Sunday, March 27, 2011

Birdwatching with the Pros

Photo Courtesy: Alan Manson
No "Spring into Citizen Science" initiative would be complete without discussing some of the large bird census programs that have been around for years.  These long-standing birdwatching projects organize volunteers at a very specific time to coordinate observations and get a scientifically reliable count of bird species.  Some are set for a specific day, others for a specific month, and others require observations along a very specific route.  But all are designed to provide reliable data obtained consistently from year to year.

None of these three programs is up and running right now but I wanted to give you a taste of each as something to look forward to.  Hopefully you'll stay tuned throughout the year as the project dates get closer and closer.  Then I'll have much more to write about and will help you get started with each.

  • Great Backyard Bird Count: For four days in February each year participants are asked to spend just fifteen minutes counting birds in their area.  The project is open to beginners and experts alike, and can include watching  the birds outside your office of taking a nature walk and recording all the birds seen en route.  Some nature centers even host special walks where experts teach newer volunteers about the various species encountered.  There is even a photo contest for those wishing to add an extra challenge.
  • Christmas Bird Count: This is the longest-running ongoing bird project, starting in 1900 by Frank Chapman of the Audubon Society of America.  Opening at the end of fall (each year between December 14 and January 5) birdwatchers organize in groups of ten that are assigned a 15-mile diameter "counting circle".  They are then responsible for counting all the birds in that circle, following specific routes that often vary little from year to year.  This is a great benefit for novice birdwatchers; in groups of ten beginners will be paired up with more seasoned birdwatchers and can learn the techniques from seasoned pros.  Just remember that it's Christmas-time so make sure to bundle up and stay warm!
  • Project Feederwatch: Although not a spring project I couldn't neglect to add Project Feederwatch which track winter bird activity. Lasting from November to April participants commit to two consecutive days of observations every two weeks. All you need is an observable area with available feeders and some extra time, but that's it. So it's another easy project for new citizen scientists to get involved in.
  • North American Breeding Bird Survey: Begun in the 1960s to understand the impacts of pesticides (like DDT) on bird populations, the project continues each June and culminates in a yearly "State of the Birds" report based on the collected observations. But the whole thing is built on individual birdwatchers walking over 4100 well-established routes and stopping each half-mile to identify local area birds. Given the individual nature of the bird routes the work is done primarily by highly-experienced volunteers, so I recommend this one mainly for more experienced birdwatchers out there.
Hopefully these descriptions will whet your appetite for next year's census.  Many allow you to sign up well in advance, but I'll also be watching and will have more on each as the start date approaches.  And let me know in the comments if there is anything you'd like me to focus on directly when the time comes.  I'm here to help!

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