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Bird watchers join forces during annual Great Backyard Bird Count

Birders all across the world gather data on feathered friends from Feb. 17-20

POSTED: February 16, 2017 6:27 p.m.
/Courtesy of Rosalie Jensen

Birders across the world will spend Feb. 17-20 identifying birds such as the female cardinal as part of the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

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Some people, like Mike Saunders and his wife, Rosalie Jensen, become birders while exploring the great outdoors and wanting the knowledge to identify the feathered friend flitting across their paths.

But not Henry Monroe. The then-teenager was trapped indoors when the birding hobby struck.

“I was sick and looked out the window and saw a bird I’d never seen before,” the 83-year-old Gainesville man said.

Monroe then searched through birding books to find the feathered creature.

“I was able to identify the bird as a winter resident. It was a white-throated sparrow,” the North Louisiana native said. “I was about 15 or 16 years old, and I got very interested in birds.”

Since then, Monroe has been an avid birder. This weekend he will join millions of people around the globe for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The annual event from Feb. 17-20 collects data on the number and species of birds in specific areas across the world.

The concept is simple. Residents count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the Great Backyard Bird Count in at least one location, according to the event’s website (gbbc.birdcount.org). They may also count birds in as many places and on as many days as they prefer.

Then, residents submit a checklist for each new day and new location, or for the same location if the count was at a different time of day. They also can estimate the number of individual species seen during the count.

Finally, birders register an account on the GBBC website and enter the results by clicking “Submit Observations” on the homepage.

Monroe, however, plans to use the free eBird mobile app to enter his data, which is more convenient for him.

“Back before I got involved with eBird, which is sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, I used to keep my own records,” he said.

Now the app on his phone allows him to record his data and summarize it.

Collecting the bird data allows experts to compare the numbers from year to year and note changes in migration patterns, said Peter Gordon, the education director at Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville.

“It gives us an idea about the health of the bird population,” he said.

But why is that important?

Since birds are indicator species — meaning they can tell when something is amiss in the environment — they can alert the experts about potential problems in nature.

Gordon explained it is the same concept of miners using canaries in the shafts.

“They would be first line of defense against the rising gas fumes,” he said. “Knowing how they are doing is a wonderful doorway into the health of the natural world.”

Elachee Nature Science Center will host its own 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count event. The birding hike will be from 8-11 a.m. Saturday, at Chicopee Lake, 2100 Calvary Church Road, in Gainesville.

Reservations are required for the free Elachee event. Call 770-535-1976 to reserve a spot.

That morning an Elachee guide will direct participants on a search for ducks, herons, hawks, woodpeckers, sparrows and other species for the annual bird count.

But for Saunders and Jensen, collecting the data about birds is secondary. They enjoy hunting or more aptly “stalking” the birds.

“We always thought about it as stalking, because we always shoot with a camera. I do a lot of bird photography now,” said Jensen, a retired University of North Georgia Dahlonega campus professor.

But one time, the couple was surprised by their prey during a trek through a wildlife sanctuary in South Carolina.

“We were stalking pileated woodpecker,” she said, pointing out it is the largest woodpecker in North America. “We were being so careful going along the boardwalk, so we wouldn’t disturb it. We lost it. And then wood started raining down on us. It was pecking a tree and the wood was coming down on our heads.

“That was the hunter becomes the hunted,” she said with a laugh.

But this weekend, she and her husband plan to hunt or stalk several birds in their own backyard and maybe a few other locations for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

“The interesting thing about it is, you can count anywhere you want to,” she said. “You can go anywhere you want to as long as you report your count.”

And what intrigues Jensen is while she is counting birds in Lumpkin County, other people across the globe as far away as India are doing the same.

“It’s another thing that people all over the world are connected to and are interested in the same thing,” she said.



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