From the Source: Hawaiʻi Christmas Bird Count

Volunteers in Team ‘Elepaio get briefed by Alex Wang at Pu’u Maka’ala NAR to help with the annual Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Anya Tagawa

On Christmas Day in 1900, American ornithologist Frank M. Chapman suggested a Christmas Bird Census to count birds instead of hunting them over the holidays. Over a hundred years later, amateur birders continue the tradition. To learn about the Christmas Bird Count in Hawai’i, I interviewed Alex Wang, Endangered Forest Bird Field Supervisor for the Hawai’i Department of Forestry & Wildlife, Natural Area Reserve System.

Why do people participate in the Christmas Bird Count?

It’s a chance to get people out together to count birds in the form of citizen science, to see all the birds in their neighborhood and to encourage others to join in the fun. The Christmas Bird Count began as a protest to replace the then popular past-time of the “Christmas Side-Hunt,” a competition to see who could shoot the most birds. Thankfully, that tradition has been eclipsed by the non-lethal method of watching the birds.

Alex shows off telemetry equipment, a “bird radar” to locate birds. Photo by Anya Tagawa.

How did you become interested in Hawaiian birds?

I was always interested in environmental studies and conservation, but it wasn’t until my junior year in college that I took ‘Natural History of Birds’ as a summer class. It really struck a chord with me. As opposed to most of my biology classes held in stuffy classrooms, we actually got to spend time outside exploring, learning about birds by song and behavior. From there, I was hooked! After working a variety of seasonal bird jobs on the mainland to gain experience, it was an easy choice to focus on Hawaiian birds where the conservation need is so great.

Tell us about the Christmas Bird Count on the Big Island you conducted recently.

On Saturday, December 17, my NARS colleagues and I led a group of 22 volunteers into the North Kulani section of Pu’u Maka’ala NAR. We lucked out with beautiful clear skies even though a storm had been forecast for the night before. We had two stops, one in the former prison pasture where we looked for Nene and I’o before continuing on to the native forest. We divided into three groups and scoured the area for the endangered forest birds. While Akiapola’au eluded us, one group observed rival ‘Akepa get into a scuffle. Another group got close looks at a pair of Alawi (Hawaii Creeper). As opposed to a strictly standard Christmas Bird Count, we did more than just search for birds! We also out planted 50 keiki (seedlings) of the endangered lobelia, Cyanea shipmanii. We also made ‘Elepaio ornaments designed by Anya Tagawa, shared a potluck lunch, and played Bird Jeopardy.

Looking and listening for birds. Photo by Anya Tagawa.

Why is it important to count all birds in Hawai’i, even if common birds are non-native?

Most of the native forest birds live in high-elevation refuges, safe from disease-carrying mosquitoes that are restricted to low elevations. Because of that, most scientific bird surveys in Hawaii census only high-elevation habitat. But the Christmas Bird Counts which occur in populated, lowland areas may be all the more important in Hawai’i because of that. There are actually a number of native migrant shorebird and waterfowl species such as the Kolea and Koloa that occur in lowland areas. The Christmas Bird Count can measure these species as well as serve as an indicator of non-native species. Even though birds may be introduced or even invasive, it is good to have some monitoring of common species as they can alert us to major changes in the habitat or climate.

How does citizen science like the Christmas Bird Count impact the work you do?

The beauty of the Christmas Bird Count is that because it is fueled by citizen science, there is much greater effort and high-resolution coverage than any other organized survey. While the Christmas Bird Count may not have as rigorous of a scientific protocol as formal surveys, the amount of observers and bird sightings recorded vastly dwarfs all others on a national level. This can alert scientists to subtle, large-scale changes that occur across a landscape. In my opinion, the best contribution is an indirect one. It’s the awareness generated about our local and native birds within the community that one gets from an event like this. Without the public’s support, it is very difficult to sustain funding for conservation. The best way to garner support is by creating awareness of the problems our native Hawaiian birds face. This is especially true in Hawai’i, where there is a disconnect to native birds because most of them live up in the mountains and most of the people live in lowland areas.

Volunteers plant a native lobelia that will one day be a food source for native birds. Photo by Anya Tagawa.

Can folks still participate in the Hawai’i Christmas Bird Count?

Yes! There will be another count on Maui on January 3rd and one in Hilo on January 5th. Details are here.

To get involved in citizen science opportunities, visit Hawai’i Audubon’s website: