Signs of Winter 11: The Great Backyard Bird Count!

Photo by USFWS, Public Domain

(Click here to listen to an audio version of this blog!)

Starting tomorrow (February 15th) and running until Monday (February 18) 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 word-wide count of birds began in 1998 and has grown in scope and in 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 the 2018 bird count include the number of checklists (180,516) and the total number of species observed (6458). Also 28,888,454 individual birds were counted! The number of checklists and the total number of individuals counted were slightly down from the record levels of the previous year, but the total number of species observed in 2018 was significantly greater than 2017.

Northern cardinal (male). Photo by D. Sillman

There was a distinct North America bias to the 2018 count (as has been the case since the count began) because almost two thirds of the checklists come from the United States. The ten most frequently mentioned species on the lists were all very common North American species (led by the northern cardinal, the dark eyed junco, the mourning dove and the American crow), and all of the top ten most numerous birds in the count were also North American species found in large flocks (the count of nearly 5 million snow geese topped this list with 1.6 million Canada geese in second place!). Pennsylvania, by the way, was fourth last year in total number of checklists per state submitted to the count and looking down the list of names of participants who submitted check lists from Pennsylvania counties I found a number of regular readers of this blog! In 2017 Pennsylvania was number two on the checklist list well behind the much more populous California! We need to get more of us out there this year (California may be out of reach, but we can’t let New York and Texas edge us out again!).

Some observations from the 2018 GBBC include the continued southern distribution 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 Greenland goose, the barnacle goose, and the greater white-fronted goose also were observed in the northeast United States.

Snowy owl. Photo by P. K. Burian. Wikimedia Commons

Snowy owls were abundant in the eastern U.S. and in the Great Lakes region. Red crossbills moved south out of their northern coniferous forests possibly in search of food after a poor seed cone year and were observed all across the United States.  A number of Rocky Mountain species (including Stellar’s jay and the mountain chickadee) were found abundantly in low altitude locations throughout the Great Plains. It is speculated that these birds were also moving because of shortages of food in their higher altitude habitats.

An exotic species, the Eurasian collared dove continued its northwestern spread across the eastern United States and on up into Canada (it has now been repeatedly observed in Nova Scotia). This dove (a native of Europe, India and southern Asia) escaped from a pet store in Barbados in the 1970’s. It has been steadily expanding its range across North America ever since.

Last year’s bird count also detected a number of early “spring” migration pushes. Several species of geese and the sandhill cranes all had begun moving far to the north in spite of the “winter” time frame of the February bird count.

Explore the data and read more about the 2018 GBBC at the GBBC website!

Dark eyed junco, Public Domain

The species that I counted for my two Great Backyard Bird Count lists in 2018 were as common as could be. Most made it onto to top ten “most frequently listed” species. My birding experience didn’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 is 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 made 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 appreciation of the “ordinary,” this sense of awe and wonder in the everyday world around us, is what makes the Great Backyard Bird Count and the sight of all of those birds that day in and day out gobble down my sunflower seeds, corn, peanuts and thistle, so special.




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4 Responses to Signs of Winter 11: The Great Backyard Bird Count!

  1. Mary Lou says:

    Beautiful, Bill. Thank you for your words!

  2. Sandy Finley says:

    Dear Bill
    Your defense of the ordinary is eloquent and heart warming. “Awe and wonder in the every day world” YES

  3. Don says:

    I’m afraid this administration will take advancing numbers and use them to remove birds from the endangered list.
    I know the Sand Hill crane has been removed.

  4. Paul Hess says:

    Thanks for the reminder about the GBBC, Bill, and not surprisingly a wonderful commentary on the pleasures of avian spring.

    Something struck me, perhaps otherwise unnoticed, is that the junco in Deborah’s photo shows thin white wing bars. Usually the wing coverts are all black, but a small minority show these distinctly white, not merely pale gray, edges on the coverts. The are sometimes reported as the “White-winged” Junco species with a limited breeding range in the north-central U.S. which breeds only in the upper midwest from Montana to the Dakotas and winters only a short distance southward into Colorado.

    These thin wing-barred juncos aren’t often seen and rarely photographed in PA, and I would like use this photo in the Three Rivers River Birding Club newsletter. I would give credit to the photographer, of course, and all photographers in the newsletter retain copyright. If OK, can you send me a hi-rez version?

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