Watching and Counting Birds is Fun: Tips for the Great Backyard Bird Count
Thumbnail image: Gary Mueller/Macaulay Library
[Chelsea Benson] Well all right, I want to welcome everyone to today’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’ll be discussing the Great Backyard Bird Count, which starts this Friday, February 18. My name is Chelsea. I am on the Visitor Center team at the Cornell Lab, and I’m going to be facilitating today’s conversation. And I want to welcome our panelists to join me at this time.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is a collaborative effort from the Cornell Lab, Birds Canada, and National Audubon Society. Wild Birds Unlimited is also a founding sponsor. We’re excited to have three project coordinators joining us today.
With us are Kathy Dale from Audubon. Hi, Kathy. We also have Kerrie Wilcox from Birds Canada. Hey, Kerrie. Becca Radomsky-Bish from the Cornell Lab. And we also have Leigh Altadonna who is an educator and the current president of the Wind Coat Audubon Society. Hi, Leigh. I want to welcome all of you today. So thanks so much for taking the time to be with us. We’re going to hear more from our panelists after a few quick announcements.
Today’s webinar is hosted from Ithaca, New York. And I want to read a statement acknowledging the Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this area.
Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohónǫ’ the Cayuga Nation. The Gayogohónǫ’ are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of the Gayogohónǫ’ dispossession, and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogohónǫ’ people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
I’m going to give a couple of tech notes for our audiences, so that you can fully engage in today’s conversation. Closed captioning is available on Zoom. If you want to turn those captions on or off, click the captions button at the bottom of your screen.
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We’re also streaming live to our Facebook audience. So if you’re watching on Facebook, welcome. We’re streaming to the Cornell Lab, Birds Canada , and Audubon’s Facebook pages. And you can add your questions for our panelists to the comments on Facebook. Please be aware, there has been some spam attempts. So if you’re watching on Facebook, please don’t click any links, unless they’re posted by one of our organizations.
OK, all that said, let’s get started. I’d like to welcome back our panelists now. Yay. So back at Kathy and Kerrie, could you please introduce yourselves a bit further, and briefly tell us your background and your role within your organization. If we could start with Becca, and then jump to Kathy, and then Kerrie.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Sure. Thanks, Chelsea. Thanks for hosting this wonderful event for us today. My name is Becca, and I am the project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the Great Backyard Bird Count.
[Kathy Dale] Hello, everyone. My name is Kathy Dale, and I am the community science team lead in the science division at Audubon. I also am the science technology project manager, and I’m based here in Southeast Pennsylvania.
[Kerrie Wilcox] Hi. I’m Kerrie Wilcox, and I’ve been with Birds Canada for about 20 years. I coordinate Project FeederWatch in the Great Backyard Bird Count across Canada, with lots of resources on our website for brand new birders to help them identify the birds in their area. It’s always exciting hearing their stories. It reminds me of when I first started to learn birds.
These programs have lots of really great for experience birders too. They love to help other birders, and also love to see how their data is conserving birds. So helping birds and helping people, I have a great job.
[Chelsea Benson] I know it’s so exciting, we get to talk birds all day, and how people can connect with them. So I feel lucky as well. Becca, I’d love if you could kind of give us a big picture for those who have never heard of the Great Backyard Bird Count before, what is it, first off, and does it have to be something that can only be done in your backyard, like the name suggests, or can you bird from anywhere?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Great question. So yeah, the Great Backyard Bird Count is actually in its 25th year this year, which is phenomenal. It’s been going for quite a while. And one of the beautiful things about this event that I know Kathy and Kerri also share with their organizations is it’s a fun way for people who like birds at any level.
Maybe you just casually watch them, maybe you’re an expert that goes on destination trips to bird. But it’s an opportunity for folks to share their sightings with us, and tell us a little bit more about what they’re seeing over the four days. It runs from a Friday to a Monday.
And it generally is in the middle of February. This year, it’s the 18th to the 21st. And you can count as many times as you want to over those four days. You may just want to casually count in the morning when you’re having your warm beverage watching the birds fly in and out of your yard or at your feeders, or you may want to count multiple times during that day.
