Flock of volunteers laces up for Walla Walla-area Christmas bird count

The local Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count is Saturday, part of a hemisphere-wide effort to tally the winged population.

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Volunteers will be in the field and on the road Saturday, counting birds in Walla Walla County for the Blue Mountain Audubon Society's 38th "Christmas Bird Count."

The count has taken place internationally for 111 years.

"Christmas counts are done all over the North and South American continents and the data is used for analysis, research, looking at bird populations, and just plain having fun doing a count," said MerryLynn Denny, who helps organize the event in Walla Walla.

Denny has been involved with the Blue Mountain Audubon Society for more than 25 years. Her husband, Mike, has been involved with the Christmas bird count since 1979.

The number of bird species volunteers are able to count each year varies depending on the weather and the number of volunteers. The highest number of bird species counted by the Blue Mountain Audubon Society was 86, in 1987. However the average number of species counted is about 70, Denny said.

"The counts are all a circle 15 miles across (177 square miles). Our count is centered at Bennington Lake so we count birds in all of Walla Walla, College Place, up to Kooskooskie, and north and south of Walla Walla," Denny said.

Last year the volunteers found five birds new to the count, and perhaps new to the area, and Denny wants to see if those species show up again. It will also be interesting to see if the volunteers discover any rare species, she said.

Researchers, authors and publishers use the data as an educational tool. Population growth or declines can help tell whether habitats are improving or declining.

Many people participate in this bird count across North, Central and South America. In a two-week period, there will be more than 45,000 volunteers in all nations counting birds. In the region this year, similar counts will take place in the Tri-Cities, Pendleton, Moses Lake and the Palouse.

Both beginners and experienced birders are welcome at Saturday's event. The Audubon Society makes sure to match novices with experienced birders, Denny said.

Denny's favorite part of the event is the excitement of not knowing which birds the volunteers will find. She also enjoys the wrap-up at the end of the day when all of the volunteers share their discoveries. She emphasizes that this is a learning experience for all involved.

"It is a learning experience -- and you will get out in areas you don't know about, you connect with the natural world, you meet new people and you have fun," she said.

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