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December 30, 2021

On December 31, 2021, staff from U.S. Geological Survey’s Eastern Ecological Science Center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will join forces with local bird watchers to conduct the 80th winter bird survey at Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel, Maryland.

Amateur and professional bird watchers have worked together every winter since 1942 to tally birds at the Patuxent Research Refuge. Today, this winter survey is part of the Christmas Bird Count, a community science program managed by the National Audubon Society that originally began in 1900 as an alternative to Christmas songbird hunts.

December 31, 2021 will mark the 80th year of Patuxent’s winter bird survey and, once again, team members from U.S. Geological Survey’s Eastern Ecological Science Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) refuge staff and local birdwatchers will canvas the fields and forests counting what they see! Patuxent’s survey is nested within the Bowie Christmas Bird Count circle that is centered about a mile south of the refuge in Bowie, Maryland. And just like the more than two thousand other Christmas Bird Count circles across the Americas, the Bowie count circle covers an area 15-miles in diameter that includes portions of the refuge’s south and central tracts. Results from the Patuxent portion are incorporated into the overall Bowie Christmas Bird Count records, but refuge staff also maintain a separate long-term record of the refuge’s results. Those results are one of a series of tools that USFWS staff and partners have to track how birds use habitat on the refuge and how populations respond to habitat management activities.

Patuxent Research Refuge was established in 1936 with the explicit purpose of supporting wildlife research and remains the only National Wildlife Refuge with this purpose today. The refuge offers a variety of wildlife habitats, including bottomland hardwood forest, upland forest, oak-pine savannah barrens, meadow, wetlands and lakes. Such diversity of habitat leads to high diversity of birds surveyed as part of the annual winter survey, including some species that are rarely seen elsewhere in the count circle. Of the many decades when the refuge was home to a crane colony that supported restoration of the federally endangered whooping crane, 2012-2015 was particularly noteworthy for the winter bird survey. In these years, wild migrating sandhill cranes had been attracted to the calls of the cranes in the colony and spent the winter walking around the outside of the pens, foraging naturally and seemingly enjoying the company of the colony birds.

A Lincoln's Sparrow wintering at the Patuxent Research Refuge
A winter bird survey has been conducted on the Central and South Tracts at Patuxent Research Refuge every year since 1941. In recent years, survey participants have observed Lincoln’s sparrow with increasing regularity.

With patience (and luck!), exciting birds that are rare in the region at this time of year can be observed. For example, count participants have enjoyed sightings of Lincoln’s sparrow in recent years. Lincoln’s sparrow is a common visitor to the refuge during spring and fall migration but they are few and far between by the time winter hits our region because they usually spend the winter further south. Regularly finding Lincoln’s sparrows during the annual winter survey is a testament to the value the refuge provides in offering the variety of meadow, shrub and young forest habitats that healthy bird populations require. Another uncommon winter visitor to Maryland, usually found wintering further north, is American tree sparrow. The winter bird survey regularly records these on the south tract of the refuge, where the USFWS uses controlled burns to maintain the grassland habitat they depend on. Not surprisingly, hundreds and hundreds of sparrows of many different types are found there each winter and observers carefully tally them on count day by slowly walking the fields. 

The impoundments on the refuge also provide vital resources for waterfowl and other wetland species. Flocks of ring-necked ducks often attract other diving ducks like redhead and scaup. Likewise, the large numbers of mallards and American black ducks pull in American wigeon, green-winged teal and other ‘puddle ducks’ that are a delight to find.

The information collected by EESC’s team members, USFWS staff, and local birdwatchers helps to inform the strategies that managers use to protect birds and their habitats, both on our campus on the Patuxent Research Refuge and beyond.

Learn more about the history of the Christmas Bird Count program in this video from National Audubon Society. Some of the footage came from a winter survey at Patuxent Research Refuge, with narration provided by the late Chan Robbins who enjoyed a career of more than six decades on the refuge’s campus.

A male Redhead at Knowles Marsh at the Patuxent Research Refuge
Redhead is one of many species of waterfowl regularly seen as part of the Christmas Bird Count at Patuxent Research Refuge. This male redhead was observed at Knowles Marsh on the central tract of the refuge. Credit: Mikey Lutmerding, USGS/Public Domain.