LEO SACK: All righty. Welcome, everyone, to today’s webinar about the Great Backyard Bird Count, which starts this Friday, February 12, and runs through Monday, February 15. Thank you all so much for joining us.
My name is Leo Sack, and I’m on the Visitor Center team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I will be facilitating today’s conversation. And with me today are three of the project coordinators from the organizations who partner to host the Great Backyard Bird Count known as GBBC. Excuse me. I always trip over that. GBBC.
Joining us are Becca Rodomsky-Bish from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Hi, Becca.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Hi, Leo. Thanks for having us.
LEO SACK: My pleasure. And also, Kathy Dale from Audubon. Hey, Kathy.
KATHY DALE: Hi, Leo. Hi, everyone.
LEO SACK: And Kerrie Wilcox from Birds Canada. Hey, Kerrie.
KERRIE WILCOX: Hi. Hi, everyone.
LEO SACK: Thank you all so much for making the time to be here with us, we really appreciate it. Now before we hear from Kerrie, Kathy, and Becca, I do have a few quick announcements. Number one, closed captioning is available. If you’d like to see these subtitles, please click on the Captions button at the bottom of your screen.
Number two, I’ll ask our panelists a few questions to get us started, but then we also want to answer questions from the audience. For those of you on Zoom, click on the Q&A button located at the bottom of your screen and type your questions into that Q&A window. If you like someone else’s question, please upvote that question by clicking the Thumbs Up icon.
Now we’ll be answering some questions verbally, and for others we’ll be typing in our answers which you’ll be able to see in the Answered column. Zoom also has a chat window that’s separate from the Q&A window. Please only use the Zoom chat for technical support or to share information or say hi. I see lots of people saying things like hi from Colorado. Wonderful, welcome.
We will not be monitoring the Zoom chat for questions. If you want to use the chat, please change the To line from To All Panelists to instead say To All Panelists and Attendees. I have colleagues who are behind the scenes and responding to the Zoom Q&A and chat with us.
Now we are also working on streaming live to Facebook on three different pages. This is our first time streaming to the Facebook pages of three different organizations at once, and I think we may be having a little technical difficulty with that, so my apologies. But if you are seeing us on Facebook, thank you for joining us and bear with us.
If you’re watching on the Facebook Pages for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the National Audubon Society or Birds Canada, you can add your questions to the Facebook comments and we’ll do our best to answer those, too. Please be aware, though, we sometimes see spam attempts in the Facebook comments, so please do not click on any links you see in Facebook comments unless they are posted by us, by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, or Birds Canada.
Finally, we’d like to thank the Great Backyard Bird Count’s founding sponsor, Wild Birds Unlimited, for their generous support of this annual event for more than 20 years. Thanks to Wild Birds Unlimited. OK, with all that said, let’s get started.
So Becca, Kathy, and Kerrie, could you each please take a turn to introduce yourselves a bit further? Briefly tell us something about your background, your role within the organization that you represent, and while you’re at it, maybe share with us one of your favorite memories from a past Great Backyard Bird Count. Maybe a bird you’ve seen or an interaction you’ve had while birding. So Becca, let’s start with you.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Sure. Great. Thanks, Leo. Wonderful to be here. My name, again, is Becca Rodomsky-Bish and I’m the project coordinator for the GBBC at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And I’ve had a pretty long run with a love of birds, and it’s really an honor to work at the Lab, an organization who embraces the importance of biodiversity on the planet in general with a focus on the birds.
One of my favorite stories actually happened just last year, and my son reminded me of it this weekend because he had his really fun kid binoculars and he ran to the window and he said, mom, I’m practicing so I can count next weekend! And he just loves this event. We love to pull up to screens when we’re doing our data entry.
One is the lives submission maps so you can see the world. And every time you hit Submit, a little light glows. And then on the other side is our submission. And so we like to hit Submit together and then he loves to see the light shine there in upstate New York. So this is a fun event, I get my son involved, and we had a great time.
LEO SACK: Wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. Kathy, would you like to go next?
KATHY DALE: Sure. Kathy Dale. I’m the Director of Science Technology with National Audubon Society. So I wear two hats at Audubon. One is I lead the community science team presenting community science programs like the Great Backyard Bird Count. So that includes the Christmas Bird Count, Hummingbirds at Home, and Climate Watch. I also do technology project management for our community science programs.
So I’ve been involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count for probably 19 years. So either directly or indirectly as a participant or as part of the project team.
And my favorite memory is similar to what Becca said. So when my daughter was young, she was very excited to participate with mom watching our feeders over GBBC weekend, and she was on point for identifying the 10 species that she could identify and writing them down and keeping track of the numbers, and she was very excited to do that and couldn’t wait to run to the window. So it’s so much fun to be able to share that kind of new passion with kids.
LEO SACK: Fantastic. Thank you for sharing that. And Kerrie, your turn.
KERRIE WILCOX: Hi, everyone. I’m at Birds Canada, and I have been here close to 20 years. And my role usually involves connecting people to nature through birds. And I coordinate the Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch. And one of my favorite memories of the Great Backyard Bird Count is– I live at Long Point, Ontario, and it’s a fantastic place for viewing waterfowl during migration.
