It’s mid-February and once again I’m counting birds for science. When I first heard about the Great Backyard Bird Count, I was enthusiastic. Instead of only one day, like the Christmas Bird Count and National Migratory Bird Day, I had four days. And it took place during the psychologically longest winter month, even though numerically it is the shortest.
But the first year of this continent-wide count–1998–I had no access to the world wide web, and the GBBC is a web-based count. In 1999 previous engagements took up all but one day so I submitted a grand total of 14 species. The following year was curtailed by hospital tests and an icy terrain, but I did manage 22 species.
Finally, it’s 2001 and all systems are go. I’ve cleared my calendar and am ready to devote four days to it. Instead of my usual two-hour daily walk, I have an excuse to stay out all day for four days. But nature doesn’t cooperate.
Day 1. Thirty-eight degrees at dawn. A rainy, foggy day so I do all my counting from the house. At the bird feeders I count two black-capped chickadees, a mourning dove, white-breasted nuthatch, and American tree sparrow, a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers, two tufted titmice, two singing song sparrows, and three dark-eyed juncos. In the yard an American crow forages and a Carolina wren sings. I may be discouraged by the gloomy weather, but the birds seem energized. Still, this has been a terrible winter both for bird diversity and numbers.
Day 2. Twenty-six degrees at dawn, windy and overcast followed by heavy snow flurries, but I go out anyway, determined to count birds over on our recovering nine-year-old clearcut. For my trouble, I glimpse two ruffed grouse, hear an explosion of turkeys and find the fresh tracks of three of them in the snow, and listen to a singing Carolina wren undeterred by bitter cold, wind, and snow. One doughty black-capped chickadee is also abroad.
I haven’t dressed properly for the cold, and I have forgotten my hot seat. On top of that, I am suddenly struck by a piercing pain in my back. Usually I sit or lay down when I get it and it goes away, but because I forgot my seat, lying against the snowy bank only aggravates it. So I slowly pull myself up, and walk over a mile, mostly uphill, along the steep Ten Springs Trail, snow falling, wind howling, my left hand pressed against the small of my back, stopping frequently to stand and rest. If there are any birds, I don’t notice them.
It takes me an hour to get home. By then my sweat pants are soaked and frozen where I rested against the bank. After an hour of rest, my back has recovered, but I do the rest of my bird counting out the window–two song sparrows, eight juncos, two house finches, one red-bellied woodpecker, three mourning doves, two tufted titmice, two tree sparrows, and one white-breasted nuthatch. Another ho-hum list. But our son Dave, who walks down the hollow road to the post office in town, reports a winter wren and a flock of golden-crowned kinglets.
Day 3. At last a beautiful day–16 degrees and clear at dawn. When I can finally go out, at 10:00 a.m., I head across First Field and up the warm, south-facing slope of Sapsucker Ridge along Big Tree Trail. Several chickadees and titmice forage in the treetops. I hear the quiet tapping of a downy woodpecker and watch as it flies off. Titmice “peter-peter” back and forth. Then a Carolina wren joins in as if competing with the titmice. I sit and share time with the wren as it perches for half an hour on a tree limb near the ground and we bask together in a patch of sunlight.
Finally, reluctantly, I continue my walk, hearing nothing but wind as I follow the ridgetop to the Norway spruce grove, and then on to the Far Field. It is as if all the birds have fled.
Then, in the woods beyond the Far Field, I hear and see a hairy woodpecker, a white-breasted nuthatch, chickadees and titmice. Coming back along the Far Field Road, I hear the high-pitched calling of a golden-crowned kinglet, but I can’t call it down by pishing. Why is it whenever I count birds for science, I never hear or see the numbers and species I usually hear or see on a daily basis, such as common ravens and red-tailed hawks?
In mid-afternoon, I go out again, beguiled by the sunlight and long shadows, hoping to catch some new birds along Greenbrier Trail. Two crows “caw” overhead and I hear a ruffed grouse, assorted chickadees and titmice. Best of all is a foraging pileated woodpecker.
I sit in silence beneath my favorite double white oak tree on Dogwood Knoll, soaking up the rapidly retreating sunlight, and hear only the rattling of dried leaves still clinging to the tree. When I drop down to our hollow road along Pit Mound Trail, I barely hear the calls of kinglets, chickadees, and titmice over the rushing water of the ice-rimmed stream. Still, I have added two new species to my list today and the feeder juncos have increased to 20.
Day 4. Seventeen degrees and a red sunrise this morning, followed by clouds. The last day of the Great Backyard Bird Count and three Carolina wrens carol when I step outside, one from the side of Sapsucker Ridge, one from behind the shed, and a third from below the guesthouse. Again I am fighting back pain as I head over to the old clearcut.
