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PRESS PHOTO BY BUD COLE Three of six male bluebirds observed during the Great Backyard Bird Count are attracted to the protein of a suet feeder. PRESS PHOTO BY BUD COLE Three of six male bluebirds observed during the Great Backyard Bird Count are attracted to the protein of a suet feeder.

Great Backyard Bird Count

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 by BUD COLE Special to The Press in Focus

Annual event helps scientists answer questions

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is an annual four-day event drawing participants of all ages to count birds visiting their backyards and surrounding areas.

The GBBC gives a real-time snapshot of what bird species are found in specific areas. The results are sent to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, N.Y. The 16th annual count was Feb. 15 - 18.

My wife, Bev, and I have been participating and sending in our bird counts for about seven years. This is the first year that records have been accepted from anywhere in the world.

The event is free, fun and easy and it does not require a great amount of time. Bird watchers from beginning to expert can spend as little as 15 minutes during a single day observing birds or they can choose to spend all day during all four days counting birds. The most important function of the GBBC is that it helps the birds.

You might wonder how these bird counts help birds. Bird populations are dynamic and they are constantly fluctuating. No team of experts could possibly document and study the complex distribution and movements of so many bird species in such a short amount of time.

Through events like the GBBC and other projects such as the Christmas Bird Count and Project Feeder Watch, scientists are able to study the results from volunteers around the world and make educated conclusions about how to help troubled bird species and improve problematic habitat areas.

The longer the data is collected the more meaningful it becomes in helping scientists investigate far-eaching questions such as: how the weather influences bird populations, why irruptive (a growth pattern defined by population explosions followed by population crashes) species, like house finches, appear in large numbers one year then have low populations the next year, how do new migration schedules compare with previous years, how do bird diseases like West Nile virus affect birds in specific areas, and how differences in bird diversity vary from cities to suburban and rural natural areas.

GBBC participants record each species seen during a counting period and enter their numbers on the GBBC website. New participants had to set up a free GBBC account to submit their checklists this year while previous contributors like Bev and me were able to use our existing account. This technology allows anyone with Internet access and an interest in the event to follow the count progress in their town or from anywhere in the world.

Our yard's mature trees, bushes and undergrowth are perfect for attracting and observing birds. It provides all the components necessary for welcoming birds: shelter, water and food.

We've improved the wildlife habitat on our one-acre plus Lehigh Township, Northampton County, property during the past 20 years. I've stopped mowing certain areas and allowed natural succession of the understory to grow in providing hiding and nesting areas for birds and small mammals. We also added a small pond.

This year, Bev and I observed 20 different bird species visiting our four feeders during the four-day event. We included birds flying directly over our property. These birds included two turkey vultures, one red-tailed hawk, 42 Canada geese and several hundred snow geese.

The flocks of snow geese flying overhead were too numerous and moved too quickly to make an accurate count. In order, from the most to the least individuals of one species, our checklist included (the totals are the largest number observed at any one time): 21 dark-eyed juncos, eight starlings, seven common crows, seven tufted titmice, six bluebirds, six mourning doves, four black-capped chickadees, three common redpolls, three downy woodpeckers, two turkey vultures, two northern cardinals, two white-breasted nuthatches, one red-breasted nuthatch, one red-tailed hawk, one Coopers hawk, one goldfinch, one brown creeper and one pileated woodpecker. Neither of us observed a single partridge in a pear tree.

Results from this year's worldwide count indicate 143 different bird species were reported by participants in Pennsylvania. The highest species number reported on one individual checklist was 66 species.

"People who care about birds can change the world. That's why this year's record-setting global participation is so exciting. Technology has made it possible for people everywhere to unite around a shared love of birds and a commitment to protecting them," said Audubon Chief Scientist, Gary Langham.

The Top Five most reported bird species recorded were (birds reported on the most checklists): northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, downy woodpeckers and house finches.

The five most common birds (the most individuals reported) were: snow geese, Canada geese, red-winged blackbirds, European starlings and American coots.

In addition, Hurricane Sandy's landfall carried some European birds to North America, one of which, the crested Northern Lapwing, was reported in Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts during the four-day GBBC.

There were reports of two pink-footed geese in the Lehigh Valley. They normally winter in Northwest Europe, especially Great Britain, The Netherlands and Denmark. One was observed at Lake Muhlenberg in Allentown and the other one was recorded at the Fogelsville Quarry.

A greater white-fronted goose was spotted at Dorney Pond and Trexler Park Lake in Allentown. They most likely ended up in this area because of storms and the possibility, while migrating south, they mixed in with flocks of Canada geese.

"This is a milestone for citizen science in so many respects number of species, diversity of countries involved, total participants, and number of individual birds recorded. We hope this is just the start of something far larger, engaging the whole world in creating a detailed annual snapshot of how all our planet's birds are faring as the years go by," explained Cornell Lab of Ornithology Director, Dr. John Fitzpatrick.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon with sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited.

Why don't you join those from around the world by participating in the GBBC next February? Remember, it is free, fun and easy. Plus you will be helping the birds.

That's the way I see it!

Email comments and questions to: bbbcole@enter.net. To schedule programs, hikes and birthday parties, call 610-767-4043.

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© 2013 Bud Cole