So last year with the warmer winters, a lot of tundra swans and sandhill cranes just stayed for the winter, so I was able to count hundreds from the farmer’s field right beside my house, and I thought that was pretty amazing for the Great Backyard Bird Count.
LEO SACK: Fantastic. Wow. We have an all-star team here, this is fantastic. Also, I apologize if I’m a little distracted. Our team behind the scenes is working on solving the technical glitches with streaming this to Facebook, so I think we’re up on at least two of the three Facebook pages. My apologies to our Facebook audience if we’re just coming live for you, but thank you for joining us for this webinar on the Great Backyard Bird Count.
So we’ve just heard from our three panelists, and I’d like to go to Becca for the first real question about the event itself. So Becca, would you please give us the big picture here? For those who have never heard of it before, what is the Great Backyard Bird Count? And that name is interesting, backyard. Is this something you would do literally just in your own backyard or can you count birds elsewhere too?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Great. It’s a great question. The Great Backyard Bird Count originally started as really a focus on your back yard, but we’ve expanded the project right now. And it’s a four-day count. So people have four days that they can contribute data to. You only need to count once if you want, or you can count multiple times on that four-day in February and share with us what birds that you’re seeing.
And one of the really fun parts about this project is you don’t need a backyard. You can literally count from anywhere, if you’re having your favorite warm beverage by the window, if you go for a walk down the street, if you’re going to a nature preserve for the day or at a local park you can count wherever you are, because they really are everywhere, and we would like to share an understanding that in your joy of watching them and counting them.
LEO SACK: Wonderful, Thank. You. By the way, Becca, make sure your mic is plugged in, you’re cutting in and out a little bit to us. So again, my apologies, everyone. This is one of our biggest webinars we’ve had yet, and of course, the technical difficulties all come out for us. Kathy, would you tell us a little bit about the history of this annual event? How it got started. Maybe how it relates to other similar events like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count or eBird’s Global Big Day and October Big Day.
KATHY DALE: Sure. So in 1997, the Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology started envisioning a way where people could share their love of birds other than on paper. So it was often people kept track of what they saw on paper. And we wondered, if we built something where people could share it in real-time online, would they come?
So in 1998, the first Great Backyard Bird Count occurred. There were 14,300 checklists submitted. At that time it was US only. But it was a big success and it’s grown global since then, of course. And so it was it was a technology– it was a real technology leap. Project Feeder– sorry. Project FeederWatch as well as the Christmas Bird Count actually had gone online the year before, and all of those programs together, working through Cornell’s technology platforms, really predated and set the stage for what is now a eBird.
So Great Backyard Bird Count was an important piece of the history of how we do– report birds online today. So it was really important technology precursor to eBird. It was also an important programmatic precursor to the Global Big Days which happen now.
And so one of the reasons why it was selected to happen President’s Day weekend was because it was a good– we wanted a good solid winter snapshot of how the birds were doing, and there were already programs at other times of the year mostly that were happening offline. So this was– it was a little bit of a prototype, early idea. But the short length, the four days is a really important component because it gets everybody working together over a short period, like a Global Big Day, where we can all spend that time together exploring our love of birds.
LEO SACK: Wonderful. It’s so cool to hear about the history of how this is really played a role in and setting the stage for things like eBird. To me, that’s fascinating. Kerrie, question for you. This seems like an event where people really enjoy coming together and sharing their love of birds. Kathy was just talking about that people love to come together, share their love of birds, their excitement about birding with others. Is this event about gathering scientific data or is it about experiencing and sharing the joy of bird-watching?
KERRIE WILCOX: Well, what’s great about the Great Backyard Bird Count is it does both. So not only are you contributing to this fantastic snapshot of where birds are around the world, but you’re also helping yourself as well. Studies just show that connecting with nature– so watching birds and even watching birds through your window helps us feel happier and less stressed. So by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, you’re helping yourselves as well as birds.
LEO SACK: Awesome. And what about for you personally, Kerrie? How do you personally see the event? For you is it more about the sharing of the joy of birds or do you really get into the data collection?
KERRIE WILCOX: Well, for me, the Great Backyard Bird Count usually involves my family, and we usually head out for a hike and count the birds along the way. And my family is super competitive. So it always turns into a competition for who can find the hawks first. And not only do we do this during the Great Backyard Bird Count, but pretty much anytime we go for a hike.
LEO SACK: Awesome. I love hearing those stories. Now the Great Backyard Bird Count has a fantastic website, birdcount.org, that has all the information that you need and a ton of links to great resources. And Becca, I know you’ve been super involved with that website. Would you like to screen share that or should I screen share it and– there you go. And walk us through it.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Unmute myself. Here is our website for those of you who want to visit to the webinar and learn some more you can go to birdcount.org. In terms of participation, we have here really clearly laid out for folks, we have a general How To Participate page with some simple steps to read. It sort of lays out the count.
And probably most importantly, it lays out the tools that we are using for the count this year. And those of you who are returning to the Great Backyard Bird Count, you’re probably very familiar with using the eBird platform. We pivoted to the eBird platform in 2013. And so eBird is still a great tool to use, and we have two ways to enter for each eBird, and I’ll talk about that in a minute.
