Birding for Science: Tales of the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count

Each February, birders everywhere rejoice in the arrival of the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count is a global count that lasts for 4 days and encourages both newbies and experienced birders to get out and see birds. However, the main goal of the count is to gather data on wild bird populations so that we may know what areas are of greatest conservation importance. Scientists collect this data when counters submit their data directly through the GBBC website or through the online database eBird. It is important to note that although its name is the “Great Backyard Bird Count,” checklists over 15 minutes in length from any location are acceptable contributions to the project. The GBBC has been wildly successful. It pioneered bird-related citizen-science projects and now has over 160,000 contributors worldwide.

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Savannah Sparrow

My family and I submitted quite a few checklists to eBird between February 17 and 20 (this year’s count dates). We started our first family checklist at 3:41 PM on the 17th, fittingly, in our backyard. We picked up several of the Western Massachusetts backyard regulars, such as Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Dark-eyed Junco, and House Sparrow, as well as a couple of slightly less common visitors, such as European Starling, Carolina Wren, and American Tree Sparrow. My grandmother arrived that evening, and we birded with her for the rest of the count. The next morning, we added some other common birds to our list, including the adorable and charismatic American Goldfinch and the equally beautiful House Finch. The morning’s viewing was highlighted by the appearance of a Savannah Sparrow, a very uncommon visitor to our yard! Due to weekend plans, that was the extent of our birding that day. The next morning was a busy day in the yard! We had an Eastern Bluebird perched high in a tree behind the fence, a flock of Cedar Waxwings, and a Common Raven being mobbed by 2 American Crows overhead. Amidst the flurry of activity, we also had the season’s first Red-winged Blackbird, a bird that we usually see at the start of spring. That afternoon, I had plans with some friends, so my father and grandmother ventured to the agricultural fields of Hadley, where they picked up the abundant-but-elusive Horned Lark. They then headed north to Turner’s Falls, where they found an abundance of waterfowl and gulls. Ring-necked Duck, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Bufflehead, and Greater Scaup were added to the list, as well as several gull species, highlighted by 4 Iceland Gulls and a pair of adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls, two species that are relatively rare inland. The next morning’s backyard watching yielded no additional species, but we weren’t worried. We had plans to venture just south of the Connecticut-Massachusetts border to find a pair of Barnacle Geese and a Pink-footed Goose that had been reported at a boat launch with a large flock of Canada Geese. The boat launch was devoid of geese, but we could see large flocks of them touching down just across the river. We got in our cars, found a bridge, and crossed the river. I was riding with my grandmother, following my father as we scanned the sides of the road for fields where we knew the geese would be feeding. Before we had gotten very far, we found thousands of geese feeding on corn stubble and manure in a large farm field. We parked along the side of the road and began to scan the flock, looking for any individuals that jumped out at us. Trying to spot the one or two geese in a flock of thousands that have slightly different plumage is an exhilarating, though admittedly tiring experience. Before too long I was able to spot a Graylag x Swan Goose hybrid, which had evidently been a domestic barnyard animal before it had escaped. It was most likely the same bird that had been just a few miles upriver at the UMass Amherst campus pond, and my family and I had grown to like the goose as an individual. It was nice to be able to catch up with it again! It took us awhile before we finally found our first rarity. My father spotted the Pink-footed Goose, which I was able to get a good, but brief look at before it disappeared into the crowd again. Fortunately there were other things to look at while we searched for other oddities. Right next to us was a mixed species flock of songbirds, where we added Song Sparrow and Northern Mockingbird to our list. After awhile, my father waved me over again. He had found a Cackling Goose, a bird that looks like a small Canada Goose, but with a decidedly stubby bill, short neck, and round head. This time, my grandmother was able to see it, too! Around this time, I spotted a couple of Common Grackles, another species that is rarely seen in winter. A few of the geese took off from the back of the field, and the Pink-footed was with them! When the geese came around again and landed, we found the Pink-footed Goose in a different section of the field, where it afforded us much better views and allowed my grandmother to finally get a look at it. After about an hour-and-a-half of searching, we came to the conclusion that the Barnacle Geese were not be seen that day, so we grabbed some lunch, said goodbye to my grandmother, and headed home.

Our checklists joined a collection of over 140,000 submitted over the 4-day period, representing 5,388 species and 20,372,633 individual birds counted! Although the count period is over, checklists from the GBBC are still being accepted through March 1. Who knows what the total number of species seen and checklists submitted will be for 2017?