Great Back­yard Bird Count re­turns

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake jamiedrake­out­doors@out­look.com

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.

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