Maybe when you go for a walk to the local park, or maybe when you’re just walking down your city and you see birds. Basically anywhere, any time, as many times or as little as you want. The only request we have is that you watch for at least 15 minutes.
So in those chunks of time that you’re observing the birds, just spend at least 15 minutes. You may only see one bird, you may see multiple birds. But it’s just a really fun event to kind of bring the world really together to watch and get our finger on the pulse of where birds are.
[Chelsea Benson] Somebody had a great question I already saw in the Q&A, and this is the 25th year. Do you know historically why it’s been done in February? I’m also very curious now.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah, that’s a really good question. Who doesn’t need something to do in February? I mean, it’s just that time of year, right? Like we want to keep busy. But no, in all honesty, February is a great time to get our finger on the pulse of where birds are right now.
We’re just on the cusp of migration time. So birds are going to start to be moving soon. So it really gives us an opportunity to see where in the world birds are. Some of them are sort of at the end of their nesting season, some of them are just about to migrate so they can begin their nesting season. It’s just kind of a nice time for us to get a global perspective what’s going on with the birds.
[Chelsea Benson] OK. So Kathy, I already see people are asking, how exactly do you participate? So Becca really laid out it’s over 4 days, at least 15 minutes from anywhere you are. But like what exactly are we counting? And how do we enter our counts and share them with GBBC?
[Kathy Dale] Sure. So underscoring that you can do this activity anywhere you see birds, so you don’t have to have a yard, despite the fact that it’s the Great Backyard Bird Count. You don’t have to have a yard. You can bird from a balcony, from your local park, anywhere that you find birds.
And the minimum amount of participation is 15 minutes. So choose a spot at least once over the four days where you see birds. And we want you to tell us which birds you see or hear that you can identify. Again, don’t feel like you have to be an expert. But if you can identify a few birds, we want to know about those few birds that you see.
So you don’t have to sign up. There’s no actual sign up or approval process. You just go out and bird. So select your location, write down or track all the birds you see or hear, as I mentioned. And we have several different ways for you to enter those data into the system.
You can do it with eBird mobile app, you can do it with the Merlin ID app, or you can go directly on a desktop or laptop to the ebird.org site. So all of this information is on our participate page, which is available right from the home page of the GBBC.
You decide how you want to collect your data, and you will be telling us not only the birds, but you’ll be telling us the length of time that you’re birding, 15 minutes or more, as well as how long a distance you spent while you were watching birds.
You don’t have to stay in one spot, but you can choose to do that if you’d like. If you do decide to take a walk, take a hike and track birds while you’re moving. We just need to know the amount of time that you’re out birding, as well as the distance that you covered during that time.
Now, the eBird mobile app tracks this for you. There’s a tracking feature there that makes it easy. So that’s one tool that you can consider using. We provide step-by-step instructions for each of the separate tools here on the Participate page. So feel free to take a look at those guidelines.
I want to also mention that we are giving away a pair of Zeiss binoculars to one random participant who submits one or more sightings to Merlin or to a 15-minute count to eBird over the four days. And we’ll be talking a little bit more about Merlin coming up here.
[Chelsea Benson] Great. Thank you so much, and thanks for sharing the website. It’s really nicely laid out about the different ways that you can participate in the GBBC. So I know that when I was receiving people’s registrations, the most common question was, what if I can’t identify a bird? And they’re nervous. They want to get it right, which we applaud. Thank you.
And so Kerrie, I was wondering if you could give us the tips that you use when you work with the public for helping people to identify birds? So we’re going to hear from Kerrie, and then I will demonstrate a little bit on the Merlin app too. But let’s first hear from Kerrie.
[Kerrie Wilcox] Hi. There’s no need to worry about your identification skill. You don’t have to be an expert to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. And I’m going to give you some really quick tips to help you get started.
So when you first see a bird that you don’t recognize, spend a few minutes observing it, and take note of the four keys to identification, which are size and shape, color and pattern, habitat, and behaviors. So in the first step, which is size and shape, narrow down the possibilities by putting the birds into groups based on their shape.
