Community column: Join citizen-scientists counting flocks
If you are a birder, or have one in your family, this weekend is like the Super Bowl come again. Feb. 15-18 is the Great Backyard Bird Count, an international bird watching (and counting) extravaganza in its 16th year.
The GBBC invites anyone with interest and a little time to participate in this annual tally of winged visitors. The flexible format makes doing so an easy task. While the event name associates with backyard viewing, participants can watch anywhere they like — at a bird feeder, at a local park, from an office window. The only guideline — and it’s hardly difficult to meet — is that you must agree to watch for an entire 15 minutes. The project is hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada. And according to organizers, the 2012 GBBC shattered previous years’ participation with more than 104,000 checklists recorded and more than 17.4 million birds observed.
The effort is organized through a data-intensive website at www.birdcount.org. The site makes it easy to contribute and also review findings from previous years. For the 2012 GBBC, Blacksburg had nearly 30 checklists submitted, and watchers recorded 1,460 birds with 51 different species. Christiansburg participation was significantly lower with only about 10 lists posted. But the sightings were abundant — 554 birds for a total of 31 species.
I participated in a Radford-based GBBC walk last year. A crew of about 25 people convened to wander through Wildwood Park. We recorded and posted our findings the following day. It was a good morning for blue jays. We spotted 17 of the birds, which are No. 8 on the Most Frequently Reported Birds list from the 2012 totals. Globally, the northern cardinal took top billing, appearing on 48,932 checklists. Snow geese were the Most Numerous Birds; watchers tallied more than 3 million.
Some of us enjoy the statistical and scientific side. The GBBC data is used by experts across the globe in the study of bird distribution. That makes everyone participating a citizen-scientist, which is a fast-growing field of interest, sometimes called crowd science or networked science.
A group at Virginia Tech is linking the GBBC with an ongoing Citizen Science Challenge. Science librarian Allison Scripa and colleague Purdom Lindblad have been coordinating various activities with the Residential College at West Ambler Johnston hoping to encourage students to engage with science beyond academic coursework. Their first activity collected ground weather observations. The second West-AJ Citizen Science Challenge seeks teams of five to count birds during the GBBC.
Radford resident Clyde Kessler has been participating in the GBBC since it began. Kessler’s reputation and record are well-known in the birding community. He’s been at it for about 40 years, habitually noting his observations in a small notepad during walks. He’ll complete a number of hikes this weekend, touring favorite spots in Radford and Pulaski County.
And while Kessler is a persistent citizen-scientist, you get the sense that his passion tilts more toward the fields and their inhabitants than fields of data. When asked to name a favorite birding encounter within the past year, he countered with several magical moments just within the past few weeks.
“I have so many favorite birding encounters every year that it would be difficult to name one,” Kessler wrote in an email. “A recent one from last month: … watching two Brown Creepers chasing each other from tree to tree for about 10 minutes near the birding platform at Dudley’s Landing. They would fly downward in whirling spiral to near the ground and then land on trees, climb up a while, then the chase would start again.”
Days later, Kessler noted six American pipits forage along the banks of the New River. The morning of his email reply, he had spotted an immature bald eagle swoop just above the Radford Arby’s.
There is a certain thrill in spotting and sharing; millions of bird watchers across the globe testify to that. Come participate in a GBBC birding walk today led by Clyde Kessler. The tour will commence 9 a.m. at the Second Avenue Extension/Sundell entrance to Wildwood Park. The Christiansburg branch of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library has a number of GBBC activities planned. See their Facebook page for details. Or join in the fun on your own. Find details for organizing and recording your counts at
By Catherine Van Noy
Special to The Burgs | 639-3330
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