Signs of Winter 11: The Great Backyard Bird Count

Photo by rhaij, Pixabay

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Starting tomorrow (February 16th) and running until Monday (February 19) the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Birds Studies Canada and the National Audubon Society are sponsoring their annual “citizen’s science” project called “The Great Backyard Bird Count” (GBBC). This world wide count of birds began in 1998 and has grown in scope and participation with each passing year. Participants are asked to spend fifteen minutes either stationary at some observation point or walking through a habitat counting and identifying the birds they see. On-line checklists developed by eBird facilitate the reporting of these observations, and the compilation of the data from the observers seems to be nearly instantaneous!

If you are interested in participating in the count click here for more information!

Some highlights of last year’s count (found on the GBBC web site) include the total number of checklists submitted (181,643) and the total number of people submitting one or more checklist (210,000). A total of 6,261 species of birds were identified and 29,604,680 birds were counted! This was, indeed, a very robust survey of birds!

Photo by D. Sillman

There was a distinct North America bias to last year’s count as 62% of the checklists came from the United States. The ten most frequently mentioned species on the lists were also all very common North American species (led by the northern cardinal and the American crow), and all of the top ten most numerous birds in the count were also North American species that are found in large flocks (the 4,793, 261 snow geese topped this list!). There is, though, a growing international participation in the count with birders from 140 countries participating! Pennsylvania, by the way, was second only to California in total number of checklists submitted, and looking down the list of names of participants who filled out check lists from Pennsylvania counties, I found a number of regular readers of this blog! Let’s try to get even more of us out there this year!

Photo by E. Denes, Wikipedia Commons

Some observations from the 2017 GBBC include the continuing southerly drift of a number arctic and northern forest dwelling bird species. The pink-footed goose, for example, a Greenland species that a few decades ago was almost never seen in North America now is regularly observed by GBBC participants in Nova Scotia, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey! The great grey owl, a species of the northern, boreal forest of Canada and Alaska (and the northern mountains of U.S. Rockies and Cascades) was observed in northern Minnesota and New York. The great grey owl is the largest North American owl and has a voracious need for food in the winter (each owl must

Photo by A. List, Wikimedia Commons

eat seven, vole-sized mammals each day to sustain themselves). Limited food supply in their Canadian ranges is thought to be the ecological force pushing them southward into the Lower Forty-eight Sates.

Also, the Bohemian waxwing, a slightly larger version of the relatively common cedar waxwing, is like the grey owl a bird of the northern boreal forest and muskeg. Like the cedar waxwing, the Bohemian waxwing forms large, foraging and migrating flocks that may wander over vast areas that includes parts of the western Lower Forty-eight States. In 2017, though, GBBC observers reported 200 Bohemian waxwings in New Hampshire, including a flock of 40 feasting on crabapples!

The relatively mild winter weather last year had two interesting impacts: 1. It may have been responsible for the reduction in overall numbers of birds reported from bird feeder stations across the country (it is hypothesized that many birds in the warmer than average conditions relied more on natural foods rather than human-provided seeds and suet), and 2. A number of migrating species arrived in their spring and summer ranges many weeks before historical averages. These included common grackles and red-winged blackbirds in the Eastern United States and Canada (they were widely spread in both areas in late February), killdeer and American woodcock in New England and around the Great Lakes (they also arrived there in mid to late February), and tree swallows setting historically early spring arrivals in Illinois, Quebec and Massachusetts.

Photo by D. Wicks

Greater sandhill cranes ( a species I have discussed in posts from New Mexico and from Wyoming) are also found here in the Eastern United States. Most of these eastern sandhill cranes migrate to Florida in the winter and to areas around the Great Lakes (especially Wisconsin and Michigan) in the summer (although there is a small sub-population of Florida cranes that stay in Florida year round and do not migrate). To the left is a picture of a yard-full of sandhill cranes in Florida that a friend (Don Wicks) just sent me (probably to taunt me with their “cold” 63 degree weather!). Observations by GBBC participants on these cranes indicate that some of them are overwintering further north than ever before (in Alabama’s Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, for example) and are migrating north and especially to the northeast earlier and in greater numbers than ever before and breeding in places where they have not bred before. Breeding pairs of sandhill cranes, in fact, have been reported in Pennsylvania, New York and throughout New England!

The species that I counted for my all of my Great Backyard Bird Count lists were as common as could be. All of my birds were in the top ten of the “most frequently listed” species. My birding experiences don’t range into wild, exotic discoveries. My birds were cardinals, juncos, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, and crows, and I was very pleased to see them!

Some years ago I was giving a talk at a conference about Deborah’s and my Virtual Nature Trail and the actual, physical nature trail on our campus that was the inspiration for it. At the end of my presentation I was asked a question, “what was special, or unique about this nature trail?” I sensed an undertone to the question of “why would anyone want to go see this trail?” Usually you come up with answers to questions like this much later, but somehow I found the answer right away: There is nothing particularly unique or “special” about this trail, and this is what makes it so important. It is the beauty in the ordinary, as Bill Bryson once put it “the low level ecstasy” of the common species and common terrain that make this site so wonderful. Sitting back and seeing what is around you in nature always elevates and inspires you!

And, to me, this is what makes the Great Backyard Bird Count and the sight of all of those ordinary birds that every day gobble down my sunflower seeds, corn, peanuts and thistle, so amazing. They are common but each individual is a work of wonder and beauty!

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