The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania is giving an early holiday present to bird watchers in Butler County.
The society is moving its annual South Butler Christmas Bird Count from Jan. 6 — when daytime temperatures as low as minus 8 kept both birds and bird counters home last year — to Dec. 16 this year.
Chris Kubiak, director for education for the society, said, “Last year we had 48 people total. That was way down from what we usually have.
“But the weather was frigid. I think it was the coldest day of the winter, and that had an impact on the participants,”
There were 25 bird counters in the field, he said, and another 23 counting birds at feeders from inside their homes.
Last year's count tallied 51 bird species and numbered 3,557 individual birds.
“There were less people and less eyes to count birds,” said Kubiak.
“When it's that cold, the birds tend to group together around food sources. Miss the food source and you miss the birds.”
The South Butler Christmas Bird Count is conducted within a circular area centered around Mars and running west to Zelienople, south to Cranberry Township, east to the Route 228 corridor and north to Connoquenessing Township.
By moving the bird count to Dec. 16, the society hopes to increase participation in what Kubiak called one of the country's oldest citizen-scientist programs.
“There are a couple reasons for this,” said Kubiak. “There are some interesting things going on.
“There is an irruption (or sudden increase) of birds coming south. They are coming from Canada,” he said.
Kubiak noted pine and fir cone crops in the north have been poor this year, sending birds such as the purple finch and the pine siskin south into Western Pennsylvania.
“You will also be seeing red-breasted nut hatches, and the evening grosbeak hasn't been seen here since the 1990s,” he said.
The grosbeak is a large bird the size of a cardinal with a thick, powerful bill adapted for cracking open nuts.
“This is a cyclic thing. There could be some climate change involved,” he said. “We've been noticing increasing numbers at bird feeders.”
That's why the annual Christmas bird count is so important.
Scientists rely on the data gathered during bird counts across the country to detect and measure changes in the environment and bird populations throughout North America.
Sue Hunter, who has a farm in Gibsonia, participated in last year's count in Butler County and is eager to get back in the field this year.
She said, “We were on a team of four. We went out in a car and went to Glade Mill Lake and Overbrook Road.
“I was impressed by the quantity of birds we saw. I totaled over 50 species for the day,” Hunter said.
“I plan to do it again this year just because it is a lot of fun and it's a service to the Audubon Society,” she said.
Kubiak said potential bird counters can sign up by calling 412-963-6100 or visiting aswp.org.
“They can register and get more information,” he said.
“We'll be meeting at Succop Nature Park (185 Airport Road, Penn Township) at 8 a.m. Dec. 16. First-timers will be paired with more experienced birders.”
As for who the bird count appeals to, Kubiak said, “It's birders, members of the Audubon Society. The bulk of the people have just developed and interest in birds. They got hooked.”
He said, “We would like to get as many people as possible. The circle will be broken up into different geographical locations.
“There will be parks, golf courses, suburban areas. It's a nice look at what different areas species are using as habitats,” Kubiak said.
And not everybody has to get into the field to count birds.
“Some people can just watch a feeder from their window within the circle. They can just count birds at the feeders,” he said.
That's what they're doing at the Jennings Environmental Education Center, 2951 Prospect Road in Brady Township, which will be conducting its own Christmas Bird Count Dec. 15, the day before the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania's, said Brandi Miller-Parrish, the center's environmental education specialist.
Miller-Parrish said, “This is the Butler County Christmas Bird Count for the Bartramian Audubon Society. It's usually held before Christmas. It is centered at a point in Moraine State Park and radiates out from there.”
She said, “We'll have a morning program and craft session and in the afternoon we will have a bird feeder watch.”
Miller-Parrish said participants will be able to count and identify birds from within the center while sipping “'bird friendly' coffee in front of a toasty fire in the fireplace.”
She said bird counters will be helping the Bartramian Audubon Society and having a relaxing timeout during the busy holiday season.
“I think this offers a relaxing morning during a very busy time of the year, but you are contributing to citizen science,” she said.
She said this family- friendly program is free but registration is required by Wednesday by calling 724-794-6011.
Whichever date the bird count takes place, Kubiak said, “This is the longest continuously running citizen-scientist effort. It is the 119th year the Audubon Society has done this.”
Kubiak said the bird count always turns up something surprising.
“It's always great to see trends and new species in Butler County,” he said.
“For example, in the past we've seen purple finches, a great blue heron. One year we had a rusty blackbird. That's really uncommon. It was interesting to find one.”