And this is easier than you would think. If you look at this group of silhouettes, these are all very familiar bird groups. And I bet most of you would be able to identify them right away. So the first one is a woodpecker clinging to the side of a tree, the second is an owl, the third is a soaring hawk, the fourth is a duck, the fifth is a goose, the sixth is a gull, and the seventh is a sparrow.
So once you have them into these familiar groups, then look at the size of the bird as well, and compare it to other birds that you’re familiar with that you know the size of. So was the bird you saw larger than a robin? Or was it larger than a duck? And this is really helpful to identifying the bird.
Next, look at the color and pattern. Take a quick inventory of the bird and note color of its head, its body, and its tail. Is there spotting or streaking? Look for patterns or features that stand out like winged vase. And where are you located? If you’re using a field guide, you can quickly eliminate possibilities by narrowing down your location.
And birds are also adapted to specific habitats. So make note of what type of habitat they’re in. For example, were they in a cornfield or on a rocky shoreline? So these are great clues to help you identify your bird. And lastly, make note of how the bird was behaving. Was it near the water? Was it sitting on a fence post? Was it eating at your feeder? These are all great clues to identify the bird that you can’t identify.
[Chelsea Benson] Thanks, Kerrie, for sharing those tips. And as I said, I wanted to demonstrate how to use the Merlin app, which also walks you through a lot of those questions that Kerrie just posed. And I’m going to pull it up. Just takes a second, though.
So for those of you who aren’t familiar with Merlin, it’s a free app from the Cornell Lab. And it helps identify birds from around the world. It can identify 7,000 or 7,500 species. And it comes with 127 different bird packs, which help you learn the birds from your area. And it’s available in 12 languages.
So it’s a really international app that you can use to help you learn about birds where you are or birds if you happen to be traveling. So when you download the app, the first thing that you’ll do is you want to add the birds that are in your area.
So in that upper left corner, there’s three bars. And if you open it up, it says bird packs. And that’s where you’ll select the recommend some based on your location. And then you can also scroll through and see those 127 different packs from around the world.
So if you’re going on a trip, this is a great place to study up on the birds that you might see before you leave. So you want to do that. And then it will help you as a field guide too. So if you’re just getting started birding and you’re not quite sure what birds to expect in your area, Merlin has a wonderful feature called Explore Birds, and it’s that bottom button there.
So you’ll select that. And right now, I have my Merlin set to the birds I’m most likely to see today in Ithaca, New York. And the bar charts, the thickness of them shows you how likely they are depending on the season. So right now it’s February, and we have a lot of chickadees and juncos and jays and White-breasted Nuthatches.
And if you’re interested in learning about the bird, you just click on their species, it shows you photos of the birds. So you can kind of scroll through and make sure you know, perhaps, what the male and female look like. It gives you a little bit of information about them. It shows you a range map of where it’s located. And this one’s quite widespread across North America and Central America. And then you can even listen to some sounds.
I love that one because it sounds like it’s laughing. So if you’re unsure of what birds you have where you’re living, I suggest downloading Merlin and just going through those Explore Birds and kind of getting a feel for what’s in your area.
The other way that it can identify birds is where you can use sound ID, which we’ll talk about in a minute. You could upload a photo or take a photo, and it will identify it. Or you can answer those questions that Kerrie post to us before.
And so what we’ll do is I’m going to hit the Start Bird ID, and it’s asking where did you see your bird? So was it local or was it somewhere else? And you can select, I’m going to say current location. And it’s going to ask you, when did you see it?
So you would say today, I saw them then today. And then it’s going to ask about the size of the bird. So we’re going to test this out audience. I’m going to show you a bird photo, and I want you to note the things that Kerrie said. I want you to look at the size, the colors, and where this bird is located. What’s it doing?
And then we’re going to go back and we’re going to answer these questions from Merlin. So I am going to show you a photo. OK, so there’s our birds, there’s two. Tricked you. We’re going to focus on the reddish one in the right.
So like I said, we’re going to think about its size. It’s hard to tell from this photo. So I’ll give you a hint. It’s probably along a sparrow sized bird. The coloration, I’d say is mostly red. But I see some brown. And we could say a little bit of white perhaps. And it’s perched up in this branch. It also has a brown beak.
