My brother Paul visited my Bald Eagle Valley home one day last winter. We were just sitting in the dining room having a cup of coffee. Birds flitted in and out from the bird feeders on my deck — just a few feet from the sliding glass doors and the table where we were seated.
We sipped hot java, shared warm conversation and watched the birds interacting outside on the cold deck. “You know, I think that I could be entertained all day just sitting here watching the birds,” Paul said.
Although I am a busy person, I spend a good bit of time doing just that — watching the birds and also recording my observations. It has been so cold since Christmas that sitting inside with a mug of coffee has often seemed like an excellent idea.
You can join in on the counting and “citizen science” during this winter’s Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), to be held Feb. 16-19, by recording your observations at birdcount.org. According to Cornell, the mid-February timing is selected to coincide with the time when North American bird species are at their southernmost extent. The effort is sponsored in part by Wild Birds Unlimited.
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The combined efforts of birders from all over the world will provide a snapshot of bird populations during those four days. That data will help researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how different species of birds are faring in our changing environment.
While many of our summer birds migrate south with the seasonal changes, several other species from Canada move into Pennsylvania for the winter. Dark-eyed juncos are the first to arrive — usually in October or November. Last fall, I saw my first Centre County juncos on Oct. 29. On Jan. 12, I spotted my first American tree sparrow in Blair County. (Although they have yet to show up as feeder birds, I am confident that they will.) The first pine siskins, a bird common to Canada’s boreal forest, appeared at our deck feeders on Jan. 13. The nyjer-seed-loving pine siskins were absent from our feeders last winter.
In addition to next month’s GBBC, I record all my counts for Project FeederWatch on eBird and my observations in a journal. Besides being fun for me, this data is valuable to ornithologists and can be used in many ways. What Cornell Lab of Ornithology terms “citizen-science” data has been used in numerous scientific papers. The data documents the rapid southerly movement of irrupting species, such as pine siskins this winter, as well as the long-term population shift of Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers northward.
The GBBC continues to grow. In 2015, more than 143,000 volunteers tallied 5,090 species. It will be interesting to see how this February’s pine siskin count compares to 2015. That year, participants counted a record 171,312 pine siskins, compared to only 13,431 in 2014.
More than 210,000 participants from more than 140 different countries submitted their bird counts during the 2017 GBBC. It was the most detailed four-day snapshot of world-wide bird populations ever collected. Counters reported 5,940 different species. The top-5 reported birds were the northern cardinal, American crow, mourning dove, dark-eyed junco and the downy woodpecker.
Things to watch for in this year’s GBBC will be the extent of the southern movement of siskins, as well as red and white crossbills. This appears to be another big year for the normally arctic-living snowy owls. You could be lucky and spot one of these magnificent birds — at least one has been observed in Centre County.
Participating in the count is free, it’s fun and anyone can help. The GBBC welcomes birders of all ages and all degrees of expertise. All you need to do is count birds for 15 minutes or more during one or more of the four count days and report your findings online.
Although the event is called the Great Backyard Bird Count, participants are welcome to count at a park, a state game land, their backyard or anywhere that they wish. Information about the GBBC can be found online and at gbbc.birdsource.org — you can type in a zip code or the name of a park, and they will customize printable tally sheets just for that location.
“These types of activities provide the citizen-scientist with an opportunity to help wildlife,” Game Commission biologist Doug Gross said. “Anyone who can identify even a few species can contribute to our knowledge (about) the occurrence and abundance of birds in winter.”
If you are looking for a different mid-winter family activity, the Great Backyard Bird Count is a way to involve everyone in an important conservation effort. It even has an accompanying photo contest. Not only is it free, easy, and fun, but your efforts — however large or small — will help ornithologists and all of us learn more about birds.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com