By Mana Rabiee
Thousands of area residents are taking part in the Audubon Society's annual census of birds. Volunteer bird counters in Virginia's Loudon County hope their efforts will curb the state's appetite to develop open spaces.
As Stanwyn Shetler tells it, the annual Christmas Bird Count -- which tracks bird populations across the country -- has its roots in the 1800's.
"It used to be a custom of the men after Christmas dinner to go out and see how many birds they could shoot on Christmas day," says Shetler.
Shetler was a bird count Team Leader in Loudon County for some 25 years.
His colleague, Warren Wagner, a research botanist with the Smithsonian Institution, was out Sunday leading his own bird count at Balls Bluff Regional Park in Leesburg.
"I spotted a downy wood pecker that was up here a moment ago. I'm not sure when he went."
Wagner hikes down to the banks of the Potomac where he says he's more likely to spot some birds -- but even there he says it's "too quiet".
Wagner says the natural habitat covered by the annual count here has shrunk by as much as 60 percent since he began keeping track nearly twenty years ago -- and he blames urban sprawl.
"They keep building more developments and more shopping malls without a balance of retaining the green spaces that exist," says Wagner.
Back in his Sterling Virginia home, Shetler agrees.
"The more people come to know about the population fluctuations of birds and their disappearance the more they become concerned about their environment in general," he says.
The Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count continues through early January.