Two downy woodpeckers, several titmice, and a ruffed grouse forage on Bird Count Trail. Two resident Canada geese honk along the ridgetop. A male cardinal “ticks” on and on in the greenbrier and then flies down across the trail in answer to another “tick.” A flock of 15 juncos twitters in a nearby tree. Titmice “peter,” a woodpecker drums, and a pileated woodpecker undulates overhead.
Below the bench blind I hear more Carolina wrens and see two female cardinals. I also have an excellent view of a golden-crowned kinglet in the loose company of a couple chickadees.
When I return home, I am greeted by a blue jay in the black walnut trees and a pileated woodpecker in the old apple tree behind the guesthouse. It is, primarily, a pileated day as a pair fly into the yard after lunch. The male drums on an old grape arbor fence post and I watch him through binoculars from our bow window.
Later our son Dave hears the quavering cry of an eastern screech owl outside the guesthouse. Altogether we have counted 22 species, the same as last year, despite my longer hours outside.
But then the Great Backyard Bird Count is no contest. It is an attempt to document the distribution and numbers of birds at the end of winter throughout the continent before spring migration begins in March. A project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, it combines high-tech web tools and observations of birds by families, individuals, classrooms and community groups who count the numbers and kinds of birds that visit their feeders, local parks, schoolyards, and other areas during any or all of the four count days. Then they enter their observations in a user-friendly, state-of-the-art web site.
In return, participants are rewarded by hourly updates on animated maps of the count as it progresses. Watching while lights blink on from the southern United States to Canada’s Northwest Territories is fascinating. And each state has its own map and statistics.
They aren’t interested in extremely rare birds. Their focus is on the commoner birds and in keeping them common. “By tracking changes in bird distribution and abundance over time, such a vast database can serve as the SOS signal for species that may be in trouble,” says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Already scientists are developing long term studies based on the results of the GBBC. Back in 1998, common redpolls moved south out of Canada, probably in search of food. This winter finch and several others, such as white-winged and red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, and pine siskins, are thought to “irrupt bienially, as a result of a lack of food seeds in what is typically their year-round ranges,” Fitzpatrick says. “But much of this phenomenon remains a mystery that participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count can help us solve.”
Participants are also asked to report snow depth so scientists can continue to study the connections between weather patterns and bird movements. For instance, American robins have been staying farther north than usual in the winter. Is it a coincidence that there has been little or no snow in these places? Does global warming have something to do with it?
Many bird species are declining in population. Back in 2000, the GBBC emphasized bald eagles and as a result, participants reported several new high density bald eagle roosts in such places as northern Utah, northern Florida, southeast Texas, and South Dakota.
In 2001 GBBC participants were supposed to pay special attention to several woodpecker species, including red-headed woodpeckers and northern flickers, both of which are declining. Bobwhite quail in the East and scaled quail in the Southwest are also dwindling due to the loss of brushland/shrub habitat, development, and cattle grazing. Cats also prey on them in suburban areas. For these reasons, the 2001 GBBC spotlighted quail.
Finally, to fulfill one of their ultimate goals–a hemisphere-wide monitoring of bird populations–people participated in Venezuela, Paraguay, and Belize for the first time.
Unfortunately, after expanding from 14,000 participants in 1998 to 42,00 in 1999 and 64,000 in 2000, they dropped back to 53,000 in 2001, probably because of the weather. But Allison Wells at the Cornell Lab emphasizes that even if participants look for birds in bad weather and don’t see them, they should report it. She also urges us to brave the weather if at all possible, or at least report birds at our feeders. Altogether participants recorded 442 species and 4,555,411 individual birds in every state and Canadian province.
Pennsylvania, which had had the most participants in 2000, dropped back to fifth place. In total, Pennsylvanians identified 114 species. The top ten birds were common grackles, Canada geese, European starlings, dark-eyed juncos, house finches, American crows, house sparrows, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds, and American goldfinches–the same ten nationally, although in slightly different order, except for the red-winged blackbirds which were replaced by snow geese (Number 11 in Pa.). Most Pennsylvanian participants clustered around the southeast and southwest with significant numbers also in the Harrisburg and Allentown/Bethlehem areas. Central Pennsylvania, north to south, had the least participants. As for the spotlighted species, there were 220 northern flickers, 52 red-headed woodpeckers, and only two northern bobwhites which were reported by one person.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is a welcome diversion near the end of winter. As someone concerned about the welfare of wild birds, I am also pleased that what provides entertainment for me, is helpful to scientists trying to better understand birds and bird populations. In the words of ornithologist Frank Gill, National Audubon’s senior vice president for science,
“I can’t think of a better way to spend a little time on a late-winter day.”