Monday, February 9, 2015

Counting the birds we are already watching

By Beth Sullivan
We have been thinking a lot about winter survival for wildlife, particularly the birds. Hopefully you have looked at your yard to see where you have created places for cover and protection, noted natural food sources, and established some feeding stations offering a good variety of sustenance. Maybe you have been able to identify your common species and could note any uncommon ones if they arrive in your yard.
Carolina Wrens are one of the many species you might see this winter.

Maybe you have your binoculars close at hand, by the living room door or the kitchen window-wherever your feeders are located. And of course you have your field guides handy. Peterson, Sibley, Audubon and maybe even an app on your phone! And how about a piece of paper to record your sightings?

Citizen Scientists needed

Then you are absolutely ready to participate in this year’s Citizen Science events.
Since the beginning of winter, the Feeder Watch program has been in process. Even though it started back in December, there is still time to enroll and add your data. By enrolling now, you can finish out this year, and get free automatic enrollment in next year’s Feeder Watch. There will be no excuse for starting late next year.
Coming Feb 13-16 is the Great Backyard Bird Count. a similar endeavor, more intense for a weekend of birding observations in your own back yard ( or anywhere else you choose).
White Throated Sparrow can be bright or dull in color but it is not a gender trait.

Both activities have dedicated websites and excellent instructions for how to do the count and document your sightings. The GBBC will send you a packet of information that serves both efforts.
By enrolling in that program you also get free access to a very helpful online education program. This would be a great opportunity for families to sit together to learn about birds, their biology, and beginning bird watching techniques. There are tally sheets and instructions to download.

Interesting counting rules

And there are some interesting thoughts about how to count your birds. For instance, if you see three sparrows on the ground, you count three. Later you see two, and later you see four. You do not tally the total of all your sightings because there is no way to know if you are double counting a particular bird, so you only use the number 4 because it is the highest number seen at one time.
Count as many birds as you see in one place at one time.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some bird species are male and female identical-Chickadees for example. Others are easy to tell apart like Cardinals. But in this case, to level the playing field, if you see one Cardinal, a male, and later see one Cardinal, and it is a female, you still only count 1 as it was only one bird at a time. Doesn’t sound right to those of us who know the difference, but there would be no way to equalize for all the other species. However, if at one point you see both Cardinals together on the ground, you can then count two!
Chickadees are all identical.

We can tell the gender, but it still counts as one bird.

So check out the websites. There is time to enroll and to read instructions and prepare for the Great Backyard Bird Count. On these snowy cold days, the birds tend to congregate in larger numbers, and we humans tend to huddle closer, inside looking out. Grab your kids, a field guide, or an app…and start counting!
You may not be the only one watching the feeder.  Hawks count too.

Learn more about the feeder watch project here.

Learn more about the great backyard bird count here.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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