In each of the last two years, the Almanack has carried articles encouraging local residents to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), an annual, continent-wide, mid-winter bird census designed to combine the fun of birdwatching with gathering data that will help scientists better understand trends in bird populations and locations. In the past, although thousands of New Yorkers take part in the count, the Adirondack region has been underrepresented, largely because there are comparatively few winter residents.
With the 17th GBBC approaching (Feb. 14-17), I thought it would be interesting to explore whether those previous articles have increased participation by Adirondackers while once again urging you to join in. It turns out, though, that it is difficult to get comparative data for a specific location for different years. In communicating with the folks behind the GBBC, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, I learned that data are not available by county or ZIP code, for example. Indeed, count results are not even in the same format between years. I could find a list of the number of each species reported in NYS for 2011 (before the first article), for instance, but not for 2013 (after the second article).
Still, I was able to come up with a strategy to help assess any trend in participation. I picked three bird species that, if reported in the state at all, would almost certainly be in the Adirondacks: boreal chickadee, gray jay and black-backed woodpecker. I was going to include spruce grouse, too, but none were reported in either year. These are northern species whose range in NYS is almost entirely limited to the region. For 2011, I could use the above mentioned state list.
For 2013, I had to make use of an online interactive world map, zoom in to the Adirondacks, and scan for each species separately. For both years, I could get the number of birds of each species seen and the number of “checklists” (specific observation reports) on which they were reported.
What do these numbers mean? That in each case, more individual birds were seen on more occasions during the 2013 GBBC than two years earlier. Now, it could be that there were just more of each species out there in 2013, or that for some reason they were more visible (having to search more actively for scarce food, perhaps). But I suspect, and prefer to believe, given the magnitude of the increases across three species, that there actually were more people out there looking for birds in 2013, in part due to the publicity given in these (virtual) pages. I do know that at least 110 separate counts were reported last February from the region. Similar data for earlier years are not available.
But there still are a lot of blank spaces on the map. More counts from the North Country would help clarify the status of the relatively few species typically found here in the winter. 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.”
A great thing about the GBBC is that anyone can take part, and doing so is easy. Being a bird expert is not necessary, since the number of species found here 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; if you have not participated previously, you will have to set up a simple account first. 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:
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.
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 you wish. For each count, note the starting and ending times.
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.
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.
One thing NOT to do: If you count with another person at one time, so you both see the same birds in the same place, do not submit two separate reports. That results in those birds being counted twice! Not a good thing. Some of you did that last year, but I screened out the duplicates in my numbers above.
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 customized local 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. You may have heard that lots of snowy owls have come south this winter. Your reports will help reveal what else is happening. Remember, too, that what is not seen is just as important as what is.