So we’ve noticed a little bit about the shape. I don’t see any wing, like really distinct wing bars or any other really distinct patterns on this bird besides that red is really standing out to me. All right, so let’s go back to Merlin. I know this is like the round robin of sharing screens. Thank you, guys.
OK, there we go. So we said it’s probably not robin size. It’s probably now between sparrow and robin. So we’re going to go with that sparrow-sized bird. We said red, brown, we’ll say a little bit of white, just to see what Merlin can do for us today.
And what was our bird doing? These ones were in the trees. And now it’s taking and it’s thinking about it based on eBird’s observation. And it’s pulling birds up, and it’s saying could be this, what do you guys think? Not quite right. It’s got a yellow beak, it’s got that red spot on its head, not quite. I don’t think so. [LAUGHS] Good guess, not quite. But if we keep scrolling, there it is, our House Finch. And if you scroll, there’s the other one.
So the brown one was the female. And then you can scroll through some more. And one of the things I love about House Finches is that depending on their diet, their color can change a little bit. So they can have like a yellow coloration and also an orange. And again, you can click through and see information and listen to sounds. But if you’re doing GBBC, you can say this is my bird. And that will count towards your GBBC count.
Yeah, so a quick little run through a Merlin, because I just think it is one of the best resources out there for participating in GBBC, and also just for your birding in general to get to know the birds that are in your area. All right, so Kathy, we saw, as we were looking at that Merlin app, that there’s sound ID as well. I’m curious how do you use sound when you’re out birding?
[Kathy Dale] Yeah, for me, I have to relearn bird sound, particularly for breeding birds, to remind myself I’m better at birding by sight than I am by sound. So it’s been really helpful for me to sort of remember the songs that I learned last year.
So when you open the app, you click on the sound ID option. And if you haven’t downloaded the sound pack, you’ll be prompted to do that. Right now, it only supports 458 species found in North America. So if you’re in our international audience, please know that the Merlin team is continuing to work on expanding the species that can be identified with sound.
Obviously, the sound idea is going to work better when you have mobile service or Wi-Fi. So once you have everything downloaded and you open Merlin, you click on the sound ID, and you just have your phone, your device listening, and it’ll start recording. We can take a look at a little bit here on how it works. And then you can decide which is the actual correct species based on what it tells you.
[Chelsea Benson] Awesome. I’m going to show our audience a clip of Merlin in action, Merlin Sound ID. And I saw people in the chat asking if this is free. Yes, it is absolutely a free app. But for the sound IDs, Kathy said, you just hold it up or you can upload a recording, and it listens. So lets us take a listen.
[VIDEO PLAYBACK OF MOBILE APP AND SOUNDS OF BIRDS CHIRPING]
Now, as Merlin was identifying sound, several things were happening that you’re seeing on the screen here. Across the top of the app, it’s a spectrogram. And so it’s showing you the birdsong as that movement moving line across the top.
And there were several other things. As you saw, different bird species were populating a list of what Merlin thinks that it’s hearing. And as it identifies a bird, it slashed yellow. So as the cardinal keeps singing, the yellow pops up again. So it’s saying, oh, I heard the cardinal. And then it might move down the list and say, oh, now the Ovenbird is singing.
And if you’re wondering what those circles are next to the species name, that blue checkmark denotes that you have identified that bird before in Merlin or on eBird. And also the orange half circle saying that this bird is uncommon at this time of year. So maybe that Ovenbird was an early migrant, because this recording was in Syracuse in May, Syracuse, New York.
And then if you ever saw a red circle, that means that it’s rare for that time of year. So Merlin, super helpful for helping to identify the birds that you’re hearing. And again, just like the practice session that we did with those finches, when you think it’s your bird, you say yes, this is my bird. And again, it records and notes that that’s the bird that you heard.
So Becca, we’ve been talking a ton about digital resources. But I don’t want to scare people away who don’t love tech. So you don’t have to be super techie to do GBBC. So could you share some downloadable, printable resources that people can use to help them when they go out birding?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Absolutely. We have lots of free downloadable resources. They’re going to drop them in the chat and on Facebook for everybody who is watching. But we have some really neat guides to help with particularly tricky birds. We all know there are some tricky birds.
