Most outdoors enthusiasts here in south-central Pennsylvania naturally appreciate the diversity of wild birds we have in this region almost year-round.
While fewer species of birds reside here during the winter, the lack of foliage and other vegetation makes observing them much easier. Most birds are easily attracted to backyard feeders this time of year as well, offering close-up viewing opportunities without the need to venture outside.
An upcoming event offers anyone who enjoys wild birds the opportunity to provide researchers with important information about bird distribution and populations. The 2012 Great Backyard Bird Count will take place from Friday, Feb. 17, through Monday, Feb. 20. This year's count marks the fifteenth annual event, which is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.
Complete information about being part of the project is available on the GBBC website, www.birdcount.org, but here is a basic overview of what is involved. During the four days of the event, GBBC participants are asked to count the various species of birds in their area and then submit an online checklist of those findings to.
How much time that is spent counting is flexible and left to the discretion of each individual participant. You can count birds for as little as 15 minutes on a single day during the event or spend as much time counting as you want over several days.
You may also count birds in several different places, from your backyard feeder to woodlands, fields or parks - anywhere wild birds are found. You will, however, need to submit a separate checklist for each new day and each new location where you count.
To keep the exercise manageable, counting every individual bird you see is not required, just the most individuals of a species that are sighted at one time during a counting session. For example, say you have a group of chickadees coming and going to your backyard feeder, but the most you observe there at one time is six individual birds, then that is the number you would record on your checklist for that viewing session.
One of the most important aspects of the GBBC is birders of any skill level can participate in this citizen-science project - even if you are not able to identify every bird you see - either as individuals or as a group. And the GBBC website hosts a wealth of information and online resources about the event and birding in general. In addition to all the instructions about participating in the GBBC, you can download a regional bird checklist, which lists all the birds that are likely in this area during February. There are even educator's materials available for teachers who might be interested in making participation in the GBBC a class science project.
"These types of activities provide the citizen-scientist with an opportunity to help wildlife," said Doug Gross, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist. "Anyone who can identify even a few species can contribute to the information wildlife managers use to decide where to invest limited resources in land conservation, as well as habitat improvement or protection."
Conducting the GBBC in February gives scientists a remarkable snapshot wild bird populations throughout North America. Among other things, those data provide information about winter survival and where many species are located prior to the spring migrations that will commence next month.
The mild winter we are experiencing over much of the Northeast will undoubtedly reveal some interesting shifts in the typical wintertime distribution of many species of birds this year.
Last year, bird enthusiasts from all 50 states and all Canadian provinces submitted more than 92,000 checklists during the GBBC that reported sightings of an amazing 596 different species, totaling 11.4 million individual birds. Among all the states and provinces, Pennsylvania ranked third in the most checklists submitted during the 2011 GBBC but ranked first in total number of birds observed with more than 1.5 million birds comprising 129 different species.
In Pennsylvania, the northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, tufted titmouse, mourning dove and downy woodpecker were the five species most often sighted during the 2011 GBBC, while the five most numerous species reported were European starling, common grackle, snow goose, Canada goose and red-winged blackbird.