Published: Tue Dec 21, 2004The Christmas holiday conjures visions of sugar plums, mistletoe and candy canes for some, but for Tennessee Tech University English professor Stephen Stedman, it’s for the birds.
He’s a regional editor for the National Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count, held in cooperation with Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology — and that means Stedman is involved in collecting and responsible for editing and recording data about bird populations from all over Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
“This is a national bird survey that’s been conducted every year since 1900 to track the population of wintering birds in North America,” Stedman said. “It’s an excellent way to determine if the populations of certain species are stable or fluctuating.”
Bird enthusiasts from across the nation will participate this year in about 2,000 different “counting circles.” Each circle has a 15-mile diameter, and the bird count at each location takes place sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
The bird count in Putnam County — where TTU is located — was held on Saturday, Dec. 18, and it was the 96th such event in which Stedman has participated — but it won’t be the last, even for this year. Before the university’s holiday break is complete, Stedman hopes to have surpassed 100.
He’s scheduled to participate in three more bird counts throughout the 14-county Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee — in White, DeKalb and Warren Counties — and at least two more in Kentucky.
“My very first Christmas bird count was in Panama City, Fla., in 1971,” he said. “It was a little warmer there, and we saw lots more bird species than is typical for this area.”
Stedman and his wife, Barbara, have participated in Putnam County’s count since they moved to the area in 1987. During that time, the average number of noted bird species has risen from about 50 to 75, and Stedman attributes that increase to greater numbers of local bird enthusiasts.
Carol Williams, a 1979 TTU graduate who will lead DeKalb County’s bird count on Dec. 28, attributes the greater number of bird enthusiasts to the influence of Stedman himself.
In fact, she was inspired to start and lead the bird count in her area after being a student in one of his non-credit bird identification classes administered through TTU’s College of Interdisciplinary Studies and Extended Education.
“His contribution to the Upper Cumberland’s knowledge of birds is remarkable,” Williams said. “No one else, to my knowledge, has made such an impact in this region. We are very fortunate to have him locally, and I believe his knowledge and records will be very helpful as we continue to lose our precious birds due to loss of habitat.”
Stedman said one of the things he likes best about participating in local bird counts is the unexpectedness of the findings.
“Sometimes you’ll encounter birds that you wouldn’t expect to find in a winter climate like this. Most people are surprised to learn, for example, that there are five different species of western hummingbirds that occasionally occur in Tennessee,” he said.
But the greatest highlight of the recent Putnam County count, Stedman added, was spotting a single loggerhead shrike.
“The population of shrike in this area has been declining for at least 40 years — to such an extent that you’re more likely to see none than you are to see any — so it was a real treat to have one recorded by Winston Walden, Mike O’Rourke and John Owens on the day of the Cookeville count,” he said.
For more information about Christmas bird counts or future non-credit bird identification classes, call Stedman’s office at 931/372-3763 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.