Actually, I saw a comment about somebody said it’s hard to tell the difference between a House Finch and a Purple Finch sometimes. That is true. So we have a finch resource to differentiate between finches, sparrows, raptors.
And Project FeederWatch, so we may talk a little bit about Project FeederWatch later on. But they have some beautiful guides to help people to be able to download and ID birds a little bit more effectively in their region. And again, I do apologize most of these species are in North America.
EBird tools within the apps, as well as Merlin, are great resources. Those explore birds for other parts of the world. And maybe some of your local bird conservations, depending on where you are located may have some of these similar free downloadable resources.
One other thing that is a popular request, and I’m going to screen share and walk you all through this, a lot of people who maybe are newer to these tools and are used to having a checklist would like to have access. So I’m going to walk you through how you actually would do that with– one second here.
I’m going to walk you through how you would actually do a checklist if you are interested in that. So you would navigate to eBird. This has to be done on a computer. So again, more of your Explore Birds feature in eBird mobile or in Merlin.
But explore birds here, you would go to your Explore tab. And just to mix it up a little bit because most of us are in the Northeast, we’re going to go down South. And let’s say you live in Fort Worth, Texas. So you would go over here to explore regions. And you can start typing Fort Worth.
Now, I did this on purpose, because you will see that it says no matches. Depending on the size of the area you live, it may or may not catch it in this search. So you may need to default to just your state, which is totally OK. And most of the birds that are found in your state would come up in your particular region as well.
So I think Fort Worth is near Dallas. That’s probably one of the next larger areas. Let’s see if Dallas is in there. Sure is. OK, so we’re going to click on Dallas. And that’s going to take us to our eBird page about the bird sightings that are in Dallas.
And as you can see, there’s lots of birds and there’s lots of activity going on in Dallas, which is fantastic. If you look over here to the left and you go all the way down to the bottom, there is a printable checklist link. You can go ahead and click on that, and there it is, a beautiful list of birds that can be seen in Texas.
Now, it’s really important to remember that these are all birds, including some rare sighting birds, birds that are not always seen, but have been seen here. So do keep that in mind that this is a pretty inclusive list. And in February, you may or may not see all of the birds that are on your list in this area.
And for those of you who are watching who want to see that again, I think they’re going to drop this link in. But we do have a YouTube page where we’ve uploaded a step-by-step video, so you can see how to do that if you need to go back and do it.
Again, this is just a sheet for you to be able to tally. If you want to watch and tally birds during your 15-minute window, this might be a resource that you’ll want to use. But then you do have to take that tally and go ahead and enter it back in.
If you want to tell us the number of birds, put them into eBird mobile or eBird on your laptop or desktop. If you want to just tell us that you saw these birds, you won’t be able to tell us the numbers, then go ahead and use the Merlin app for that.
[Chelsea Benson] I just want to reiterate because we just looked at a beautiful paper checklist like somebody could print out. Can they mail you that checklist?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] You can mail me the checklist. But for the checklist account, you have to enter it.
[Chelsea Benson] To find. No. So I think you don’t have to use a smartphone or a tablet to do the project. But if you are using that checklist, we really encourage you to go to eBird or to have a friend, right Kathy? Is that one of your suggestions for folks? Could you reiterate on that?
[Kathy Dale] Yeah, so we’ve had some volunteers who prefer not to directly work with technology. And so we suggest they team up with friends, with family members. There may be local bird groups that will enter the data on your behalf. So reach out to your circle and see if somebody can help you out.
[Chelsea Benson] Absolutely. Thank you. All right, so Kerrie, since you’re our feeder resident, feeder watch expert, we have a lot of questions about how to count birds at a feeder, because it can be quite tricky when we have birds that are grabbing and going with their seeds like chickadees and titmice species. And it gets a little confusing about who’s where and when and how many? I would love if you could share your tips for counting at feeders?
[Kerrie Wilcox] Well, doing a feeder count for the Great Backyard Bird Count is really easy. You don’t even have to go outside. You can just count the birds out your window for 15 minutes. So we ask you to count the highest number of each species that you see, as well as any distinct individuals.