But for those of you who are brand new to the GBBC, we’re exploring a new way to enter data this year, and that is using Merlin. It’s a wonderful app. It’s called Merlin Bird ID app. It’s free and downloadable on any smartphone device. And what’s fun about this app is that it will walk you through a series of very quick questions and help you ID birds.
So people who are new to birding who are nervous in particular about making sure they’re giving us good data, Merlin is a great way to get into the count. So ID your first bird. You’ll answer three questions about where you see the bird, the color of the bird, what the bird is doing. And it will literally tell you, based on your location in the world– this is available around the world– what bird options you are likely seeing. And you can hit That’s My Bird and confirm your sighting, and you have participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count.
So that’s a really good way for people to whet their palate and get into the count. Once you feel really comfortable with that, you’re really comfortable IDing birds, then we would recommend people to switch over to the eBird mobile app, and there’s this really beautiful video on the website that will help orient you to how to use your eBird mobile if you’d like.
If you’re not a mobile phone user or don’t want to download eBird for your phone, then we also have really clear instructions for people to enter their counts on the computer. And I will say that we get a lot of questions from people who do it this way. They like to take their notes. They want to focus on the birds and the counting and they just jot things down as they go, and then go back into the tools and enter their data.
And that’s 100% wonderful, that’s a great way to participate. All that we ask is you really make sure that you keep track of the time because we need a timestamp on when you saw those birds. And then obviously we need a really clear location of where you saw those birds. So people can do this multiple times over the four days. They could do it just one time over the four days.
And, what’s really exciting, this is kind of new, we’re going to be giving away a pair of ZEISS binoculars. It’ll be a random drawing. Anywhere in the world. If you submit at least one checklist, one complete checklist where you count birds for 15 minutes, or you submit one ID to Merlin, you’ll be entered into a large pool– I hope it’s going to be a large pool– and you’ll have an opportunity to win a pair of binoculars. So it’s a really fun event, and hopefully the website really clarifies for people the different tools you can use to participate over those four days.
LEO SACK: Wonderful. And Becca, while you’re screen sharing that, you showed us it’s really easy to find the How to Participate links. Can you also show us where the frequently asked questions are? Just show us some of those dropdown menus there.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Sure. And we have lots of help documents. So frequently asked questions. We have lots of them. So feel free ahead of the count if you want to to scan through. And you just click on the question and it will give you your answer right there. And then many people might be watching who want to do group counts, and that’s really awesome. This year that might look a little different because of COVID and we want to make sure people are protecting themselves and their community.
So if you’re birding with people you don’t normally associate or share a household with, please protect yourselves. But there is a very straightforward way to submit data if you’re doing it in a group. So I encourage people that are doing that to check out the group counts page. And then we will talk about photos in just a minute, and I think we are also going to talk about how to support educators. So we can click over to the Educator page.
LEO SACK: Perfect. Thank you. So I know we’re going to have a ton of questions today because we have an enormous audience. So if we don’t get to everybody’s questions, please be aware, this website has a ton of answers on it. Since we’re on the Educators page, I want to turn to Kathy. And Kathy, tell us, is this event kid-friendly? Is it school-friendly? What would you recommend for teachers and other educators?
KATHY DALE: Yeah. This is a great event for educators, for scout leaders, for parents, for grandparents, for homeschoolers because it really offers a lot of opportunity not only in the event itself, but to present information to, let’s say, elementary-aged children about learning how to identify birds, learning how to use binoculars. One can use it to teach something about the scientific method.
So both Cornell and Audubon have portions of their website that are geared towards educators and parents. There are links here on the website to Audubon for Kids, for example. That’s the one I’m most familiar with, of course. And so the content there is created by our environmental educators and it’s available for free.
I have a homeschooler in my family, and she’s been using this to teach her kids not only about birds, but about other things like geography, the geography of where birds migrate. There’s all sorts of things kids can learn and get interested in. Art is another aspect of learning about birds, learning to draw. So there’s lots of fun ways to branch out.
Scout troops, when I was a assistant scout leader, I used the Great Backyard Bird Count as a way to talk about the importance of wildlife to all of us, bird conservation, and also teach bird ID. And I did it by using just the area where we have our meetings on the school grounds just to learn to identify the common species and then encouraged kids to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count with their families once they got home.
So even though– if there isn’t enough time to implement something for kids this year, there are plenty of ideas one can use. And you don’t even need to be a birder yourself. If you are new to birds, it’s great to be able to share the learning experience that kids go through, and adults can go through that learning experience at the same time. So it’s a matter of just working through some activities.
I also am going to be birding virtually with my grandkids. My grandkids, some of them live in Florida and others live overseas. And so we’re going to be birding virtually with our grandkids at different times over the weekend coming up and sharing that time together to talk about birds, and we’ll have lots of different species that we see in all sorts of different areas.
So as a grandparent, one of our national board members used the Great Backyard Bird Count to introduce his grandkids to the world of birds and my husband and I are doing the same thing. So lots of different ways to get involved, and the great thing about this program is you can do it for 15 minutes or you can do it for hours, it’s really up to you.
