Monday, February 13, 2012

Wally Elton: The Great Backyard Bird Count

For those who enjoy birds, Presidents’ Day weekend brings a chance to combine the pleasure of birdwatching with contributing to science’s understanding of current bird populations and their conservation. The 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), organized by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (and Bird Studies Canada north of the border), is a nationwide mid-winter bird census that calls on bird enthusiasts everywhere to help assemble a picture of bird numbers and distribution. This year’s count dates are this week, February 17 – 20.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a perfect example of Citizen Science,” says Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham. “Like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, volunteers help us with data year after year, providing scientific support that is the envy of many institutions. It’s also a lot of fun.”

And people have responded. Last year, participants in every state and Canada submitted more than 92,000 checklists, or individual counts, logging 594 species among 11.4 million bird sightings. As Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said, “When thousands of people all tell us what they’re seeing, we can detect patterns in how birds are faring from year to year.” In 2011, for example, count data revealed increased reports of evening grosbeaks, a species that has been declining.

Not surprisingly, in past years the geographic spread of bird reports submitted to the count reflects that of human inhabitants. As a result, while many people participate across much of New York State, the Adirondack Region is underrepresented. More counts from the North Country would help clarify the status of the relatively few species typically found here in the winter. It is important to realize also that what is not seen is just as important as what is.

One great thing about the GBBC is that anyone can take part. Being a bird expert is not required, since the number of species usually present in our area at this time of year is much smaller than in spring or summer. In addition, identification help is available on the GBBC website, Participating is free and no registration is necessary. Counters can participate individually or in groups. And participating can take as little as 15 minutes – or as much time as you desire.

The rules for the count are simple. Just follow these steps:

1 – Pick a place (or places) to count. Although “backyard” appears in the count name, that is only one of the possibilities. Local or state parks, nature centers, fields and woods all are options. Places with bird feeders are good because birds tend to concentrate there. With so much open water this year, lakes, streams and marshes could be promising.

2 – Decide when to count. Plan to count for at least 15 minutes; longer count sessions are fine. Do this once or as many times during the four days, and at as many different places, as desired. For each count, note the starting and ending times.

3 – Count and record the species you identify and the largest number of each species you see at one time. For example, if you are watching a feeder and see two chickadees early and four later on, record four (not six) because the first two could be included in the four seen later. If you see a bird you can’t identify, it’s okay to leave it out.

4 – Enter your count data on the GBBC website. It may be helpful to print out the data form in advance so you have all necessary information.

That’s it! The GBBC website has numerous resources to assist you, including an instructional video and a regional bird list to give an idea of what you could see. Afterwards, you can even explore the sightings of others. Everyone who participates is eligible for prizes, too.

With the mild temperatures so far this winter, the 2012 GBBC could be an intriguing one. What birds will you find? Regardless, your reports will advance the total knowledge of bird population in the region.

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Wally Elton is a writer and long-time birder and 28-year Project FeederWatch observer living in Saratoga Springs. He also is a volunteer Great Backyard Bird Count ambassador.

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