So if you have a chickadee coming back and forth to your feeder multiple times during your count, but you never see more than one at a time, count just one chickadee, because you probably just have one chickadee in your backyard.
But if you have a Northern Cardinal, so a red male come to your feeder in the morning, and that later while you’re still doing your count, you see a female, which is kind of an olive green, count that as well. So species that are sexually dimorphic, which means that the males and females are different, you can count both individuals, because you know there’s at least two of them in your backyard.
And through a feeder count for the Great Backyard Bird Count, you can also count any hawks that fly over or flocks of Canada Geese. We want those numbers, as well as any birds you might hear. So if you’re doing a count in the morning, submit that checklist when you’re done. And then you come back in the afternoon and you spend another 15 minutes watching your feeders, submit a new checklist for that.
You can submit as many checklists as you like over the four days. We want a new checklist for each time period that you do a count. So submit a new checklist for each time and each location that you do a count.
[Chelsea Benson] Great. That’s super good advice because I know that when the chickadees are coming, sometimes it seems like there’s 20 chickadees. But really it just might be two or three coming and going so quickly. So make sure you’re counting the most that you see at one time, and that’s what you’re going to record for that checklist.
I actually want to practice counting at a feeder with our audience, because it is such a common question, and it is a kind of tricky thing for us to wrap our brains around if we don’t do it very often. So for our audience, we are going to do watch a video of birds at a feeder, and we’re going to do a count together. So let me share our slide here.
OK, so we have the very great tips that Kerrie gave us. Count the same individual, try not to double count. The largest see, if you can count males and females separately, you can. And if you can tell individuals apart, go for it.
So for our little practice session today, we’re going to focus on Northern Cardinals visiting the feeder here, it’s another spring day in Ithaca, New York. And so as we’re watching this video, I want you to count how many males and how many females, and then you’re going to total them to get our count.
So add those males and females observations together. It’s the most you see at one time. And then for those who have a really keen eye, there’s two other species that visit the feeder. So let’s see if you can see them.
[VIDEO PLAYBACK OF BIRDS AT BIRD FEEDER]
OK, so there was our video. So remember, we’re asking you, how many total Northern Cardinals did you see? So add your males and females together, and we’re going to put up a poll. So if you’re on Zoom, you can answer the poll. Did you see 3, 5, or 7? And if you’re watching on Facebook, we’d love for you to enter your guests into the comments.
So we’re going to leave our poll open for just a moment here. Oh, my goodness, there’s a lot of you. We’re over 1,000 answers so far. All right, our poll is slowing down. All right, let’s end our poll and show what the guesses were.
So almost 70% of our audience guessed that there were five total cardinals, and you are right. There were five total cardinals in that video. Oops, so we had three males, and my coworker Leo took a great screengrab of the three at one time, and the two females.
And then we had two other species visit. If you were watching really closely, there was a House Finch and an American Goldfinch. So two other birds visited during that time too. So that’s what you would enter in that brief snapshot. Obviously, you’re watching for at least 15 minutes. But it kind of gives you a taste of what you’re looking at.
So Kathy, one of the other questions that keeps coming up is that flocks of birds are just as tricky to count. If you see a big flock, your mind can kind of like freight, it’s just like I don’t even know where to start. We’d love if you could walk us through how to count birds at a flock. What are your tips for our audience?
[Kathy Dale] Sure. So in order to make it easier, you essentially have to divide and conquer. So let’s say you’re out birding and you have a flock of Snow Geese that you come upon. And it may seem overwhelming at first to figure out how to address this.
But what I do when I’m out in the field is I take my hand and make a square. And I cordon off my view of Snow Geese in two sections that make it easier for me to count. So in this case, I’m going to divide it into six sections.
I’m going to put up my hands and look in one of those sections and count the birds in that one section. So you count the birds in that one section, and then, of course, you’re going to multiply that by 6 since you’ve separated this up into six sections.
So let’s have everyone count in this yellow box, count to yourself how many birds do you see. And we’re going to put up a little poll. So that you can guess, take the number you count there and multiply it by 6, and then guess how many you think is represented in this picture.
By the way, when you’re out in the field, I usually have my birding partner also do the same thing and we compare notes. It’s another way to do it to see how close you can get to a really good representative number.
