Backyard bird counters serve positive purpose

Next week marks annual avian tally event that provides helpful info

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2007

Last year in Juneau, kindergarten students counted birds at recess. Beginning birders monitored their backyard feeders, and experienced birders stalked feathered wildlife from forest and waterfront trails.

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For the past decade, the Great Backyard Bird Count has enticed people to spend a little time during one February weekend watching birds, and to contribute their observations to a North America database.

This year the count will be next weekend, Feb. 16-19. The event is sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

Observers simply count the highest number of each species they see during an outing or a sitting and enter their tally on the Great Backyard Bird Count web site at www.birdsource.org/gbbc. There is no registration and it's free.

Visitors to the site can compare their sightings with results from other participants as checklists pour in from throughout the U.S. and Canada. These counts offer a real-time snapshot of the numbers and kinds of birds that people are finding across North America.

"You can go online and watch the maps change as the information is updated, as you add it," said Brenda Wright, who coordinates the event in Juneau. "You can look at Alaska, or a specific species, or the 10 most common birds recorded. It's fun for kids."

Wright, a member of the Juneau Audubon Society, said the event is also a great opportunity for teachers.

"We have videos in all the school libraries of the 15 most common birds in Juneau," she said. "Kids could watch this short video and then look out the window, do a count for 10 minutes, then get on the computer and see."

Entering your bird-count information on the website is easy, said Nat Drumheller, a Gustavus birder who has participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count for four years.

"The site is user-friendly," he said.

There are some simple questions regarding the habitat where you counted and how long you counted. It's a good idea to check out the website before the count, he said, as this event is set up a little different than the Christmas Bird Count.

Drumheller said he and Phoebe Vanselow counted birds in different habitats around Gustavus, including forest, sea, beach and rivers, walking through the different areas just as when they are birding any other time.

"Some people watch their feeders and get good birds," he said. "You can count birds anywhere. You just need to keep a separate checklist for each location. You can count for all four days or for as little as fifteen minutes. They encourage everyone to participate in the count, regardless of skill level."

Drumheller said the weekend-long event seems to be more about assessing distribution rather than trying to nail down numbers of individual birds. Wright said Audubon and Cornell use data that's gathered to look at trends. In recent years they also used observations to track the spread of a bird disease.

"They also focus on birds that people see at feeders that may have diseases, such as the house sparrow eye disease," Wright said. "They found that the disease went across the country in something like 22 months."

Wright said participation is growing in Juneau and Gustavus. Eight years ago, three people in Juneau participated. "We had the best count so far last year," Wright said. "We had 88 counts by about 30 people."

Last year 44 different species were observed by Juneau participants and more than 3,000 birds were counted.

Numbers were high for Barrows goldeneye (247), glaucous-winged gulls (564) and surf scoters (257), and more than 400 mallards were counted. Northwestern crows (458) also registered high. Chickadees, pine siskins and juncos were the abundant songbirds.

For a full account, go to the Juneau Audubon homepage (http://www.juneau-audubon-society.org/) and follow the link.

Drumheller said highlights in Gustavus have included sightings of rare birds, including a Virginia rail in 2003. In 2004 a boreal owl showed up for the count, a rare bird for Southeast Alaska. Two Lapland longspurs and five rusty blackbirds were noteworthy in 2005.

Last year a Brewer's blackbird and a long-billed dowitcher were sighted, far north of their winter ranges. A horned lark and six species of owls were also sighted. Gustavus ended up with 73 species, the record number so far for the count there.

"A personal highlight for me during this count was watching and listening as a northern shrike sang for several minutes from a cottonwood," he said. "It had a surprisingly beautiful voice."

The Audubon Society reported that across the United States and Canada last year, participants submitted more than 60,000 checklists and reported 7.5 million birds overall and 623 different species.

• Riley Woodford is a writer with the Division of Wildlife Conservation and a fan of sea ducks, ravens and songbirds.



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