So a little something for everyone. I want to just mention another minute that if you are a part of an Autobahn chapter or a nature center or any sort of group that does programming, some of our chapters have used the Great Backyard Bird Count as a good opportunity to go to coordinate with their local schools and bring programming to after-school programs as well as working with the teachers to actually do some bird identification, homemade bird feeder activities, do some bird walks on local school grounds.
And they bring the binoculars with them. They bring all the materials with them so that the kids don’t have to worry about what do they need to do to prepare? All of those things are provided. That’s something any community group can prepare and present to kids. So those are some of the ideas.
LEO SACK: That’s a lot of ideas. Thank you, Kathy. And It’s. So cool to me to hear– this is such a great event even in the time of COVID and when we’re socially distancing , when a lot of schools are virtual or remote learning. There’s so many resources out there from Audubon, from the Cornell Lab, and of Birds Canada. There’s all these resources out there that you can use and that you can even– I love the idea of birding virtually with your grandkids from a distance away to talk about different birds in different regions. That’s so awesome.
Let’s move on to our next question. I wanted to ask Becca about photos. You showed us before a dropdown menu link. Lots of photos of birds. And–
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Yeah.
LEO SACK: –do photos of people.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Yeah. Yeah, great questions. We love photos. GBBC is one of those weekends that is filled with beautiful imagery, and we just love sharing that with folks. So on our website, if you hit the dropdown arrow under Help, and you will find a link for shared photos. There’s two ways that we want to invite people to share photos this year.
First of all are the bird images. When you submit a checklist to eBird, you can upload an image. And it’s actually– it really– it’s wonderful for two ways. Having that data linked to a checklist is really powerful to have pictures of those birds that people are watching linked to their checklist. And it also gets stored in the Macaulay Library, which is a really– it’s really a world premiere archive for natural history of birds. So your image will stay and be preserved, very well-preserved and taken care of there.
So bird images we really want associated with checklists and data this year, but we also love pictures of birds, people birding in the active birds. So we are inviting people to submit photos of themselves, their family, actually doing the birding, and inspire each other and everyone that gets to share in those pictures of how much fun it is to bird and how much fun it is to spend time outside on this particular weekend, no matter where you are in the world.
So there is a link here where you can click, and we invite people to upload their bird images– or their birding images. And what’s fun about that is everybody who submits a photo of themselves birding over the weekend will automatically get a free Bird Academy course, which is really fun. And then 10 people will also be randomly selected to choose another course of their choosing.
And Kathy and Kerrie and I, I think we can speak for all of us, that we love to use these photos as a way to really spread the love of birds around the world. So your image might even become famous. You might see it on an Audubon or a Birds Canada or a Lab of Ornithology page. So please do share your photos with us, we love to see that over the weekend.
LEO SACK: Wonderful. Let’s see. And did you mention the Zoom backgrounds that we’re giving away?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: I did for– I forgot, I forgot. Apologies. I actually have Zoom. This is one of our Zoom backgrounds– a photo of a cardinal. Oh, here’s another one, Leo’s got another one. So yeah, I think the link is going to be dropped in. If you love these images and you’re on Zoom all day every day right now, and you would like to have one of these, you can get them for free, and we will send them to you via email.
LEO SACK: We’ve got four of these images for Zoom backgrounds that we will– that are free to download we’re putting the link in the chat, both in Facebook and Zoom as a freebie for our audience here. And it’ll be in a follow-up email as well if you’re registered for the webinar. So, let’s see. Next thing here. Let’s turn to Kerrie.
Kerrie, people love watching all the birds coming to their feeders, but sometimes trying to identify all those LBBs, the Little Brown Birds, or the various species of finches and sparrows can be really challenging. Now of course, this doesn’t have to be centered on bird feeders, but it totally can be. So do you have any stories about those tricky bird IDs or tips or resources people can use?
KERRIE WILCOX: Well, we know that some birds are really tricky to tell apart. So we’re providing lots of free downloads for the GBBC, and we’re going to put them in the chat so you can see the links. So the first one is the tricky finch ID guide, and this one is from eBird. And it’s got awesome tips for telling apart house finches, purple finches, and Cassin’s finch. So this is a really great little guide to download.
Another one is the sparrow ID guide from Bird Academy, and this has 40 species of sparrows, and it shows them by region. And we know that sparrows can be especially confusing. So this is a really great guide to help you during the count this weekend. So be sure to download this one as well.
Now my personal favorite is the common feeder birds poster from Project FeederWatch. And this is the top 25 species that come to feeders in winter. So not only does it show the birds in winter plumage, but it also gives a size comparison. So this is a really great resource, especially if you’re doing a feeder count for the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. So be sure to download this as well.
In Canada, we have a Birds in Your Region Guide. And if you click on the link, you can pinpoint your location on the map and type in the date. And you can upload a personalized checklist for your particular area, and it is a photo guide. So you can print that out, carry it with you, and it has just the birds in your area at that particular time of the year. So that’s a really great thing to carry with you if you’re going out and doing a Great Backyard Bird Count walk.
