Tally of local birds counts on volunteers

Project: As part of a national effort, `citizen scientists' plan to gather tomorrow in Centennial Park to list the feathered creatures they encounter.

February 14, 2003|By Stephanie Choy | Stephanie Choy,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow morning, children will crawl out of bed to watch cartoons, and other people will sleep until noon. But for some, it will be a morning for the birds.

Columbia resident Elaine Pardoe, the field trip chairwoman for the Audubon Society of Central Maryland, said she hopes to lure dozens of bird enthusiasts to Howard County's Centennial Park to participate in the National Audubon Society's Great Backyard Bird Count.

The count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society and its partner, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will take place nationally, starting today and ending Monday. It uses observations from "citizen scientists" from across the United States and from Canada to compile a database and get a national view of the bird population.

The count started in 1998 as a way to merge technology and bird-watching.

Frank Gil, vice president of the Audubon Society, wanted to "cut out the middle man to get massive amounts of people to report their own data," said Sally Conyne, director of special projects at the Audubon Society.

This year's count is especially important because researchers are concerned about the effect that the West Nile virus has had on the bird population, especially crows and hawks.

"This count [alone] will not tell us whether or not West Nile had an affect on the birds," said Allison Wells, communications and outreach director for the Audubon Society. "But with other years in the past and the future, it will give us insight on what the West Nile virus is doing."

Pardoe participated in the count last year with her grandson, and she has been an avid birder for more than 30 years.

This year's count will be the first local event for the Audubon Society of Central Maryland, which was founded by Pardoe's husband, David.

The Audubon Society has published a watch list, identifying 200 species across the country that are in decline or at conservation risk because of dwindling habitat and other threats.

The number of people participating in the national count has leveled off recently. Last year, it decreased. Conyne said she hopes that publicity through magazines and Wildbirds Unlimited, a chain of stores catering to the backyard birdfeeder hobbyist, will raise awareness.

The largest numbers of reports typically are from metropolitan areas and the Gulf Coast, West Coast and East Coast. Last year, more than 50,000 lists of birds spotted were submitted from throughout the United States and Canada.

Wells said the database is critical. "We're asking everyone to take a little time," she said. "Their observations count. Each observation is a unique observation."

The Cornell Lab will compare this year's observations with those from past years to consider changes.

It also will consider this count in relation to others such as the annual Christmas count and the breeding-bird survey.

Wells stressed that participation in the count can be rewarding for everyone, even if they are not seasoned bird-watchers. "They shouldn't be intimidated because they don't know about birds," she said. "It's great for beginnners."

Counts can be taken from anywhere in as little as 15 minutes. The Centennial Park count will begin at 9 a.m. tomorrow and continue for at least an hour. Pardoe and her husband will offer tips on identifying birds from their colors, flying styles and habitats.

Participants should enter the park from the south entrance off Route 108 and meet on the parking lot above the concessions stand. In case of bad weather, the count will be moved to Sunday.

Information: 410-381-0449.

For instructions, or to add to the national numbers: www.bird source.org/gbbc.

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