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Time to watch the birdies: Many in Northeast Georgia participated in last year's annual count
Myers Elementary third-grader Martin Garcia, right, helps Sandra Moran adjust her binoculars before going on a bird walk around the school Tuesday. The walk was part of the school’s participation in 11th annual Great Backyard Bird Count. - photo by Tom Reed


Listen to Cheryl Hinderscheid talk about participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Northeast Georgia residents are dusting off their binoculars in preparation for the 11th annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

The nationwide event, which begins Friday and runs through Monday, allows ordinary people to participate in "citizen science" by keeping track of the birds they see in their neighborhoods.

The data helps scientists understand how bird populations are shifting and which species may be in decline.

Co-sponsored by the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the project has grown bigger each year. In 2007, bird watchers submitted about 80,000 checklists, including nearly 4,000 from Georgia.

And Gainesville had one of the highest participation rates in Georgia, with 100 lists submitted. That ranked Gainesville eighth in the state, beating out much larger cities such as Savannah and Augusta.

Smaller towns in the area also had a high level of participation compared to their population level. Dawsonville submitted 49 lists; Dahlonega, 30, Cleveland, 20.

This year, local birders are hoping for an even better showing.

"It seems like a lot of communities have embraced this thing," said Peter Gordon, education director at Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville. "Folks kind of get addicted to it."

The beauty of the program is its flexibility. People can choose when, where and how much they want to bird-watch during the four-day period.

"You can stay in your house and just look (out the window) at your feeder, and the information you collect is still important," Gordon said.

But for those who enjoy birding with a group, Gordon has scheduled a hike for 8 a.m. Saturday, starting at Chicopee Lake in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve.

"It’s for adults and older kids," he said. "We’ll go about 3 miles and should see a good variety of species."

Gordon said all the hikers will pool their findings, and he’ll send in the results to the official Web site, "But I encourage people to also bird at home."

Gainesville resident Cheryl Hinderscheid began participating in the bird count three years ago after reading about it in the newspaper.

"It is so easy to do," she said. "I didn’t always know what bird I was looking at, but they have help on the Web site if you have trouble with identification."

Hinderscheid said she’s been studying her bird books for the past couple of months to get ready. She’ll be counting birds on her 1-acre property, where she’s set out about 15 feeders.

But she also hopes to go on the hike at Chicopee, for the chance to add some new species to her list. "I’m not that familiar with water birds," she said.

Participants can go on the Web site and download a list of species commonly found in their area, which simplifies identification.

After each birding session, they can enter their results online, noting when and where they did their birding, how many birds of each species they saw and how confident they are in the accuracy of their observations. Though the actual birding must take place Friday through Monday, checklists may be submitted until March 1.

People who send in checklists will have their names entered into a drawing to win prizes, including binoculars, bird books and feeders.

People can also submit digital photos of birds. And this year, for the first time, they can send in bird videos via YouTube. The best photos and videos will be posted on the Web site.

But most people get involved in the count just for the enjoyment of it, not to win contests.

"As you get to know these birds, they become like part of your family," said Hinderscheid. "And I think it’s just great to get children involved."

Gordon said the bird count creates an ideal teaching opportunity, whether at home or through the schools. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Gordon helped Myers Elementary organize a full slate of activities related to birds, in preparation for the weekend’s big event.

Ginny Barber, a teacher in the gifted program at Myers, said the school won’t be able to participate in the actual bird count because students are being released early on Friday, and Monday is a holiday.

"But some of my kids will count at home," she said. "The awareness that we’re building among the kids will carry over."

Myers students already have a greater appreciation of nature than they might at other schools.

"Our campus is very oriented toward outdoor education," said Barber. "We keep the (bird) feeders full all winter long."

Earlier this week, all the students in grades kindergarten through fifth-grade were treated to a raptor presentation, where they watched trained hawks and eagles fly. They also rotated through activities throughout the day, including bird-counting hikes, making pine-cone feeders, creative writing exercises about birds, and making a graph of bird statistics.

Barber said the national bird count event gave her the incentive to create a comprehensive educational experience for the kids.

"Bird watching is such a wonderful hobby," she said. "It could become a lifelong passion for some of these children."

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