And you can also upload the Merlin app, which is perfect for beginner birders. To upload a photo and get instant identification or type in a description and it goes straight to your list for the weekend. So these are all great resources for– and there’s lots of resources on the website as well for identifying birds.
LEO SACK: Wonderful. Thank you. Kerrie, I’m going to stick with you for one more question and then we’re going to get to our Q&A window with the audience. But we got a ton of questions emailed to us in advance by our registered webinar audience, and the most common questions by far were all about how to count birds around bird feeders. Again, for the Great Backyard Bird Count, it doesn’t have to be a bird feeders, but it absolutely can. And you can also do stationary location counts, other places, if you want to sit on a park bench.
But if I’m doing a stationary count, if I’m watching a feeder, and birds are making repeated trips back and forth, back and forth, how do I make sure I’m not counting the same individual birds multiple times? How do I know it’s not the same blue Jay over and over again? Can I count males and females separately if I can tell the difference with a dimorphic species like cardinal? Or do I follow feeder watch protocols which says to ignore the sectional dimorphism, treat all birds like you can’t tell males and females apart? So those kinds of questions, we’re getting a lot of versions of that.
And then finally, can I submit my accounts to both GBBC through eBird and also the FeederWatch? Can I watch the feeders and submit the same data to both projects? And if so, do I use the same counting protocols for both? I know that that’s a ton, but is there anything you want to say on that topic?
KERRIE WILCOX: These are great questions. And if you’re doing a feeder count for the Great Backyard Bird Count, we ask you to make the best estimate of the highest number of each species that you see at a single time during your counting period. So if you’re watching your feeder and you have a chickity coming and going all day long but you only ever see one chickity at a single time, chances are you just have one chickity in your backyard and you record that as one.
But if you have a species like a northern cardinal that is sexually dimorphic– so the male and the female look different, and if you have the male cardinal coming at one time and a female coming at another time but you never see them together, you can count them as two birds because for sure that you have two different cardinals in your backyard.
Also, if you’re doing a feeder count, you can count birds that are flying overhead. So if you see a flock of Canada geese fly over or a bald eagle, please count these with your feeder count as well because these count for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I guess the next part of that question is, if you are a feeder watcher and are counting birds for Project FeederWatch, you can submit your feed or watch count, but you can also submit separate counts for the Great Backyard Bird Count with the same birds.
So we just ask you to submit a separate checklist for each time that you do the count. So you can do four different counts over the weekend– or the four-day weekend. And if you do a count from another location, to also submit a separate account for that as well.
LEO SACK: Excellent. Whew! So tell us– we get so many questions– I think we got it. And you made that pretty clear. So you can use– you can submit your data to both projects.
KERRIE WILCOX: Yes.
LEO SACK: But you want to use that sexual dimorphism to help you if you’re submitting to eBird.
KERRIE WILCOX: That’s correct.
LEO SACK: And not for FeederWatch. OK. So on a similar note, I’m looking at our Q&A window now, and the question that’s risen to the top with a whole lot of likes on this question, if I count at different times during the day. I know I am counting the same birds again, but if I only count once, I miss lots of species that appear at different times during the day. So is this a problem in terms of data?
So in other words, if I count in the morning and I collect a full list of everything I’ve seen at, say, at my feeder or in my backyard, and then I count again in the afternoon and I do a full list of what I see in the afternoon– and it might be a lot of the same individual birds that have been staying around my yard all day, is that a problem? Would anyone like to tackle that one? Kerrie, you want to keep going?
KERRIE WILCOX: Well, please feel free to chime in on this one. It is not a problem. We want separate checklists for each different time period. It’s like doing it on a separate day. You’re–
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s one of the reasons why the period of time with which you are watching and counting is critical to record. So we don’t want somebody to say they watched their feeders for 10 hours when really they probably were doing it in sections at a time. So make your time that you’re watching really specific. So you’re going to sit and watch for an hour while you’re having your morning cup of coffee, and then you’re going to take a break. And you’re going to go for a walk. Maybe you’ll count birds, maybe you’ll just walk. And then you’ll pick it up again maybe later in the afternoon when the sun is setting. So those time windows are really critical to record.
LEO SACK: Excellent. Ooh. Here’s an interesting question. Melissa asks, we are expecting the coldest weather since 2014 beginning tomorrow night through the weekend where she is in the Pacific Northwest. So loads of 20 to 21 degrees Fahrenheit, highs of 28, possible snow. How will this impact the Great Backyard Bird Count? Who wants to tackle that one? Kathy? Do you have anything?
KATHY DALE: So yeah. I mean, weather is going to have an impact for sure in terms of people being actually able to go out to a park, let’s say, or something like that. The fact that the Great Backyard Bird Count is global gives us an opportunity to get a much wider snapshot of what’s going on.
So it may– there may be an undercount in one area because of the weather, but there’s going to be other people and other birds available in other areas. So we look at the whole– we look with a wider lens and look at the numbers at a larger scale to understand what’s going on.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Yeah. Absolutely. And if I can just add one thing, that actually makes for really interesting data analysis. So when scientists actually use this data to answer questions that they’re researching, they often will overlay bird sighting data with weather pattern data, for example. And so you can kind of see patterns based on what’s going on in that region. Did you see certain birds at certain times or not? That’s data. No sightings are data. And so it’s really, really fascinating how much analysis you can do when you really overlay bird sighting data with other kinds of data sets.