[Chelsea Benson] That’s a really great suggestion, is having another person. So you can kind of average out what you think your count is. And if you’re watching on Facebook, I encourage you to add 100, 250, or 500 Snow Geese into the comments. What’s your guess? And it takes a while to count. So I apologize that we’re kind of moving you through counting super quickly. But just like in real life, they might be swimming around. So you’ve got to go as fast as you can.
All right, looks like our poll is slowing down. So let’s share with our audience what the guess– what people thought. All right, so you can see 85%, you all don’t underestimate yourselves. That was wonderful. 85% of people guessed 250.
And when we went through and pick count all of these, we thought there were about 42 in each. So multiply that out and you get around 250 birds. So excellent work, audience. You are great at counting. OK, stop sharing that.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Those polls are so fun to watch on this end. Well done.
[Chelsea Benson] Right there. Yeah, so cool. Thanks to my co-worker Leo for putting those together for us. So we’re bringing Leigh into our conversation. Leigh, you’ve been kind of hanging out in the background and listening. And I’ve seen a lot of people asking about if they could do this with as a family, with kids.
And you’re an educator. You come from quite– actually, your background, you’re a superintendent now or in administration in a school district. Is that right?
[Leigh Altadonna]: Retired.
[Chelsea Benson] Retired, lucky you. So could you share some of your tips for doing GBBC, or just birding in general with kids and families. And you have some slides, so I’m going to pull them up for you.
[Leigh Altadonna]: Right. As you’re pulling that up, Chelsea, thank you. And yes, I’ve been an educator for the Abington School District, retired as an assistant superintendent. I’m also a former member of the board of the National Audubon Society and Audubon Pennsylvania.
I currently chair the John James Audubon Center. And it’s one of the Audubon Centers in the Audubon network. And I am current president of the Pennsylvania Audubon Council and the Wyncote Audubon Society.
Wyncote Audubon serves Audubon members in major portions of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. We have supported the Great Backyard Bird Count for many years across most of our work has been with groups, with school groups and other large groups, not just as individuals. Although, we promote the kind of thing that we’ve been talking about with this webinar.
So at any rate, we have enjoyed using some of the print material, books. The Project FeederWatch guides have been particularly useful. And when we’re working with groups of kids, the FeederWatch guide has been particularly useful because in a group setting, we can ask kids about what birds they know.
And also, we can start raising questions and getting discussion like, how come there’s only one picture of the bluebird on this chart, but there’s two images of a cardinal? Why? And then we also will talk about which birds visit our feeders and why some are not here some winners and others on other winners. So there’s a lot of conversation and questions that you can use.
The next slide really talks about some of the things we mentioned with regard to recording. Kids will use the charts, a lot of kids like to use the individual checklist, or write the birds they see for the group. And I’m not sure, I’m not seeing the slide right now.
[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, sorry about that, Leigh. I accidentally, [LAUGHS] I closed it out.
[Leigh Altadonna]: But while that’s coming up, you’ll see some youngsters that are using old-fashioned paper and pencil, and then they may go back either with the teacher if they’re doing this with a school group, to have this go in on the computer for the whole class, or if it’s an individual youngster, they may be doing this under the supervision of their parents or guardians or another adult or a mentor who may be inputting the information for them. So that that’s useful.
There are a number of tools and resources that we’ve also come into as we know tat are available. On the left, you’re going to see a teacher with a couple of youngsters that has used a kit that comes from the Hawk Mountain Association here in Pennsylvania.
But there are other organizations have all kinds of kits, if you check in your area, regardless of where you’re located, there may be some useful tool kits you can use to help to introduce youngsters to birds. And there’s also in Philadelphia, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club started an initiative where the school libraries have received backpacks for kids. And they’re with binoculars, books, other resources.
And students can borrow these much like a book out of the library. Wyncote Audubon has also done this with many of the schools we work for, where youngsters can get some of the resources and tools they need, and take it out for a week long period to use for the Great Backyard Bird Count or just birding in general.
