Counting is for the birds this weekend

A bald eagle that Edmonds resident Alan Mearns photographed at a neighbor’s home.

Be on the lookout for birds and help gather knowledge at the same time. The annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) will take place Feb. 12-15, and everyday people are invited to aid scientists in better understanding bird populations.

Over those four days, people are encouraged to spend 15 minutes or more — at least once –in their yard or other easily accessible places watching and counting as many birds as they can find and then reporting those observations. Bird sighting data logged during the event will create a nearly real-time snapshot of area populations and can also assist in answering questions about climate change, weather events and surrounding environmental conditions.

The global event, now in its 24th year, takes place during the third weekend in February before one of the annual bird migrations and regularly sees hundreds of thousands of bird checklists submitted. It was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and display those results so quickly when originally launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

This nearly all-white “leucistic” chickadee spent many days in Mearns’ yard in December and early January. (Photo by Alan Mearns)

“Scientists can only collect so much data by themselves, so this is one of those opportunities where the general public can really make a valuable contribution to science and the conservation of birds,” said Brian Zinke, executive director of the local Pilchuck Audubon Society. By gathering the large amount of yearly data from the GBBC and observing variations over time, they are then able to document changes in population numbers, which can help guide area conservation efforts. “A lot of our local projects and stuff are guided by data from projects like this,” Zinke said.

He pointed to the marbled murrelet seabird as one of the local species whose population is either endangered or declining — and that the snapshot provided by the GBBC can help with in identifying those trends. Regardless of whether the species is considered rare or is very common, such as the dark-eyed junco,  data collected is important, Zinke said, since it can “really help our efforts when we try and speak up for conservation issues locally.”

Participation doesn’t require prior experience, knowledge or much more than a little bit of time, patience and attention to detail. The Pilchuck Audubon Society has a list of resources available, which includes a training video from a recent webinar it hosted for people new to birdwatching. Resources also include links to apps and websites that provide essential information and help with identifying birds, and even a Snohomish County checklist.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Photo by Alan Mearns)

People without access to a yard can participate from a park, open space or even a window. Zinke said during last year’s GBBC, he was able to submit a single day’s checklist of 13 birds from seven species after roughly 35 minutes spent standing on the balcony outside of his second-story apartment located next to Interstate 5. “That just goes to show that you really can participate from anywhere,” he said.

Brier resident Lissy Villa, who has been doing the count for nearly a decade, described the event as a relaxing and positive experience. “It is important because (it) presents the opportunity to all bird enthusiasts to exchange information as well they can include their friends and family to be more aware of what we are surrounded by mother nature,” she said.

The event is also kid-friendly, Villa said. “Including children at an early age is absolutely great, because they are very curious and indirectly they will be our future ‘replacement’ to appreciate and continue with our conservation efforts of helping birds and nature,” she said.

The biggest challenge, according to longtime participants, is properly identifying birds before submitting the data, which requires paying close attention to specific locations of their colors and markings. They pointed to the various apps and online resources as being particularly helpful. In addition, Zinke said that his organization is always happy to aid people’s identification efforts and encouraged sending such questions by email.

During the pandemic, people should be masking up for birding in public, Mearns said.

Edmonds resident Dr. Alan Mearns served as trainer in the video for the webinar about the upcoming count, and has conducted similar efforts for the past 10 years. Mearns, a retired marine biologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, enjoys counting and photographing birds while collecting his own long-term data year-round. Some people in Edmonds even referred to him as “Mr. GBBC.”

He said that he’d always been interested in the populations of fish and marine life. About 20 years ago, it dawned on him “that I had animals that I could actually see coming through my yard.” It was a eureka moment that spurred a passionate hobby. “And I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, I can’t count the fish, but I can count the birds.’ So, I got into it.” He began watching birds in his yard for 15-30 minutes daily and collecting information, which he continues to enjoy to this day.

Mearns offered this helpful tip for those new to identifying birds and collecting information. If you plan to use binoculars, first use your eyes to look for birds and their movements in shrubs or trees. “Once you spot something, then you lift your binoculars up, without moving your head, and then boom — you’re singing,” he said.

— By Nathan Blackwell

  1. I have one hummingbird in my yard with a green back otherwise and seveal nondescript other sparrows of some kind
    I live in north Everett. I see in the trees below me three rather large nests. I’m hoping that some birds will be reusing them soon.

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