The great backyard bird count

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By Birdie Jaworski

Sonya Berg plans to focus her attention on Las Vegas’ winged creatures this Feb. 15-18, as an active participant in the 11th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count. A member of the Friends of Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, Berg realizes how important citizen science can be.

“The bird count is a great example of how gathering scientific data through ordinary citizens can make a difference in our understanding of our local birds,” Berg says. “There’s been a tremendous volume of data accumulated over the past decade that shows how bird populations are increasing or decreasing, how they are reacting to things like climate change.”

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where different birds species are across the continent. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. The count is directed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, with sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited.

“My husband and I participated in it last year here in Las Vegas, but have also participated in Texas,” explains Berg. “We catalogued birds you would expect, but we had some surprises, too. When we sent in our report last year, we received an email back asking us if we were sure about a certain bird. I made sure to take a photo of the bird in question, and that settled that. All of this information can help show important trends about migration and habitats.”

Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count is simple, says Berg. “It’s a very easy project to participate in. You can count as little as 15 minutes a day for the four days, or you can watch all day long. When you report your birds, you will be asked how long you’ve observed the birds, and what kind of setting you watched. It can be your backyard feeder, or you can drive out of town if you want to see more unusual species. Even if you only have a few minutes before you pick up the kids from school, you can help.”

Birds that might be counted in Las Vegas include house sparrows, scrub jays, various finches, snowbirds, ravens, flickers, mountain chickadees, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, as well as up to three kinds of bluebirds - mountain, western, and eastern. Bird watchers can find identification help as well as input their lists at the official website, http://www.birdsource.org/.

Berg offers some good advice for novice counters.

“During the time you’re cataloguing your birds, you may see some redwing blackbirds. If you see three, you write down three. If you take a little break and fetch a cup of coffee, you might see 15 blackbirds when you return,” Berg explains. “In this case, you would report 15 blackbirds total, not 18. You report the largest number you see at any one time.”

During last year’s event, participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count submitted 81,203 total checklists, about a one third increase in the number of checklists submitted in the prior year, which included observing 11,082,387 birds and 631 bird species. Viewers can submit photographs of birds in their backyard at the website for a contest, and can watch the count “live” as checklists come in from all different corners of the country.

“It’s fun watching the returns,” Berg laughs. “It’s almost like the elections. I like to see what birds are reported in New Mexico. I wonder what surprises we’ll have this year.”

To participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, log on to www.birdsource.org for directions and bird identification help. Feb. 15-18.