LEO SACK: Excellent. So if you go for a walk and you see zero birds, that’s still valuable data.
KATHY DALE: Yeah. We want to know when you don’t see birds. It sounds kind of unusual, but it’s really important. If you go out to look for birds and you don’t find them, that’s helpful for us to know.
LEO SACK: And by the same token, it’s helpful to submit a complete checklist eBird saying you’ve identified and counted everything that you’ve been able to identify, and not just the species you think are cool. I saw a hawk but I’m not going to bother counting the robins. It’s helpful to do a complete checklist because that also tells us what you didn’t see.
We’ve got a couple of great questions actually coming in from Facebook about the different apps. So do I have to do anything to register for the Great Backyard Bird Count specifically? Or if I’m already an eBirder and I’m already submitting a checklist to eBird, can I just submit a checklist to eBird as I usually do?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Yeah, that’s a great question. Yeah, if you’re eBirding already, keep on eBirding. Your data counts towards the Great Backyard Bird Count over these four days, so it all goes into eBird and that goes for the Merlin confirmed IDs, too. It all goes into the same data set.
So if you’re already plugged in and you have these apps, just keep going. And for those of you who don’t have the apps but want to use them, we do recommend downloading them ahead of time, maybe Thursday night so you have them ready to go for Friday morning.
LEO SACK: Excellent. Good idea. There’s also the question of, can you enter multiple of birds through Merlin? So with Merlin’s new Save My Bird feature where you can report a bird sighting, it doesn’t let you say how many of that species you saw, correct? And it also doesn’t let you do a checklist of what else you saw at the same time, it’s just a, I saw at least one of this species here at this time and that’s all Merlin does, correct?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: That’s right. Merlin will record it as a one bird count at that period of time. If you save the bird to eBird, then you can go back in and you can modify the number on that bird in that sighting when you saw it. So you would need to be able to go back and forth. You’d need to have eBird Mobile and Merlin downloaded on your phone to be able to give us numbers.
But we know there’s a lot of people out there that like to just use this as an opportunity to learn a new bird over the weekend. And so Merlin is really the best tool if that’s the category of bird watching that you find yourself in. You’re just interested in IDing and learning new birds, and letting us know that you’ve seen at least one of them in that spot. But if you want to give us specific numbers and quantities of the birds that you’re seeing, eBird is where you want to put that data.
LEO SACK: Perfect, thank you. I’m seeing a couple of questions about the Audubon app. Kathy, do you want to speak to that?
KATHY DALE: I can certainly try to.
LEO SACK: So Audubon also has a wonderful app that is great for IDing birds. I’m not as familiar with it, honestly. So Kathy, you can use save– or record your sightings in the Audubon app in addition to identifying things, and does that connect to eBird for the Great Backyard Bird Count?
KATHY DALE: You can record your bird sightings in the Audubon app; however, it does not connect to eBird. The sightings don’t go into eBird. so that would be to your personal list within the Audubon app.
LEO SACK: OK. So it’s a great app. Definitely feel free to use it, but for submitting to the Great Backyard Bird Count, Merlin or eBird, right?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Yeah. And Audubon is North America– it’s Canada and the United States, right, Kathy? Yeah.
KATHY DALE: Yep.
LEO SACK: OK. There’s so many questions to go through. I’m looking for another one. If any of you guys are in the Q&A with me, feel free to suggest one here. Here is a bird feeder question that might be a fun one for you, Kerrie. How do we keep the European starlings, which takeover and bully at our feeders, to a minimum? I’m constantly battling these silly messy birds at my feeders.
KERRIE WILCOX: Well, this is something that I’m battling at my feeder at the moment, too. You can try adding– or providing food that they don’t prefer. Like you can put out finch feeders with Nyjer seed, and the peanut feeders I have they can’t access. So you can try the different types of food. Check out what they like to eat and don’t offer that. That’s my best advice at this point.
LEO SACK: Excellent.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Maybe we should speak to disease. I see there’s some questions about disease. Many people have heard about the issues happening on the West Coast. Correct me if I’m wrong, Kathy or Kerrie. I haven’t heard that it’s been reported out here yet on the East Coast where all three of us are based, but I do know that Kerrie was actually involved in some education through Birds Canada and she might want to speak to more specifics.
But if you see any signs of disease or know of disease in your areas, it’s really important to clean your bird feeders. So take those down, scour them, make sure they’re very clean. And if the outbreak is really bad in your area, then taking those feeders down altogether and leaving them down for a period of time is in your best interest– or is in the birds’ best interest, I should say. So Kerrie, I don’t know if you want to speak anything more to what Birds Canada has been educating their community on.
KERRIE WILCOX: Well, this fall, there’s been an eruption of pine siskins out on the West Coast. The siskins are tied to pine and cone production, and it’s very cyclical. So in years when there’s very low pine and seed production in boreal areas, then the siskins all move south and descend on people’s feeders in great big groups. And this provides an opportunity to spread disease, and right now there the salmonella is bad out in BC.
