Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Backyard Bird Count: Adirondacks Still Underrepresented

GBBCIf thousands of New Yorkers counted birds in their backyards and across the landscape for four days in the middle of February, how many species would they find? And what species do you think they would spot most frequently?

Well, it happens that it is possible to answer these questions, and many more, for the past fifteen winters as a result of the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This annual “citizen science” project  is designed to encourage bird enthusiasts to combine the pleasure of observing birds with gathering data that will help scientists better understand trends in bird populations and locations.

The 16th annual GBBC, occurring over this President’s Day weekend (February 15-18) once again aims to develop a nationwide mid-winter bird census and calls on bird watchers everywhere to help assemble a picture of bird numbers and distribution.

Last year, participants in every state and Canada submitted more than 100,000 checklists, or individual counts, logging 623 species among 17.4 million bird sightings. The 2012 count revealed record numbers of snowy owls moving south from the Arctic and thrilling many participants. The unusually warm weather in our area also yielded many sightings of species typically found much farther south at this time of year.

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.”

Because of the success of the GBBC, the organizers are planning a big change for this year, albeit one that does not directly affect individual counters locally: the count is going global. For the first time, anyone anywhere on the planet can take part.

“The GBBC is an ideal opportunity for young and old to connect with nature by discovering birds and to participate in a huge science project,” said Gary Langham, Audubon’s Chief Scientist. “This year, we hope people on all seven continents, oceans, and islands, will head out into their neighborhoods, rural areas, parks, and wilderness to further our understanding of birds across the hemispheres.”

Not surprisingly, the geographic spread of bird reports submitted to the GBBC in the past has reflected the distribution of human inhabitants. Consequently, although many people participate across much of New York State (in fact, NY led the nation with 6,614 checklists submitted in 2012, a thousand more than runner-up California), 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. For example, no boreal chickadees were reported from NY last year, a species closely identified with the Adirondacks. Can we change that in 2013?

A great thing about the GBBC is that anyone can take part, and doing so is easy. Being a bird expert is not required, since the number of species found 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. Lastly, if you spot a bird you can’t identify, you can just leave it out. Participating is free and no registration is necessary. You can participate individually or in groups anywhere you want. And you can count for as little as 15 minutes – or as much time as you desire.

There are just a few rules. 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, woods, and, especially, streams with open water all are options. Places with bird feeders are good because birds tend to concentrate there.
  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 locations, 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.
  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. You will need to create a GBBC account before you can enter your counts.

That’s all there is to it! You’ll have fun and boost our knowledge of birds at the same time. The GBBC website has numerous helpful resources, including a common birds poster and a regional bird list to give an idea of what you could see. Afterwards, you can even explore the sightings of others.

What birds will you find? Every year is different, which is part of the fun. Experts have predicted an influx of red-breasted nuthatches and “winter finches” such as common redpolls this year due to a seed scarcity farther north. Has that happened? Your reports will advance the total knowledge of bird populations in the region. Remember, too, that what is not seen is just as important as what is.

Oh, back to those questions at the beginning of this article. In 2012, GBBC counters tallied 172 species in New York State, and the one spotted most frequently was the mourning dove, reported on 3,317 of the 6,614 counts submitted. You can help determine the totals for 2013!

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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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