a century ago. As forests regain some ground, however, ravens are reappearing in Massachusetts and other states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. Peering up at this one, Anderson and Brissette frown thoughtfully, ticking off several nearby locations where ravens are known to be roosting and speculating about where else they might turn up.

The team is also excited to spot a kestrel and a sharp-shinned hawk perched on the same tree. “They’re both common around here, but you don’t usually see them that close together,” Brissette observes.

Anderson is visibly proud of the birder her grandson has become. “He’s got all the right skills—he’s quick, he’s confident, and he watches closely,” she says. “Oh, to have those eyes and ears! And legs,” she adds with a twinkle; after two knee replacements, Anderson remains mobile but often sends her grandson to scout down rough paths and report back.

At noon Brissette has to work at the restaurant, so they head into town where Anderson will get a cup of coffee and catch up with other birders. The morning’s tally: 35 species, about 900 birds total. But Brissette isn’t finished yet. As he pulls out of the parking lot, he points across the road and calls back to his grandmother, “Rock dove!” His grandmother chuckles and waves, then makes a note as he drives away.

Jennifer Weeks is a freelance writer specializing in energy and environmental issues. She lives near Boston.

 

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