So in those areas, we ask you to take your feeders down if it’s been reported in your area or if you see sick birds. And we recommend cleaning your feeders with a ratio of bleach– 1 cup bleach to 9 cups water. And also rake up underneath your feeders to get rid of any leftovers that might go mildewy or have droppings from birds in them.
So we have a lot of tips for how to keep your feeder area clean. Also maybe try moving your feeders around so you don’t get a lot of accumulation underneath. And maybe in areas of outbreak, don’t use platform-type feeders where they might be– where droppings are going in the feeders as well.
LEO SACK: Excellent. Thank you. All right, so if you’re feeding birds, take care of those bird feeders, keep them clean and watch for diseases.
KERRIE WILCOX: Sorry. I should say clean every two weeks. Even when there’s not an outbreak.
LEO SACK: Good advice. Thank you. I’m seeing multiple questions about paper submissions or paper forms for tracking your counts during GBBC. Becca, maybe would you like to speak to that? Do you take paper submissions or is there a way for people to write down their notes on paper at least to whiel they’re in the field?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: This is a good question. We don’t have paper available for folks this year. There has been a history that Kathy probably remembers, I was not a part of the project. But we did have a history of paper submissions and we actually accepted paper submissions for a long time. We don’t any more, everything is very easy with technology. So we are asking people to upload them directly into the tools.
Now with that said, Merlin and eBird both have a really neat feature where you can get a list of the birds reported in your area. So there’s a feature right on the phone, and if you hit the Tips for Counting Birds on our website, it will tell you how to find that. And that’s something that’s really helpful for people. Without a paper list, you can pull up a list on your phone and compare that to what you’re seeing. So I encourage people to use that list if it really helps them to have a list of birds that are in their area when they are entering their lists.
LEO SACK: So two components to that answer. One, submit your data online, and if you prefer to write stuff down on paper while you’re in the field, you can always submit it through the eBird website when you get back home, but we do want data submissions online. And then in terms of having a checklist of what birds to be on the lookout for near you, eBird or Merlin can provide you a custom list for your area that’s not on paper, that’s on your phone.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: That’s right.
LEO SACK: Perfect. Thank you, Becca. That takes care of a couple of questions. Let’s see. Do we count waterfowl? It should be an easy one. Who wants to answer that?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Yes!
LEO SACK: If it feathers, count it.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Absolutely. That’s right. Now waterfowl can be tricky to count, so we have some ideas about how to do that, especially if you see a large flock on a body of water. And we recommend you chunking it out. So pick– maybe split your views and count approximately how many is in one of that chunk, and then you can multiply it by six or whatever number you break your vision into.
So waterfowl can be tricky. We have other ideas of how to make that count as close as possible. Just really remember that this is an estimate. So we realize that people won’t get every single bird and that is OK, we’re really looking for a guesstimate about especially large groups like waterfowl.
LEO SACK: Awesome. And birding by ear. If I hear a bird but can’t see it, does that count? Yes. Right? OK. I’m scrolling through a enormous list of questions again. Can I download Merlin or eBird to a tablet like an iPad? Yes. Where can I find a principal list of birds? Those freebie downloads that we have put the links to in the chat are perfect.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: I’m seeing a question.
LEO SACK: Let’s see. Go ahead.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: In habitat, I think that might be an interesting and important one for people to talk about, especially since people feed birds often out their windows. We always recommend at the Lab to provide some kind of protection to the windows so that birds can see it. So a lot of people don’t realize that birds see essentially just like we do.
And so if you’re ever standing outside and you look back at a building and it looks like a sky, that is exactly what the birds are seeing, too. And so that is why they often collide into windows, is because they see like we do. If it looks like a beautiful sunny cloudy day, they’re going to move into it. So there’s several different approaches. I’m not sure which Kathy and Kerrie would recommend from their organizations, but the American Bird Conservatory actually has a beautiful printout of different options protections.
So window decals are some of the simplest ones to put up, and there’s lots of beautiful patterns and designs that are aesthetic. You can have screens on your windows. That’s what I use a lot in my house, is I actually have a screen. And then one of the simplest ways is if you have– at certain times of the day that birds are active and the drapes will often provide that inability for that reflection to happen, too.
So really protecting the birds is incredibly important. If we’re going to feed them and pull them in, we need to make sure that we provide a safe way to do that. So protecting our windows is critical.
LEO SACK: Excellent, thank you. Kerrie or Kathy? Want to add that?
KATHY DALE: I mean, we have the same guidance, so I don’t think I can add anything to that.
KERRIE WILCOX: Yes.
LEO SACK: OK. And you guys talked earlier– we talked earlier about bird diseases, including the salmonella in pine siskins on the West Coast, but there is a question about, is this going to affect data for the count, the Great Backyard Bird Count? Is this going to be factored into analysis of the data or is there something that people should do to minimize the effect of these diseases on the count? What would you say to that?
KATHY DALE: So again, it’s about larger sets of data and longer trends. So if for some reason the counts of certain feeder species are down because of disease, that may become apparent regionally or over time. But if you decide to not have your feeder out, that’s perfectly OK. You can either just watch birds out your window. There’s no requirement to have a feeder to participate.
