Mary “Mimi” Sandmann has been watching the birds come and go from her Lafayette Township backyard for more than 30 years.
This winter, the bird enthusiast has been missing some of her usual visitors, particularly bluebirds and some unusual species like towhees and yellow rumped warblers. She suspects Superstorm Sandy might have affected the birds’ migratory patterns, and she wonders how many other bird watchers have noticed similar changes.
That’s why she’s looking forward to the Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual effort to track bird populations that’s run jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University and the National Audubon Society. Sandmann will participate in the count, which starts Friday and continues until Feb. 18.
The bird count enlists bird watchers to observe and record the birds that visit their yards during a specific period. The information they submit shows where birds are found and in what numbers and helps scientists track long-term trends, said Pat Leonard, who coordinates the count for Cornell.
This is the 16th year for the bird count, but other counts such as the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count have been around for more than a century. Data from various counts allow scientists to see beyond the normal yearly fluctuations in bird populations and identify significant movements or consistent declines that might be tied to such causes as diseases, environmental factors or habitat changes, Leonard said.
The backyard count happens this time of year because it’s just before birds start heading for home after spending the winter in warmer weather. “We kind of catch them before they take off again,” she said.
This year for the first time, the count is going global, using a worldwide online checklist program called eBird. That expansion promises to provide an even broader picture of where birds are distributed and in what numbers.
The involvement of amateurs is essential to the success of the count because they can cover so much more area than professional ornithologists could, Leonard said. Past counts typically have involved tens of thousands of observers reporting more than 600 bird species in the United States and Canada. Last year, 17.4 million birds were counted on 104,000 checklists.
Expanding the count beyond North America opens up the possibility of counting 10,240 bird species around the world.
Over the years, Leonard said, the count has shown such trends as the spread of the Eurasian collard dove, which entered the United States in the 1980s, and the rebound of the American crow, which suffered a precipitous drop in population after West Nile virus reached the United States in 1999.
This year, one of the happenings scientists will be watching is the southward movement of red-breasted nuthatches and the group of birds called winter finches — common redpolls, pine siskins and white-winged and red crossbills, Leonard said.
Those birds venture south cyclically during the years when fir trees don’t produce enough seeds for them to eat, she explained. But lately the winter finches have been moving father south, and the southward movement has been happening all across the continent. In Colorado, more common redpolls have been counted this winter than in the last 25 years combined, Leonard said.
Last week a red-breasted nuthatch pecked at the suet feeder in Sandmann’s yard, one of two of the little bluish-gray songbirds she’s seen in her yard so far this winter. Last year, she didn’t see any.
She’s become attuned to the habits of her feathered visitors in the years she’s been feeding them, watching them and photographing them as an environmental photographer.
Caring for the birds was such a passion of Sandmann and her late husband, Terry, that in the late 1990s they had their one-acre property certified as a wildlife habitat by both the National Wildlife Federation and the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Sandmann has been involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count every year since its inception in 1998. Usually she’ll sit at her kitchen table and watch the birds that visit the eight feeding stations just outside her sliding glass door.
She starts with a list of the birds she normally sees in her yard and marks them off as she spots them. Often she keeps her camera close at hand, just in case an opportunity arises to add another shot to her portfolio of award-winning photographs. Several of those photos have been displayed on the bird count website over the years.
Last year, Sandmann spent a half-hour observing on each of the four days of the bird count. But in years when the weather is too bad to venture out, “I could just sit here all day with my coffee,” she said.
The count spans four days, but participants don’t have to commit to that whole period, Leonard said. If you’re interested in helping, you can devote as little as one 15-minute period on one of the four days.
A thorough knowledge of birds is not a requirement, either. While it helps to have a bird guide handy and perhaps brush up in advance on the birds that commonly visit your area, Leonard said counting just the few species you’re familiar with is helpful to the cause. If you’re not sure of a bird’s identity, just don’t report it, she said.
Counting involves a bit of guesswork, since it’s hard to tell if you’re seeing one bird visiting repeatedly or a succession of different birds. That’s why the count organizers recommend recording the highest number of a species you spot at any one time.
There’s no perfect way to count birds, “not as long as humans are involved,” Leonard conceded with a laugh. Nevertheless, the count has safeguards to prevent bad information.
For example, if someone tries to report a bird that doesn’t typically visit the person’s area, the computer will flag that information. Reviewers will check flagged information and perhaps follow up with the counter to make sure the sighting is legitimate.
The count is low-key and doesn’t require a long-term commitment, Leonard said. Even children get involved, often through their schools.
Many of the participants come from Ohio, which ranked eighth in checklists submitted among the states and Canadian provinces that participated in last year’s count, Leonard said.
She thinks the count is a great way to raise awareness of issues affecting wildlife and people’s role in environmental change.
“You can’t really care about something you don’t understand or know about,” she said. “… Besides, what else are you going to do in February?”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.