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National count helps keep track of birds

Posted: Friday, February 04, 2000

Has your bird feeder been unusually quiet this winter?

One feeder, between Glacier Valley Elementary School and Floyd Dryden Middle School, hasn't fed anything but a squirrel for over a month. Another, on North Douglas Highway, has had less than the usual number of juncos, chickadees and Steller's Jays this year.

Down on Thane Road, chickadees, juncos, a song sparrow, two jays and an occasional Pine Siskin come to feed, but overall numbers seem to be down.

On Fritz Cove Road, a birder recently counted 25 Oregon Juncos, four Slate-colored Juncos, 12 Chestnut-baked Chickadees, six Song Sparrows, one Golden-crowned Sparrow and an occasional Northern Pygmy-Owl coming to prey on the feeders. Across Auke Bay, another birder reported chickadees, but no finches or jays.

Does our warm weather and lack of snow lead birds to ignore our feeders? Are hawks and owls feeling on jays and smaller birds? Have our typical feeder birds simply ``irrupted'' out of town for a while?

While redpolls, siskins and crossbills are scarce here this winter, redpolls have turned up at a western Montana birdfeeder for the first time in about a decade.

``Irruption'' is the movement of birds from their typical wintering grounds to other areas, and bird watchers across America eagerly watch for them. A white-throated sparrow appeared at an inland Juneau birdfeeder for a weekend and then disappeared. Although it has been reported as an ``accidental'' in Southeast Alaska in winter, it typically winters in the American Southwest.

It is a rare winter when no species of bird is irrupting somewhere in North America. Birds most commonly associated with these winter irruptions are finches including Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll, which seem to be in short supply in Juneau this winter. Red-breasted Nuthatch and Varied Thrush also periodically shift from their typical wintering grounds into other areas.

It is generally believed that irruptions are driven by a lack of natural food on the normal wintering grounds. A University of Wisconsin study indicated feeders account for only about 20 percent of a bird's daily intake, and increase survival rates only during prolonged periods of extreme cold.

Nevertheless, we are offering birds a veritable banquet on a grand scale. According to the current issue of Audubon magazine, nearly one-third of the adult population in North America collectively dispenses about a billion pounds of birdseed each year, as well as tons of suet and seed cakes.

And for the birds, fast food at a feeder helps reduce foraging time for tiny seeds or insects dug into tree bark.

Counting and recording bird sightings over an extended period of time gives us insight into their movements and overall numbers, and which phenomena are long-term trends and which are aberrations.

This year for the third time, bird watchers across North America are encouraged to tally birds at their feeders, local parks and natural areas during the same four days. Great Backyard Bird Count 2000! is scheduled Feb. 18-21.

This concentrated bird census creates immense snapshots of winter bird distribution and population. Reports from this year will be combined with previous findings to show how different species have moved across the landscape over the last few years. Results will also become part of a tremendous long-distance database to detect broad-scale changes in bird populations.

BirdSource, which records the results on state-of-the-art maps on its Internet site, received some 42,000 bird checklists last year. Fifty-nine species were observed and recorded in Alaska. Pine Siskin topped the list for number of birds sighted in Alaska with 2,027 birds reported. Common redpoll followed with 1,203 reported. This year other species might top the list.

It's easy to become a citizen scientist in your own back yard by participating in the count.

Simply count the birds in your back yard, nearby park or other natural area on any or all of the four count days.

On the day or days that you count, watch your bird feeders or take a short walk (less than one mile) in your neighborhood park. Watch the birds for at least 15 minutes on each day that you participate. A half-hour or more would be even better.

For each species of bird that you see, keep track of the highest number of individuals that you observe at any one time. At the end of the day use the region-specific Great Backyard Bird Count Checklists online to submit your highest counts for that day.

Keep a separate tally for each day that you count. It's important not to add together counts from different days. Combining counts will suggest that there are more birds present than there actually are.

Also, don't add up single birds seen at separate times on the same day. You could be seeing the same individual again and again.

All information will be collected over the Internet. If you have a computer with Internet access you can also help by collecting reports from family and friends who don't have access to the Internet, then entering information through your own computer.

Further information is also available at the BirdSource Web site at http://birdsource.cornell.edu. Results will be entered and tallied at this Web site.

The February program for the Juneau Audubon Society will feature Mike Turek's slides and talk about hiking in Slovakia's Tatra National Park. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School library.



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