CBC Marathon Man

Twenty-three consecutive days of winter birding no matter how bitter the cold. Rising before dawn to listen for owls and staying up late to compile the day’s sightings. Thousands of miles of driving often traveling through the night without sleep to get to the next destination, sometimes navigating treacherous stretches of highway in blizzard like conditions.

Kelly McKay by Steve Hager

Kelly McKay by Steve Hager

Sound like heaven or hell?

To the National Audubon Society, it’s officially the 118th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the nation’s longest-running citizen science project, designed to capture long-term data on the status and distribution of bird species. Every day during the count period (December 14, 2017 – January 5, 2018), all across the United States, birders and conservation enthusiasts alike gather to count birds within a well-defined 15 mile wide circle. Many “CBCers” participate in a single count and then not another until the following year.

To wildlife biologist and CBC iron man, Kelly McKay, the count is a chance to do what he loves most – identity as many bird species as possible in a day while also contributing to science. Unlike most who are “one and done,” Kelly attempts to contribute to a different CBC every day of the count period, a grueling 8+ hour/day logistically challenging feat known as the “CBC marathon.” On top of that, Kelly compiles the data for not one but seven count circles, a significant challenge in itself.

Inspired in the early 1980s as a teenager by his mentor and avian biologist, Pete Peterson, Kelly has participated in more than 475 CBCs all time, second only to birding legend, Paul Sykes. It wasn’t until the 2002-2003 season that Kelly began to plan his first marathon, but quickly ran into problems. He couldn’t find a count within reach on three count days! The following year, Kelly started planning much earlier and on January 5, 2004, after the Andalusia CBC, he successfully completed his first marathon. This January, Kelly finished his 9th marathon in the last 16 years, covering more than 25 counties in five states – Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

While Kelly takes his CBC participation very seriously, he doesn’t expect many to even think about let alone attempt a CBC marathon. He does hope his story inspires others to get more involved in community science projects to advocate for bird conservation and preserve our state’s biodiversity.

by Matthew Cvetas

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