History of the Buckeye Lake Bird Count
On December 26, 1921, Charles F. Walker, Frederick Wood, Robert Black, and Robert Webb conducted the first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in the Buckeye Lake area that was published by the National Audubon Society.
Since then, the Buckeye Lake CBC has been conducted annually — except for the years 1923 and 1926 — and all have been published by the National Audubon Society.
Although the early records are somewhat sketchy, it’s now presumed that Charles Walker (1904-1979) was chiefly responsible for organizing the counts between 1921 and 1926. He would have been just 17 years old in 1921, but in 1935 obtained a Ph.D. in zoology. During his career, serving on the faculty for periods at The Ohio State University and University of Michigan, Dr. Walker gained reputation as a world authority on the biology of New World amphibians.
No details are known regarding the other three men who participated on the 1921 count.
Milton B. Trautman
Buckeye Lake has long been the focus of various ecological and biological research, because of its interesting flora and fauna. Perhaps the best-known research was conducted by Milton B. Trautman (1899-1991).
In February 1922, he began a 12-year study of the birds of Buckeye Lake. As such, it was logical that Trautman was given the responsibility of organizing and compiling the Buckeye Lake CBC, starting in December 1927.
Professionally, Trautman was renowned for his work as a biologist especially in the fields of ichthyology and ornithology. He published hundreds of articles in scientific publications and authored two highly regarded books: The “Birds of Buckeye Lake” and “The Fishes of Ohio”.
The following is an excerpt from an article by Trautman in The Wheaton Club Bulletin, Vol. 6, June 1961, describing what it was like to conduct the Buckeye Lake CBC in the 1920s:
“The type of conveyance used to transport the counters about the area has changed drastically during these last 40 years. In the first counts, Overlands, Maxwells, Haynes, Hudsons, and Model-T Fords were popular. Only expensive automobiles such as electrics, limosines, and hearses were glass enclosed in those early days; ours were open cars with “one-man” tops which could be raised and lowered. Only the plutocrats among us owned side curtains. Those of us without side curtains, although exposed to the full force of wintry blasts, could, if warm enough, identify more birds while riding than could those of us who had side curtains. It took an observer with a vivid imagination to identify a bird through a 6-inch square of cloudy isinglass while bouncing, 8 inches to the bounce, over the rutted roads in a 4 cylinder, 30 horsepower automobile. These early cars did not contain heaters, defrosters, or even a hand operated windshield wiper. The temperature in the tonneau was the same as in the great outdoors. Sandwiches were kept in the tonneau and on two counts the sandwiches were frozen so hard that in order to eat them I had to thaw them by placing them between my shirt and outer garments.”
Trautman continued as Buckeye Lake’s compiler through the 1972 bird count. Starting with the 1973 count, and continuing through the 1979 count, Trautman shared the duty with George Griffith.
George F. Griffith
George “Fritz” Griffith (1915-1988), a lifelong resident of Hebron, Ohio, became interested in birds during his career managing the Hebron National Fish Hatchery (which was constructed as a WPA project in 1938).
The numerous ponds and surrounding woodland habitat of the fish hatchery, attracted a wide variety of migrating waterbirds, shorebirds, and songbirds. That made the fish hatchery a popular destination for Ohio birdwatchers. As a result, Griffith became well-known among birders and he became knowledgeable about identifying the birds.
Griffith helped organize the Licking County Audubon Society in 1968 and was an active member for many years. He also regularly reported his sightings of rare birds at the hatchery to Edward S. Thomas, who would use the information for his weekly nature column in the Columbus Dispatch.
After serving as co-compiler of the Buckeye Lake CBC with Trautman from 1973-1979, Griffith then assumed the role of managing the count from 1980-1986. During that period, the 1980 count is shown in the records to have been compiled by Ernest “Ernie” O. Limes.
Jeffrey L. White
Jeffrey White took over the reins as compiler of the Buckeye Lake count starting in 1987, and has continued to the present.
He recalls as a boy growing up in the Village of Minerva Park, Ohio, knowing fellow resident Ernie Limes, an avid birder and veteran of the Buckeye Lake count since 1939.
As White was becoming active in Boy Scouts and showing an interest in nature study, he often consulted with Limes about bird identification. In 1969, Limes invited both Jeffrey and his dad, Claude, to go along on the Buckeye Lake count.
White recalls a couple aspects in particular about that experience. One was that many if not most of the residences along the south shore of the lake were not occupied during the winter months since their owners used them primarily as summertime getaways rather than year-round homes.
“It was almost like a ghost town since most of the summer cottages were vacant in December. But that allowed us to frequently stop and scope out the lake for waterfowl, viewing between and behind the houses, not having the problem of raising concern from would-be residents.”
The other memory of his first time on the bird count was while the group’s car was pulled over to the edge of a street in Thornport. Someone had spotted golden-crowned kinglets high in the top of some tall spruce trees. Young White was in the back seat on the opposite side of the car and could not see the kinglets from his vantage point. Instead, he remembers looking out the window on his side and seeing an unfamiliar bird at eye-level in an adjacent shrub.
When he asked Limes about it, “Ernie turned around, took a look (it was too close for the binoculars to be focused), and excitedly pronounced that it was a Lincoln’s Sparrow. All four observers in the car were then able to study the bird for several minutes to confirm the identification, comparing what we saw to pictures in the field guide books we had in the car.”
This is a species rarely seen in Central Ohio during the winter. That experience illustrates why the more eyes the better while birding, and that not everyone on a team needs to be an expert.