Scientists seek help in counting birds

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2005

JUNEAU — You don't have to be in your backyard for the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count. Organizers of the event, which runs from Feb. 18 through Feb. 21, will be glad to take findings from any location. You can walk the shore, trudge through the woods, or sit beside your kitchen window.

The count is organized by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

''They want to make it really accessible, but they want all the data they can get,'' said Karla Hart, who coordinates the Watchable Wildlife Program for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

''What's impressive about something like this is it's only through these large voluntary projects we can gain information on the distribution and relative abundance of birds across an entire continent,'' said Iain Stenhouse, director of bird conservation for Audubon Alaska, the state office of the National Audubon Society. ''What's impressive is the scale of it.''

About 4.3 million birds from 554 species were sighted during last year's count. This is its eighth year.

The data, which also includes snow depth, help scientists formulate questions to be answered by research, said Miyoko Chu, science editor at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y.

Hart participated last year. But she took the event's title literally and watched her backyard.

''OK, I have two juncos, and that's it,'' she said of last year's experience.

About 50 people in Juneau and 100 throughout Southeast Alaska counted birds during the event last year, said Brenda Wright, president of the Juneau Audubon Society.

Unlike the well-known Christmas bird count, participants in February's event send their findings to the organizers themselves over the Internet.

The count is touted as one of the largest citizen-supported scientific projects in the world.

It's done in February because that's the end of winter — that's their story and they're sticking to it — and scientists want to see how many birds survived prior to the big migrations in spring.

The count attracts attention to issues and trends that need to be looked at more closely, organizers said.

For example, in 2001, the data showed that American robins weren't often seen in areas with more than a dusting of snow. Red-winged blackbirds showed a similar pattern, but it didn't hold true for many ground-feeding birds. Why?

Data from 2004 showed that the number of American crows is low in areas where the West Nile virus has been documented. The virus has been moving westward since it was first noted in New York City in 1999.

The sightings also show unusual movements of birds. For the last two years few pine siskins were seen in Alaska during the count, when they should be common. But they popped up as far south as Southern California, Wright said. Now they're back but they have a disease, she said. What happened?

Because the count gathers data from all over the continent at the same time, it helps scientists know whether an anomaly is localized or nationwide.

''We know we're not counting our siskins here and in Oregon,'' Wright said.

The data from the February count eventually will be kept in a database with information from the Christmas count and a summer breeding-bird survey.

''So we're building up an interesting view across the year,'' Stenhouse said.

Amy Skilbred, a board member of the local Audubon group, led several Girl Scouts in the count a few years ago at the Auke Recreation Area.

''It was great. We had a gorgeous sunny day,'' she said. ''One great thing is you can do it at your bird feeder. You don't have to go anywhere.

''And the other great thing is your data goes on a map and you can see it (on a Web site).''

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