So if you can make it to a local park safely and you know there’s not too much snow or bad weather, certainly 15 minutes in a local park will help us get an important snapshot as well.
LEO SACK: OK. That is a good idea. And on that note, there have been some questions about finding other habitats or going to other places, again, beyond your backyard. So any advice on other places to go or the best way to find other habitats to count in?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: I can start– I can start it and then Kerrie and Kathy, feel free to jump in. Yeah, absolutely. We encourage people– so when we say backyard, we’re really thinking about the world backyard. We all have a backyard because we’re all on this planet. So we definitely encourage everybody to travel to see birds.
One tool that might make that helpful is there are what are called hotspots. If you are entering your data into eBird Mobile, you can look at hotspots in and around your area and that will help to identify where people are seeing birds, and you can check out what’s been identified at that hotspot and travel to that spot if you want to see that spot. Or maybe you want to go to a place that you see that there’s not a lot of data, and that’s really helpful.
Maybe nobody has submitted any data points about birds at your local park. And so you can see that because you can see where people have submitted checklists in real time and you can go and provide us with a snapshot at that location. So Yeah. As Kathy articulated, this is about what you want to do with birds. So make it your weekend and have fun with it.
LEO SACK: All right. And on that note, make it your weekend, go where you want to go and watch birds. There’s multiple questions out there about the timing of count. Some people are asking, it’s a four-day event, do I submit a different checklist each day?
And other people are asking, do I– you mentioned a 15-minute count with eBird. Do I have to stick to exactly 15 minutes? What if I count for longer? What if I count for less time? Can I count for one hour? Can I count for five minutes? Can I count all day? Do I do one count for the entire four-day weekend? So give us a little bit more guidance on the timing of people’s counts.
KERRIE WILCOX: Well, the great thing about the Great Backyard Bird Count is do it when the timing works for you. And we just recommend a minimum of 15 minutes. You can bird for several hours if you like. Just submit a separate checklist for each time that you are going out and doing a bird count.
LEO SACK: Excellent. Yeah. And the eBird mobile app is super easy to just tell it when you’re starting and stopping your count and it keeps track of how long you’re out. And so as long as that checklist has the time that you’ve spent, that’s valuable effort information for eBird to know how long you went birding for that period. And if you go out at a later time in the day or the next day or whatever, just do another separate count and keep track of the time again, correct? OK.
KATHY DALE: And I’ll just clarify, if all you want to do is submit one checklist, that’s perfectly OK. You don’t have to do all four days. Some people have family activities going on. We’d welcome any amount of time that you can participate.
LEO SACK: Fantastic. OK. We’re almost out of time. I have one last question. How can we find out results?
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Great question. Yeah. So you can see checklists coming in real time on our home page if you want to pull up the submission map, which is one of my favorite things to watch over the weekend. And then there’s also a URL that we will provide during the count weekend where all of the data will be accumulated and you can see it in real-time in eBird.
And so you can go to that page and see how many checklists have been submitted, what countries of the world are participating and submitting data, how many total number of birds around the world we have identified. Last year we got close to about seven thousand species, a huge number of species of birds, which is phenomenal. That’s more than half of all of the birds in the world we identified in this four-day count. So there’s a page in– an active live page on the website that people can go to, and we’ll be directing people to it all weekend.
LEO SACK: Again, it’s easy to find, from birdcount.org. OK. Thank you. So we’re reaching the end of our time here. There are a lot of great questions. So many here, it’s hard to scroll through them all and pick them out. So I want to make sure we don’t go past the end of our scheduled time. Kathy, Kerrie, and Becca, thank you all so much for joining us today, and thank you as well for all of your hard work organizing the Great Backyard Bird Count. It is so great to have all three organizations collaborating on events like this one. Thank you.
BECCA RODOMSKY-BISH: Thank you, Leo.
KATHY DALE: Thank you.
KERRIE WILCOX: Thank you.
KATHY DALE: Take care, everyone.
LEO SACK: And before we go, I also– real quick, I want to thank our audience as well for joining us today. It’s been an amazing turnout. Now I know we didn’t get to everyone’s questions today. So if we did not get to your question today, please email us and we will be happy to follow up with you more directly.
So for general questions about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or about public programs, general bird ID questions, pretty much any random question about birds, you can email the Lab’s public information team at email@example.com. For more specific questions about the Great Backyard Bird Count, you can email our panelists at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And finally, don’t forget to check out that GBBC website we’ve been talking about, birdcount.org. Remember, you can find all the details, including pages of frequently asked questions and lots of links to more great stuff on that site.
So that’s our show. I hope everyone takes part in the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. Again, starting this Friday. Get out there, count some birds, take some photos, and share the joy. Happy birding, everyone. Thanks for joining us.End of transcript
Winter is a great time for watching birds close to home—there’s even an event built around it. Every February people from around the world spend time watching and counting birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Join the count running from February 12-15, to celebrate the birds near you while contributing to science! To learn more about the wonders of our backyard birds—as well as how to participate in the GBBC, tune into our conversation with project coordinators from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and Birds Canada on February 9 at 12 p.m. EST.