Participants from more than 100 countries submitted a record 147, 265,000 bird checklists for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count in February and broke the previous count record for the number of species identified. The 5,090 species reported represents nearly half the possible bird species in the world.
The four-day count marked the 18th year for the event which is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada.
The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track the health of bird populations at a scale made possible. A sampling of species found by counters include Ibisbill in India, Bornean Bistlehead in Malaysia, and the Magellanic Plover in Chile. GBBC participants reported two species, Millpo Tapaculo and Santa Marta Screech-Owl that have not yet been described in the scientific literature.
The bitter cold and snowy weather in much of the northeastern United States and Canada was a major factor in this year’s count. In the Northeast, particularly frigid and windy weather reduced the number of reports.
The GBBC data will help to better understand the impact of the cold on bird populations. For example, scientists will be able to compare the abundance of some so-called “half-hardy” species, such as Carolina Wren and Yellow-rumped Warbler, to see if this cold winter has affected their populations.
Snowy Owl Echo
Snowy Owls are one of the most charismatic and emblematic birds of winter. They breed in Arctic regions worldwide and drop south in some winters, depending on food supplies and their breeding success in the previous summer. The winter of 2013-14 was a huge year for these owls which appeared in large numbers across the Great Lakes states, Northeastern U.S., Atlantic Coast, and southern Canada.
GBBC reports for 2015 also show a surge in Snowy Owl sightings across the same range, though the frequency of reports is about half of last winter’s. This is a well-known phenomenon with Snowy Owls, with the year after a very large invasion often referred to as an “echo flight.”
Winter finches—such as Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, redpolls, and crossbills—are popular among GBBC participants. These birds also “irrupt” south of their usual haunts depending on food supplies, so their numbers in a given region may change widely from year to year.
2015 was a banner year for Pine Siskins which are reported on about 10.5% of GBBC, compared to 1.2% of checklists in 2014 when most siskins stayed far north in Canada. Siskins will likely be hanging around through April and May, especially if the feeders are stocked with their favorite nyjer (thistle) seed.
GBBC Top 10 Lists
Surprisingly, a Eurasian species, the Brambling, appears on the Top 10 list of most reported species for the first time ever. Since November, some of these birds have been spotted on the West Coast and others strayed even farther by turning up in Montana, Wyoming, and Ontario, with one 2015 GBBC record in North America from Washington state. But the Brambling’s appearance among the Top 10 can be traced to one checklist from Germany reporting a flock estimated at one million birds. Up to three million Bramblings have been known to gather at that site.
In North America, California sits atop the leader board with the most checklists submitted and the greatest number of species, followed by Pennsylvania and New York. Ontario, Canada, is in the Top 10 for the second year in a row, nudging past Ohio and Georgia.
You can explore what’s been reported on the Great Backyard Bird Count website. See what species are being reported and how many checklists are being turned in at the county, state/province, and country levels. Check out a sampling of the photos submitted for the GBBC photo contest.
Photo: A Northern Flicker in Arkansas by Linda Izer.