Monday, February 10, 2014

Citizen science

By Rick Newton and Beth Sullivan
Brrr... it's been cold outside.... very cold. It is probably keeping some of us from getting outside, or hitting the trails as often as we'd like, to enjoy nature. While we wait for the migrants to return, and the osprey to show up at their nests, we can still enjoy the birds of winter and actually enhance our understanding of our avian friends through Citizen Science projects. Participating might even make these last weeks of winter just a bit more bearable.
Male Northern Cardinal
Female Northern Cardinal
The Great Backyard Bird Count
This is an annual four-day event taking place this year on February 14 - 17. This is the 17th annual count, and last year about 134,000 people submitted lists of their observations.
This Sharped Shinned Hawk is also watching the backyard birds.
You can participate from anywhere, from inside your home or the warmth of your car, as long as you do at least 15 minutes of observation. Most people enjoy watching the birds at their feeders. The only other requirement is simply counting the number of each species of bird you see over that specified time period. By counting in the same place at the same time over years, you can create your own yard list and compare your lists from year to year. There are a number of “most commonly expected” yard birds as shown here and included in last week’s blog. But always be alert to surprises, like turkeys or even hawks! If you expand your range, you will be surprised at the great variety of birds you can find in a short period!
A Carolina Wren enjoying a suet feeder.
You may be thinking that submitting data for only 15 minutes of observation really doesn't matter - but it does. The data are gathered from tens of thousands of volunteers all over the world and can create a snapshot in time of species, distributions and populations. You may remember the Christmas Bird Count we discussed at the beginning of January. This is less intensive, much easier to do, but offers insight into changes in populations over time that may be correlated to weather trends and other environmental concerns.
A male House Finch is cracking open sunflower seeds from a backyard feeder.
It is pretty simple to participate. For details it is fun to peek around the Great Backyard Bird Count website. It will give you specifics about how to count your birds and more importantly how to submit your lists. Then you can spend more winter days exploring the data and maps and see how the trends are analyzed.
Song Sparrows are common in south-eastern Connecticut.
Binoculars are helpful, and a good field guide is pretty essential, especially when sorting out little brown sparrows! Sibley, Audubon, Peterson and National Geographic all have inexpensive and very useful guides.
Goldfinch in dull winter plumage.
Once you get started, you might just get hooked. In that case there is Project Feeder Watch and the ebird community of bird enthusiasts. These are also all on-line.
Tufted Titmouse
Go to the following website to get psyched!
Juncos come south for the winter and summer in Canada.  
And..if you decide you really are hooked, you can plan an enhanced habitat for the birds you will count next year with the Yardmap software!
Yardmap is a free mapping project designed to "cultivate a richer understanding of bird habitat". Essentially, it is making a map of your yard or other location using the on-line tools at their website. There are lots of tips to make your yard more bird friendly. You can learn about your local EcoRegion and view lists of native plants, native plant nurseries and seed companies and community gardens that are nearby.
Red-Bellied Woodpecker.
So as winter still grabs at us, and keeps us from easy hiking, think how you and your family can become more involved in understanding the birds we share our world with and become Citizen Scientists!
Other Citizen Science projects can be found in this article:

Photographs by Beth Sullivan and Rick Newton.

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