Friday, January 6, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Birdwatching projects to pass the winter months

The feeding of songbirds is incredibly popular in rural Western New York. A majority of homes have one or more bird feeders. This writer maintains two sunflower stations, a nyjer feeder, and a suet basket. It’s birdwatchers like us who allow every hardware and feed store on the Niagara Frontier to sell literally tons of seed each season.

Bird feeding makes for a nice pastime in our long winters -- many of the visitors, like cardinals and blue jays, add a lot of color to what can sometimes be a depressing winter landscape.  Most people don’t know that it can also be a tool for science. By monitoring what species of birds and how many of each visit feeders, ornithologists can track any number of factors, such as irruptions of birds, the spread of disease, and population declines.

While the scientists can’t watch the bird activity from everyone’s kitchen window, you can watch from yours and share your observations with them. This is done through two different programs…Feedwatch and the Great backyard Bird Count.


The FeederWatch program is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. It began in Canada in 1976 and 10 years later its scope was expanded to all of North America. What started as a simple endeavor with 500 participants has grown into a mammoth project that sees 20,000 citizen scientists sharing their observations every year. The Feederwatch staff of six takes in all the data from those observations and use it to analyze trends and, in turn, drive their peers in the bird sciences and conservation to conduct studies and implement environmental policy.

It’s a critical program that does have great merit. The Feederwatch team likes to use the painted bunting as an example. Feederwatch data from Florida showed that the winter population of the bunting declined steadily starting in the late-1980s, at an alarming rate of 4 percent per year. Those findings led the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to begin a systematic monitoring program of bunting populations so they could learn how to protect them and save them from becoming endangered.

It’s quite easy to lend them a hand in tracking birds. You register with Feederwatch at their website ( which, despite your volunteerism, requires an $18 participation fee which is necessary to keep the program alive, after all, it’s a non-profit (for that, you will also receive the annual report and the regular Cornell Lab newsletter).

From there, you create your own profile that identifies your observation site and its location. That site must be one that attracts birds from something that you have provided, be it bird feeders, bird baths, or plantings. Over the course of two consecutive days of each week (most birders choose the weekend), you record what species of birds visited your yard and how many of a specific species were present at one time. This is done mid-November to early-April, typically the period when most northerners keep their feeders filled.

Beyond just entering data, the Feederwatch community has a lot to offer participants. There are blogs, photo contests, profiled observers, an email newsletter, a Facebook and more, all of which allow you to share your observations in greater detail and learn from and appreciate the findings of others.

The Great Backyard Bird Count

If weekly counts are too much of a commitment and $18 is too much of an investment, there’s always the one-time free Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).

Launched in 1998 by the aforementioned Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first fully online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.

Now, more than 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life worldwide join the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds.

It’s a simple project: For at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, which is February 17-20 this year, simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. The data can then be entered and viewed at the GBBC website. You can count from any location, anywhere in the world, and for as long as you wish.

Despite the moniker of “backyard” it is more than that. You could count birds in your yard, but you could also observe them at any woodlot, field, marsh or lake in Western New York. A project like this is nice because it gives some folks who are otherwise shut-ins in the winter months a little nudge to traipse outdoors, hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing to count birds.

I strongly encourage all birders – even those who count themselves as “beginners” – to explore the Niagara Frontier during the GBBC; you’ll be amazed at the diverse wildlife that still calls this area home even during the most brutal parts of winter.

Birding is one of the most popular hobbies in the US – almost 47 million people observed, photographed or fed birds last year. You were probably one of them. If you are looking to add to that experience and battle the winter doldrums, help out the folks at Feederwatch and the Backyard Bird Count  -- it’s an easy way to give to and help out the scientific community and, in the process, help our feathered friends.

From the 05 January 2017 All WNY News

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