Open Spaces: Birds of a Feather: Refuges Are Popular Places for Many Species

Birds of a Feather: Refuges Are Popular Places for Many Species

The holidays have come to a close for most, but the Christmas Bird Count isn't over yet!

The National Audubon Society has been sponsoring the event for the past 113 years, and data from the count show that some national wildlife refuges attract more birds from a single species than can be found anywhere else in the country or continent.

Results from the 2011-12 count were published confirm refuges’ important role in protecting habitat for birds.

snow_geeseSnow geese take flight. (Photo: Gary Kramer/USFWS)

Take snow geese, for example. Nowhere in North, South or Central America could you find more snow geese between December 14, 2011, and January 5, 2012, than the 490,000 tallied at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in western Missouri.

Tundra swans? Nowhere were more spotted than the 37,000 counted in that same period at Mattamuskeet Refuge in coastal North Carolina.

Ditto for the 30,000 sandhill cranes counted at Muleshoe Refuge in west Texas, the 12,500 ring-necked ducks at White River Refuge in Arkansas, and the 3,600 red-throated loons at Back Bay Refuge along Virginia’s southeastern coast. And on it goes.

All told, Audubon lists 70 bird species for which country-high or continent-high counts were recorded in areas wholly or partly occupied by national wildlife refuges in more than a dozen states.

Waterfowl and wading birds aren’t the only migratory birds to benefit from refuge protection, the count shows. Refuges also recorded national-high counts for birds of prey such as falcons and hawks; galliformes such as turkey and grouse; pelagic seabirds including petrels, albatross, shearwaters, boobies and tropicbirds; shorebirds such as plovers, sandpipers and dowitchers; and passerines such as blackbirds, jays and flycatchers.

Bird migration is an ever-changing dynamic affected by shifts in climate, habitat and food availability, and early reports from the 2012-13 Christmas Bird Count suggest the picture is changing. Some refuges with high species counts in 2011-12 are reporting lower numbers after two and a half years of drought. Quivira Refuge in Kansas, for example, counted 1,000 snow geese in the most recent count, down from 4,000 in 2011, 25,000 in 2010, and 111,000 in 2009.

Barry Jones, visitor services specialist at Quivira Refuge, is wary of blaming any one cause, though. “It could be there aren’t that many birds in the region, or they would be here. It could just be a matter of timing. There could be birds to the north of us that haven’t come through. There are so many factors.”

For more info about the annual count and how you can get involved with conservation year-round, check out the Christmas Bird Count page.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012