Bird-watchers feed project with information


Donald Winslow never considered himself a bird-watching enthusiast, but in recent years the favorite pastime of his friends and family rubbed off on him.

For five years, from November to April, Winslow has faithfully documented the number and kinds of birds he sees in his Ocean Pines backyard as a part of Project FeederWatch.

The project, housed at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., recruits people to catalog the bird species they see. The organization uses the information to follow how, where, when and sometimes why, birds move in the winter.

Winslow said that at his age, 76, bird-watching is a perfect pursuit.

"This allows me to enjoy the watching of them from my backyard," he said. "I don't have to go far, and I get to learn a lot about birds."

Winslow sits quietly in his backyard or just inside his patio doors and watches species dine at his 10 feeders, dip in his pond for baths and display their distinctive personalities - blue jays, for example, are boisterous, he said.

Watchers record how many and which birds they see - made easier because of a wall poster provided by the program - and are encouraged to track the birds on consecutive days. To prevent double counting, said David Bonter, the program's project leader, participants are told to count the maximum number of birds they see each day.

The three most commonly spotted birds in Maryland last year were the dark-eyed junco, Northern cardinal and mourning dove, although about 30 to 35 species are in the area.

Project FeederWatch began its 19th season Nov. 12. The "entry-level" nature, Bonter said, enables amateurs to participate.

"They're the eyes and ears of scientists," Bonter said of program participants.

When an eye disease broke out among house finches in the region in 1994, Bonter said, researchers asked bird-watchers to look for unhealthy birds. The information the project collected helped them determine how birds were affected by the disease.

Lab researchers used FeederWatch data to document cycle changes in the numbers of varied thrush and sudden population shifts in the common redpoll. More recently, the program discovered some species of hummingbirds that usually migrate to tropical climates for the winter are staying in the Southeastern United States. Last year, 223 Marylanders participated in the program.

Unpredictability has kept Thomas Crews of Silver Spring tracking birds for nearly six years.

"Every period that I count it's like something new," Crews said. "I might see the same bird, but I might not."

Dorcas Taylor writes for the Capital News Service

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