Wonderful wings: Williamsburg man directs National Audubon Society’s historic Christmas Bird Count

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  • Since 1987, Geoff LeBaron of Williamsburg has directed the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a program that dates to 1900. The nearby Graves Farm Wildlife Sanctuary is within his 15-mile diameter counting circle for the annual tally.   STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Geoff LeBaron, seen here at his Williamsburg home, has directed the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count since 1987, working for the last two decades primarily from home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A page from the National Audubon Society's 101st Christmas Bird Count from 2000, the last full annual report to be published in paper form, as the CBC was then moved to an online data base.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Before the National Audubon Society created an online database for its Christmas Bird Count tallies, the organization would publish the information in a bulky annual report, the last one seen here. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Geoff LeBaron of Williamsburg has directed the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count since 1987. The nearby Graves Farm Wildlife Sanctuary is within his 15-mile diameter counting circle for the annual tally.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Geoff LeBaron works on the count primarily from his Williamsburg home. With extensive field experience in surveying marine populations, and experience in the Ornithology Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where he managed the world’s largest collection of bird photographs, he was hired by the National Audubon Society to run the annual count more than three decades ago. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Geoff LeBaron of Williamsburg has directed the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count since 1987. Though he doesn’t get out to bird as much as he’d like, he says he always keeps an eye out for birds as he goes about his daily life. Photographed on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A page from the National Audubon Society’s 101st Christmas Bird Count from 2000, the last full annual report to be published in paper form, as the CBC established an online database.  STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/1/2022 8:42:06 AM
Modified: 2/1/2022 8:40:36 AM

WILLIAMSBURG — From an early age, Geoff LeBaron was fascinated by flight, first with airplanes and then by birds. Today, years later, he’s still drawn inexorably to birds.

“I can’t stop birding,” says LeBaron, who’s 67. “I’m always noticing birds, whether that means seeing them or hearing them vocalize, or both.”

That interest in avian life is not just a hobby. For almost 35 years, LeBaron, of Williamsburg, has directed the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, the nation’s oldest and largest bird count, one that’s become a key tool in measuring the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America — something that’s become ever more critical given climate change.

The Christmas Bird Count, a community science project at Audubon, dates to 1900, when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed starting a bird census as an alternative to Christmas bird hunts that had become popular by the late 19th century. Those hunts were decimating bird populations, in part because bird plumage at the time was a popular decorative item for women’s hats.

With modest beginnings — according to the Audubon Society, 27 people, mostly from the Northeast, counted birds that first Christmas — the project has grown to include, as of late December 2019, over 80,000 observers across the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and some U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean. (Observer numbers dropped somewhat last year because of the pandemic, LeBaron notes, but the actual bird count was higher than in 2019; data for the 2021 count are still being compiled.)

“And these are very dedicated people,” says LeBaron, who before joining the Audubon Society was an avid volunteer for the Christmas Bird Count himself and earned a master’s degree in zoology at the University of Rhode Island. “They do it consistently, year after year, in the same locations, which makes their data very valuable … We can measure trends and do predictive modeling on where species are shifting.”

Though it started solely on Christmas Day, the annual count now takes place from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, with observers assigned to a “count circle,” generally in their home region, of a 15-mile diameter. Observers count total birds within those areas and identify different species, while a lead person compiles the data and sends that to the Audubon Society.

For the 2020 count, for instance, 192 observers in a circle that extended west to east roughly from Leeds to Amherst, and south to north from Granby/South Hadley to just north of Hatfield, identified 85 species of birds.

It’s LeBaron’s job to oversee these vast volunteer efforts and organize the reams of data they generate, then share that information with scientists and other organization. The Audubon Society collaborates with the U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, which operates another long-running volunteer bird count, the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

As such, LeBaron generally doesn’t get out to do as much birding as he might like — he did one day of counting here in the Valley for the 2021 Christmas count — but if there’s one thing he’s particularly proud of during his time directing the program, it’s the level of acceptance it’s won from scientists as a source of important data on bird populations.

“When I started with this in the 1980s, a lot of scientific organizations were very hesitant to look at our data,” he said, given that most Christmas Bird Count observers are bird enthusiasts rather than ornithologists.

However, he was able to convince scientists that the consistent procedures that amateur observers used in counting birds, and the wide geographical regions they covered, could produce “a set of valuable tools that researchers could use. In particular, we can show changes [in bird populations] over time … we have over 100 years of data.”

That process was undoubtedly helped, LeBaron says, when he pushed the Audubon Society to develop an online database in the early 2000s, one to which observers could directly input their findings. For about 100 years, the Christmas Bird Count information had been compiled by hand, with Audubon publishing a bulky, 700-page annual report each year.

That made for a lot of labor-intensive editing by hand for him, LeBaron said, during his first years on the job. By contrast, getting some of the older observers to input their data online wasn’t nearly as difficult.

“We did have some problems with people saying ‘I can’t remember my password,’” he said with a laugh.

On a more serious note, data from the Christmas count have been part of a recent study by the Audubon Society, “Survival by Degrees,” that says 389 of 604 North American bird species the organization analyzed are at risk of extinction from climate change — though the “good news,” Audubon says, is that “our science also shows that if we take action now we can help improve the chances for 76% of species at risk.”

Over the ocean

LeBaron took a somewhat roundabout path to the Audubon Society. Growing up first in the Boston suburbs and then in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he was initially drawn to marine biology, studying that as an undergraduate at the University of Miami in Florida.

He took his first class in ornithology as a senior, he says, and a professor helped convince him to make bird watching more than just a hobby, prompting him to study zoology as a graduate student.

While at the University of Rhode Island and then afterward, he also took part in extensive aerial surveys to count marine mammals, turtles and birds along the East Coast of the United States, an effort initially known as CETAP (Cetacean and Turtle Assessment Program), which was mounted partly in response to federal proposals to open parts of the seaboard to offshore oil exploration.

“What a great opportunity that was, to combine my love of birds and wildlife and airplanes,” said LeBaron, who notes that flying over the water at significant speed helped him develop his skills for quickly seeing and identifying different forms of wildlife.

Then when his wife, Heidi Johnson, a wallpaper designer and decorative painter, was offered a job in Philadelphia, LeBaron took a position with the Ornithology Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, a job that included managing the world’s largest collection of photographs of birds.

The couple moved back to New England in 1987 — Heidi now runs her own business here, Fine Interior Finishing — and LeBaron was hired later that year by Audubon to head the Christmas count.

He initially had to spend part of each work week at Audubon’s headquarters in New York City, while spending a few nights at inexpensive lodgings in the city — another reason he’s happy the annual count now compiles its data online. “I can work right out of my house,” he said.

He’s done a number of other things over the years, such as leading natural history trips to different locations around the world, and at Audubon he’s been involved with other community science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, a volunteer counting effort that takes place in late February.

But the Christmas Bird Count is LeBaron’s baby, and he’s developed many ties with its volunteers over the years. He recognizes the count can be a fun social event for observers, who might not see one another during the rest of the year, but he sometimes wonders if they understand how valuable their bird counts are.

“I know how important their work is,” he said. “And I hope they recognize that, too.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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