Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Carload of Coots

What else can you call it, unless you want to use a cruder phrase? From the shoreline of Occoquan Bay NWR this week I observed and counted 1,700 American Coots far out on the bay. I’ve been birding a mere 15 years, so I’m still learning every day, but I’ve never seen that many before. Yes, I counted 1,700 birds, not 1,699 or 1,701, just like this one I photographed three years ago. Hey, I counted them twice.

When I first got into birding and was told that people conducted surveys and counted all the birds they saw, I was astounded. I couldn’t imagine how it was possible. I had watched mixed flocks of birds fly by overhead, out of view in seconds. Along a trail, birds would fly past me and reappear a minute or two later up the road, or were they different individuals? In winter, I would peer through my spotting scope at large mixed rafts of waterfowl on rivers and bays, watching the personnel in constant motion, newcomers arriving, others leaving, sun glare blinding my view of many. I was certain that someone was pulling my leg. Surely, no one could ever get an accurate count of all these birds under such challenging conditions. But, before I knew it, I was involved in surveys myself and attempting this impossible task of counting birds, thinking, “How do I possibly do this?” Yet, I saw others doing it and assumed there was something I wasn't getting.

Fortunately, there are techniques to be learned along with the pitfalls to be avoided. eBird has a pretty good primer called Bird Counting 101 and 102 at (You have to register to access this site.) Yes, providing a rough estimate is often the best that you can do, but this still can be valuable information. Even if I was off by 200-300 in my coot count, the total number of considerably over 1,000 birds is more significant than only a couple hundred.

Christmas Bird Count season begins in a couple of weeks. A crash course or review in counting techniques might be might be good preparation.

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