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#bioPGH Blog: Birders in the Mist
Dec 22

#bioPGH Blog: Birders in the Mist

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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Wikimedia Commons user Dehaan, CC-BY-SA-3.0

We were surrounded by low, misty clouds and a cacophony of bird calls. A group of five bluebirds bobbed nearby from tree to tree, two Carolina wrens scolded away from just behind the brush, a red-bellied woodpecker swooped across our path to a new tree then swooped past us again to the previous tree, and a surprisingly large group of 25 cedar waxwings merrily squealed and trilled as they ate berries from a tree.

“This must be the grand finale!” joked one of the birders in the group, and after the previous four hours in the clammy, rainy weather, she certainly seemed right! We were on the final stretch of our birding walk, and though we had seen a number of birds along the way, this last stretch of forest seemed like a Passerine and Piciform Party! Maybe it was because the rain was slowing to a mist, maybe it was just a quirk of luck, but the birds certainly seemed to be putting on a last hurrah as we finished the route in our bird count. By the time we reached our cars, we were excited to note that throughout the rainy morning walk, we had recorded 26 species including hawks, sparrows, ducks, geese, and songbirds. Community science for the win!

What were we up to this past rainy Saturday morning? We were participating in an annual tradition bird count! Comprised mostly of Duquesne University professors and students, and led by biology professor Dr. Brady Porter, we had arrived at our birding site before sunrise to get started. Every year, regional Audubon Society chapters across North America coordinate hundreds of community-level birding events, dubbed the Christmas Bird Count or simply the CBC, between the days of December 14 and January 5.  As these are volunteer-driven events, community members, even those with no experience in birding, are encouraged to participate alongside experienced individuals as they monitor birds in rural, suburban, and urban areas.

The goal of these bird counts is simple: document every bird that is seen. First begun in 1900 as an alternative to massive over-hunting social events that used to take place over the holidays, these bird counts have become the longest running community science efforts in the country; and they have produced over a century’s worth of data on bird activity to show for it. Data from these counts have been used in conservation analyses and even federal reports.

Besides being useful for data, though, the CBCs are also a great way to connect with our wild neighbors during a time of year when we often are tempted to stay indoors. Not only do we have a variety of birds that stay here in Pennsylvania year round, we also host birds from further north who only come this far south for the winter. This is a great time to take note of just how many little feathered friends are actually around us all the time!

If you’re interested in attending a bird count in your area, check out the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania’s website and reach out to a local walk leader — you can even take part on New Year’s Day for our biggest regional day of counting! No experience is necessary, and they are free to attend. Even if you’re just interested in learning, this is the day for you. If you’re interested specifically in a family-friendly walk, there are two Kids Christmas Bird Counts on Sunday, January 2. They are a great way to connect with nature, meaningfully contribute to science and walk off the sugar buzz from all the cookies we (or at least I) have been eating!

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: In true field biologist fashion, be sure to dress for the weather! Since I began attending CBCs in 2008, I can confirm they are truly all-weather events. Last year, six inches of sparkly snow festooned the ground while this year, rain managed to seep through my rain jacket about three hours into the walk. Be sure to dress for outdoor success but most importantly, enjoy the adventure!

Continue the Conversation: Share your nature discoveries with our community by posting to Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #bioPGH, and R.S.V.P. to attend our next Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting.

Photo credits: Rob Dubas and Maria Wheeler-Dubas unless otherwise noted