Great Backyard Bird Count returns
The big one is coming. And, no, I’m not talking about the Powerball jackpot or the next snowstorm headed our way. But I sure hope that there is one coming and that it’ll be a doozey so I can call my sister and complain about a couple of inches of snow after she got dumped on in Maine recently.
This weekend marks the 20th year of the Great Backyard Bird Count, which was started in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Can you imagine the amount of manpower and number-crunching it took for scientists to take 13,500 bird checklists submitted online and turn them into useful information back in 1998?
Just for entertainment purposes, let’s revisit the computer technology that year. Everyone was still using dial up modems, Netscape was an Internet browser that millions of Americans used, and people paid $19.95 a month for email subscription service from companies like AOL and Prodigy. Google was just two guys and a domain name back then. Nobody could access the Internet via a cell phone and mobile apps weren’t developed until nearly a decade later.
Fast forward to today and, my, how things have changed. In 2013, the GBBC went global. Last year participants submitted more than 162,000 checklists from more than 100 countries. More than half the known bird species in the world were observed and reported during the four-day span of the count.
It’s easier than ever to participate in the GBBC. Most of us have access to a smartphone these days. Just set the timer on it for 15 minutes and then remember to look up from the screen at the world around you (it seems people have a hard time with that step sometimes).
Record the number and species of birds you observe using the eBird checklist feature. Or, if you have a little Luddite in you, get out a pen and paper and tally the birds the old-fashioned way and submit the checklist online later.
Not sure what kind of bird you saw? There’s an app for that. Just answer a few simple questions on the Merlin Bird ID app (ques- tions like “What size was the bird?” and “What was it doing when you observed it?”) to get a list of possible candidates along with their photo. The app has a brand-new feature that can help identify a bird from a photo you take and upload yourself.
The Merlin app’s index of birds covers all the known birds in the United States and new species from around the globe are being added all the time, including 253 species from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula recently. The app works great and it’s free.
The GBBC only works if people volunteer their time as citizen-scientists to observe and report. You can do it in your backyard, your car, your office, or even in the parking lot of your child’s school. All it takes is 15 minutes.
Taking part in the GBBC is something my kids and I look forward to every year. We’ve only missed one since we start- ed participating. Truthfully, I forgot all about the GBBC in 2010. But, in my defense, I had just had a baby only a month earlier and all those sleepless nights finally caught up to me that February.
But we’ll be watching our birdfeeder with an eagle eye this weekend for certain. It’s a good way to get kids interested in the natural world, starting with their own backyards. And it also is a great way to get better at identifying birds. I still can’t tell the difference between a downy and a hairy woodpecker, but my species list has exploded exponentially since I started paying attention to where, when, and what I’ve been observing, all thanks to getting involved in the GBBC.
Plus, you don’t have to wait until February’s GBBC to submit sightings to eBird. You can do that every day of the year from any location in the world.
Scientists use this information, along with other checklists submitted from other programs such as Project Feeder Watch and the Christmas Bird Count, to track changes in bird populations. Over the past two decades, these bird checklists have provided real-time data about how weather patterns, climate change and human activity are affecting the number, range, migration patterns and behavior of different bird species.
To participate, you’ll need a free online account on the website eBird or you can get the app. While you’re in the app store, don’t forget about the Merlin Bird ID app (also free). Go to http://ebird.org to sign up or http://birdcount.org for more information. The GBBC takes place Feb. 17 to 20 this year.
If you’re new to birding or just want to get together with like-minded people who enjoy birds and can help you get started identifying them, the Southern Maryland Audubon Society is sponsoring a GBBC event at the Indian Head Rail Trail in White Plains from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. No reservations are required and the event is free.