Fairbanks bird count helps biologists track populations, winter movements

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2008

FAIRBANKS - For Nancy Gigliotti, the Fairbanks FeederCount is just another way to keep tabs on her "customers," as she calls the birds that visit her feeders each day throughout the winter. The chickadees, woodpeckers and occasional red-breasted nuthatch that show up at her feeders are like family.

"It's like having little relatives coming over to your house each day," Gigliotti, a 48-year-old housewife, said. "It's really enjoyable. It adds color to the winter and makes the winter go by faster."

Participating in the Fairbanks FeederCount, a citizen-science project that helps scientists at the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks track winter bird populations and movements, is merely an extension of her bird-watching passion. On three Saturdays a winter - one in November, one in December and one in March - Gigliotti and other birders around Fairbanks take the time to count the peak number of birds at their feeders.

"I cannot think of a better way to pass a winter morning than keeping tabs on my 'customers,"' said Gigliotti, who along with her husband, Mike, has been participating in the FeederCount for the past five years by counting birds at their home along the Chena River.

For scientists like Susan Sharbaugh, senior biologist at the ABO, the FeederCount helps detect patterns or spikes in populations, as well as provide animportant source of baseline data over a long period.

"The more information we have the better," Sharbaugh said.

Changing populations

The Fairbanks FeederCount was started in 1986 by John Wright, then a non-game biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Wright oversaw the project for 16 years until it fell through the cracks in 2002 when he switched jobs. The Alaska Bird Observatory picked it up in 2004 and has organized it the past five years.

Wright, who has since retired, said he started the FeederCount to complement the annual Fairbanks Christmas Bird Count, a one-day affair in December on which birders count as many birds as they can find around Fairbanks. He also wanted a better way to track the fluctuating redpoll population.

"I thought the Christmas count was variable due to weather and it happens only once in midwinter," Wright said.

The Fairbanks FeederCount is similar to a nationwide feeder count conducted by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology called Project FeederWatch, which was started a few years after the Fairbanks count began, Wright said. That count also relies on volunteers but the counts are done on a more frequent basis - every one or two weeks.

The objective of the Fairbanks counts is simple: to count the maximum number of each species of bird that visits your feeder(s) at any one time during the count day. For example, if a counter sees five black-capped chickadees at a feeder in the morning and later counts eight blackcaps at the feeder, the count for the day is eight, not 13.

The "regulars" at most Fairbanks feeders are black-capped and boreal chickadees, redpolls and pine grosbeaks, with an occasional red-breasted nuthatch thrown in, Sharbaugh said. Hairy and downy woodpeckers are common at suet feeders, as are gray jays. Some people have ruffed and spruce grouse show up at their feeders, too, Sharbaugh said.

"What we're looking at is how the populations change over time," Sharbaugh said.

The FeederCount documented the invasion of nuthatches in Fairbanks during the mid-1990s, a trend that is continuing today, and also demonstrated how the redpoll population fluctuates on alternate years.

Prior to 1994, only one or two nuthatches would show up in the FeederCount, Sharbaugh said. Since then, there has been an average of 10 to 20 reported each year.

More black-billed magpies have been showing up at feeders in recent years, too. A few years ago, several three-toed woodpeckers showed up in the count.

Simple, easy and fun

This year's count dates are Nov. 15, Dec. 13 and March 7.

The reason for spreading the count dates throughout five months is to gauge winter attrition rates, Sharbaugh said. Populations are at their highest early in the winter and lowest late in the winter.

"In March, we get a sense of how many birds we lost over the winter," Sharbaugh said.

While it's called the Fairbanks FeederCount, residents in outlying areas such as North Pole, Two Rivers, Fox and Ester are welcome to participate, Sharbaugh said.

Last year, there were 46 participants in the FeederCount, and Sharbaugh said she would like to see more.

"We have a hard-core group of folks that have been doing it for a number of years," Sharbaugh said. "We'd like to recruit more people into it. Historically, there were as many as 90 counters in the earlier years."

The FeederCount makes a good science fair project for children, she suggested.

"It's pretty simple, and it's a great thing to do with kids," Sharbaugh said.

Counters track numbers on a form supplied by the ABO. In addition to bird numbers, they record what kind of food they offer, what types of feeders they have, the kind of habitat they have in their yard and, whether or not they have a cat or dog and the density of houses in the neighborhood.

This is the 12th FeederCount for Judy Williams, who has participated every year it has been held since 1995.

"It's an interesting thing to do in the winter," said Williams, who volunteers at the ABO banding station in the summer. "I'm just a real curious person, and I like to know what's going on around the house. I always have that hope that something surprising might show up."

Williams, 63, has more than a dozen feeders around her house off Cripple Creek Road, and they attract what she called "the regulars" - black-capped and boreal chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers, pine grosbeaks and redpolls.

"I've had redpolls already," she said. "I've seen a couple flocks of 20 or 25. Only a few have come to the feeder but it seems pretty early to be seeing them."

Participating in the FeederCount gives Williams a sense of contributing to science.

"Who knows how it can be used someday," she said of the data gathered in the FeederCount.

Interesting trends

Based on what she's seen and heard this year, Sharbaugh expects more chickadees - black-capped and boreal - at feeders.

"If our feeders are any indication we have tons of chickadees - blackcaps and boreals," Sharbaugh said. "It seems like it was a highly productive year for chickadees."

This could also be a good year for pine grosbeaks, Sharbaugh said.

"Folks have been calling in sightings and we have eight at the ABO feeders," she said.

Data collected during the FeederCount shows some interesting trends, Sharbaugh noted. The number of black-capped chickadees has increased one bird per feeder in the past five years. The number per feeder from 1986 to 2002 was eight in November, seven in December and five in March. Since 2004, those numbers are nine, eight and six, respectively.

The average number of total birds - excluding redpolls because they are so variable - coming into feeders has increased over the 20 years of recording from 15 to 17 birds per feeder in November, 14 to 15 birds per feeder in December and 12 to 15 birds per feeder in March.

The fact that the number of birds at feeders in March has increased by three birds per feeder begs the question of whether more birds are surviving the winter, Sharbaugh said. It could be that more birds are being produced in the spring and therefore more are surviving the winter. Or it could be connected to the warming climate, she said, which may be the reason that birds like nuthatches and magpies are becoming more common.

"I think it's just easier for the birds now because we don't have those prolonged cold snaps," speculated Sharbaugh.

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