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TOWNSEND/GROTON — Every year around Christmas for the last 113 years, birders have taken a challenge issued by the Audubon Society — count birds, as many as you can.

The annual census began with 27 birders, today thousands across the western hemisphere participate. The count started as a competitive alternative to the annual “Side Hunt,” a holiday tradition where teams of hunters would go into the woods and see how many birds and animals they could kill. The data gathered by the citizen scientists during the census help identify trends in the winter bird population, Townsend coordinator Emily Norton said.

“Some species are increasing in population size; some are decreasing in population size,” she said. Some migratory birds are staying north longer into the season, or never leaving at all, Norton said.

“It tells us a lot about the ecosystem,” the retired teacher said.

An area of Townsend is part of a “Count Circle” centered in Groton. The local count is scheduled for Dec. 16, weather permitting. Sometimes, depending on weather, the count day needs to be changed, circle coordinator Julie Lisk of Groton said. She began the Groton Circle 14 years ago after being part of the Concord circle.

“I realized we didn’t have a count here,” she said.

“The intent of the count is just to get an overall picture of bird populations that time of year,” Lisk said.

Most of the birds people find will be those that are commonly in the area. There is still room for surprises.

“Every year somebody stumbles upon some uncommon bird or a bird that’s new to the count circle,” Lisk said.

The Groton circle is still relatively new. “The longer you do the count, you start running out of uncommon birds,” she said. People have spotted bald eagles and ravens. Neither species are normally found locally in winter. Between 45 to 60 people participate in the Groton circle but not all the area gets covered.

“That may sound like a lot, but some of the more established circles have over 250 (participants),” Lisk said. The group has people with a wide range of experience.

“A lot of the people who do our count are local, they have favorite areas in the circle,” she said. New naturalists can find the count to be a learning opportunity.

“Occasionally we get someone who’s new to birding and we try to match them up with someone with more experience,” she said.

Most of the newcomers are already able to identify the common species they are likely to see. The count even has an option for people who would rather stay home. “There are people that also do only their feeders,” Lisk said, “They don’t even have to leave their house.”

The Groton Circle includes Groton, Ayer and Shirley and parts of Townsend, Pepperell, Harvard, Lunenburg, Lancaster, Leominster, Fitchburg and Littleton.

Contact Julie Lisk at 978-272-1151 for information on how to be part of the Christmas Bird Count. Registration is requird.