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Originally published Saturday, January 4, 2014 at 6:04 AM

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Bird counting in the Skagit Valley

Annual Christmas Bird Count takes special eye to count single birds along with rafts of thousands.

Skagit Valley Herald

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MOUNT VERNON — As Bob Kuntz unloaded his scope, tripod and coffee thermos from the car, he could tell it was going to be a great day for spotting birds.

It was clear last Saturday, just before an 8 a.m. sunrise. But it was also cold, so Kuntz put on a hat and mittens before meeting up with Jan Wilson, of Burlington, another birder, and heading out to the waters of Padilla Bay in Bay View.

Thousands of others across the country were doing the same for the National Audubon Society’s 114th annual Christmas Bird Count.

Volunteers and bird enthusiasts from every state fan out and are able give biologists a gold mine of bird species population information.

Kuntz predicted seeing the big three dabbling duck species in the area: American wigeon, mallards and northern pintail.

“We’re going to count everything, so we are hoping to see lots of species and lots of individuals,” Kuntz said.

But Kuntz has heard a rumor that mountain blue birds are in the area and is hoping he is lucky enough to spot one of them. They basically look like robins but are sky blue, he explained.

Kuntz said he’s always been interested in birds and the outdoors. He would read up on birds and found it exhilarating when he could find the species out in the wild.

There was hardly a ripple in the bay as it reflected the growing light. Kuntz peered through his spotting scope, as hunters’ guns boomed in the distance and echoed across the water.

“So far, all I’m seeing is American wigeon and bufflehead,” Kuntz said.

Often a silhouette or sounds give the species away, Kuntz said, but after doing more than 70 bird counts and looking at thousands of ducks, his eyes have become sharp.

Wilson was identifying birds close up using her binoculars. She spied glaucous-winged gulls wading near the shore and a pair of eagles perched high in the trees. It was her first Christmas count in Skagit County, and Kuntz was showing her the ropes.

As the light from the rising sun grew stronger, Kuntz began calculating the size of massive floating rafts of birds drifting by in the distance. He counts five, then 10, then uses those sizes to start estimating massive groups. At one point he counted a raft of 14,000 wigeon. He called it out and Wilson recorded it on the official count clipboard.

Dozens of other counters spread out in a 7.5-mile radius were doing the same.

Kuntz said this is the tedious part of the count. Thousands and thousands of ducks must be recorded. But occasionally groups of great blue herons or trumpeter swans would swoop overhead, catching his and Wilson’s attention. She scribbled them down.

After counting tens of thousands of birds, Wilson and Kuntz packed up their gear to move to another spot. They had a long day ahead of them with more spotting and more counting. He expected to compile the count’s results in early January.

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