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With deer season over and a long winter looming ahead for most Mainers, it’s logical to think, “Now what am I going to do?” Rather than hunker down and wait for the gloom of cabin fever to overwhelm your spirit, why not sign up for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology “Great Backyard Bird Count?” The activity is fun, easy and free (always a good combination) and anyone with eyes and a bird in sight may participate.
The 10th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (hereafter known as GBBC) will be held during the week of Feb. 16-19 throughout the U.S. and Canada. Participants can take part wherever they are at the time – at home, in schoolyards, at local parks or in wildlife refuges. Observers need only count the highest number of each species they see during an outing or a sitting, and then enter the tally on the GBBC Web site at
Visit the Web site early to get an idea of what’s involved, or to compare your sightings with the results of other participants around North America as checklists pour in. The results of the study offers a real-time snapshot of the numbers and species of birds that people are observing during the same period, from boreal chickadees in Maine to anhingas in Florida.
This is a labor of love, not necessarily a laborious undertaking. If all you want to do is spend 15 minutes counting the birds at your backyard feeder, that’s fine, too. Or, if you want to clock in and count birds all weekend, that’s up to you, too. Participation is meant to provide a source of enjoyment, turning your daily walk to the mailbox into a hunt for feathered treasure.
“We hope that this year more people than ever will venture out and count birds for the first time,” said Paul Green, Audubon’s director of Citizen Science. “By submitting their counts online, participants can quickly see how the birds they’ve counted in their own backyards and parks help tell the larger story about where birds winter and how we share our world with them.”
Greater participation, with more checklists submitted, means more information can be gleaned about the wintering habits of birds, population trends and how to make better-informed conservation decisions.
Last year, some 60,000 participants reported over 7.5 million birds covering 623 different species. The count chronicled the early spring migratory routes of sandhill cranes, documented lingering migrants such as the orange-crowned warbler and recorded declining numbers of American crows. A study of this magnitude would cost millions of dollars if conducted by professional researchers, but the same information may be gleaned by sharp-eyed volunteers who simply report on the numbers and species of birds they observe during the four-day period.
You do not need to be a trained ornithologist to participate in the GBBC. Volunteers who wish to hone their bird-identification skills can learn more from the GBBC Web site, which offers identification tips and access to photos, bird calls, maps and natural history information on more than 500 species of common birds. Volunteers may also submit photos of uncertain species for online showcasing and identification. Competitions add another element of fun including a photo contest, rankings for most numerous birds spotted and the coveted “checklist champ” title for towns, states or provinces with the highest participation.
I have always been a fan of birds and have spent as much time in the woods watching (and feeding) them as I have hunting the target species of the day. For example, a few weeks ago I claimed to be deer hunting all day but, though I saw no whitetails, I did bump into nuthatches, chickadees, blue jays, ravens, crows, grouse, a woodcock, two pileated woodpeckers, several downy and hairy woodpeckers, a Canada jay and a small flock of robins. There are many times when the woods seem empty and dismal if not for the cheery call of a chickadee, wren or sparrow.
In fact, I can sometimes get quite distracted by birds, sometimes to the point that I lose my focus on what I’m there to do. Not long ago I was in Idaho hunting deer and elk and came upon a pair of Stellar’s jays, basically shaped like our common blue jay but a stunning, deep cobalt color. The problem is that Stellar’s jays are curious and persistent camp robbers, and as I was eating lunch high above the timberline the pair somehow found me and began to fight over the crusts and crumbs I threw to them. This went on for quite some time (I kept the morsels small and plentiful), and had so much fun watching these exquisite birds swoop in and steal their plunder that I almost didn’t see the 10-point buck mincing by in the knee-deep snow above me.
And that reminds me, earlier this year I was hunting on a thin trail on a slippery, rock-strewn slope leading to some good deer cover when I was side-tracked by a big flock of male wood ducks loafing in a weedy cove along the brook below. I paused to observe the ducks (safe from me and my deer rifle), which, as any birder knows, rank as among the most beautiful of all the world’s birds. They put on quite a show, preening and stretching like American Idol contestants, and I spent a little too much time on one foot watching them through my 10x binoculars.
After several minutes of this, I swung my glasses across the landscape in front of me (ostensibly looking for deer) and found myself looking up the snout of one very curious bull moose! Somehow the animal had walked right up to me without being noticed, and now I was in a real pickle – stuck on a steep slope, nowhere to hide and 1,000 pounds of annoyed Alces alces blocking my way.
The bull eyed me for a moment, decided that avoidance was the most logical plan of action and detoured around me, flushing the ducks and cracking some big, loud branches in the process. It’s not often that bird watching can be hazardous to one’s health, but that was certainly a close one!
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