Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Great Backyard Bird Count

Bald Eagle

On December 15, most active birders in the Duluth area participated in our annual Christmas Bird Count. This annual tradition, conducted in the U.S for the past 119 years and now for decades in most countries in the Americas, provides an excellent dataset of the birds found in early winter. It’s a fun local tradition and gives birders a good idea of where to look for birds in late December through early January. Christmas Bird Count data have been used for scientists assessing some population trends and changes in bird distribution as a result of land use patterns, climate change, and more.

As wonderful as the Christmas Bird Count is, as a tradition and a gold mine of data regarding winter bird numbers, the picture it provides is limited to early winter, before many northern finches have come down and before many ducks and other species have moved further south. To understand bird numbers in the dead of winter, in 1998, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon created the Great Backyard Bird Count. This fun new tradition takes place for one weekend in the middle of February.


Unlike the Christmas Bird Count, people can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count as individuals wherever they happen to be, rather than as part of official groups staying within prescribed count circles. The standardized count techniques used in the Christmas count definitely have some advantages, but the flexibility offered by the Great Backyard Bird Count provides many other advantages.

People of any age, whether beginners or experienced birders, are invited to participate—the only commitments are that you count birds for at least 15 minutes on at least one day from Friday through Monday. You can participate in your own yard or wherever you happen to be, but to count, you must submit your checklists to either the Great Backyard Bird Count’s website (gbbc.org) or eBird.org. To do that, you must register with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but that same free registration can be used to log in to other Cornell projects, including eBird, FeederWatch, and NestWatch. The Lab’s website provides a wealth of useful information to help you identify and learn more about birds, virtually all of it free—I wholeheartedly support them for their matchless work.

I took this photo, which shows three different species (Pine Siskin above, Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll) from my upstairs window, looking down on the roof of our bay window downstairs during the 2004 Great Backyard Bird Count

Those of us who use eBird to keep track of our bird sightings don’t have to do anything different during the Great Backyard Bird Count. As always, checklist data is most useful if you keep a separate checklist of each place you go. More and more, I’ve been using the free eBird app on my phone, and getting into the habit of making a new checklist at each spot I visit in the bog. It’s really easy now—GPS on the phone tells eBird exactly where I am, and if I start a new checklist when I get to a new spot and complete the checklist before moving onto the next place, eBird keeps track of how far I traveled within the area (like when I walk along the boardwalk at the Warren Nelson bog) and how long I was there.

Pip stays right at my heels/ Russ is holding the least and taking the photo
eBird keeps track of where I walk at the Warren Nelson Bog. I turn it on at each place I go in the bog before I leave the car. eBird picks the hotspot I'm near and knows the time, and it keeps track of my movements. When I get back to the car, I add all the species I've seen that I didn't put in during the walk, and submit. I may have ten or more completed checklists before I leave. 
I haven’t had many finches at all in my own backyard this winter, but I have seen a whole lot of Pine Grosbeaks in the bog, along with redpolls, siskins, and White-winged Crossbills.

Pine Grosbeak
This is how my feeders looked during the 80s and early 90s. Now I have to go further afield to see such wonders. This was taken at the bog on Superb Owl Sunday.
The bird count will show where finches are showing up in their highest numbers, continent wide. That will be particularly interesting in the case of Evening Grosbeaks, which have been appearing as far east as New York this season even if they haven’t made an appearance in my yard. Winter distribution of finches relates most closely to where cone seeds are most abundant, but changes in distribution of some other species compared to earlier years may give us an idea of how they were affected by record-breaking temperatures this year.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is fun and easy—I’ll be paying attention to my backyard birds, and hope you will, too.

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