You can also get resources from the business community. We mentioned Wild Birds Unlimited. And this gentleman is a proprietor for the local Wild Birds Unlimited in Dresher, Pennsylvania in our chapter territory. And he has been a great support for some of the school groups, including this fall, where he presents information about birds, about bird feeders, and the different kinds of seeds you can use.
And the one image on the right, you can see we also have the Cornell Bird Cam for the feeders at the Cornell Lab. And we have used that with large groups to practice the kind of counting we just did together with the online poll for how many birds do you see at one time. Really useful for group teaching type of technique.
If we go also to the business community, you can also go to different kinds of garden centers and ask for support. Do it yourself, bird feeders. We have found this a great activity for school groups, for individual kids. There are a lot of recipes online. We don’t like to promote peanut butter. There are a lot of options for peanut butter.
But these are youngsters in past years that we’ve been able to do this pre-pandemic and to get the youngsters to hang these in their yard for the Great Backyard Bird Count that’s been part of the prep. If we go on to move on, we can also talk about group activities with local nature centers.
This happens to be the British Nature Center in Abington. These are pictures from various years where we have brought in our volunteers and invited school students and parents. This is on president’s weekend, of course. And most schools are closed.
So the students are available, the parents may be available, and we run a number of sessions where students can view feeders and we can put in a group count. We generally do a half hour count, and then recycle with a new group of youngsters.
So in addition to local nature centers, we also have worked with watershed associations. This is the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Association walk. They’ve always done our own President’s Day. Some get a little festive with costumes. This is from several years ago. And this is an important bird area in Philadelphia, and we have enjoyed doing a walk and tallying for the Great Backyard Bird Count.
Next questions. State parks and local parks. Regardless of where you are, you’re going to find that many of our state parks and other local parks will be promoting the Great Backyard Bird Count. And you can look at these kinds of events, go to a great state park if they have an environmental center, they will often be sponsoring a program with their staff, where the center or great state park like this one, there is no center per se, but we bring staff out to look at feeders that are located there. And if you note, we can do this rain or shine.
The next place to look is places of worship. Faith-based Great Backyard Bird Count events or prep events sometimes are very useful to either help promote or to join in and sponsoring. This happens to be Keneseth Israel in Cheltenham in southeastern Pennsylvania. And this is a group of kids who are building bird houses, making homemade bird feeders, other sorts of things to get involved with attracting birds and to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count.
This is just a slide from a couple of our chapters around the state. One in Erie, one in Allentown, where they are pairing up either a virtual program about the Great Backyard Bird Count, such as you’re participating in today, and then a live, event either at a nature center or at a state park, at an environmental center.
If you go online, you’re going to find scores and scores of kinds of announcements like this. I went on yesterday and there’s hundreds, literally hundreds in around the country. If you look, you’re going to likely find a group count, where you can get support from volunteers, knowledgeable volunteers and experts if you’re a little unsure about doing it yourself.
And the last slide I’m going to share, of course, Great Backyard Bird Count at school. We have done quite a few school events. We bring binoculars to lend to kids. We do a lot of different events. You can see this was the second grade. There’s the last Great Backyard Bird Count event we did in 2020, where we did a school-wide.
Staff came out on a Saturday, volunteered, and helped us with many different stations, and also bird walks. And you can see many students and parents participating in the bird walks. It’s not too soon to start planning for 2023. As we put the pandemic behind us, I am hopeful that we’re going to be able to start reengaging schools and after school clubs and environmental clubs to be able to proceed with a Great Backyard Bird Count in the future.
That’s the last slide I have and used. I did see there is a question about peanut butter. There are some issues with peanut butter and birds ingesting peanut butter. It’s better to not use it at all, but you can find mixing it with cornmeal or some other kinds of things that it can be used for feeding birds with a seed mix in a pine cone.
[Chelsea Benson] Thanks, Leigh, for sharing that. It just shows that with a little bit of digging, there’s quite a big community out there that is able to help you along with the count and just to have a great community event around the GBBC.
So we are at like nine minutes to go. And I just want to give people a place to look for all these questions that we couldn’t possibly answer, unless we stayed here all afternoon, which would be fun. But we won’t be able to do that. So Becca, could you walk us through where people can find the resources to their question, including how to do GBBC as a group?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yes, I would love to. So back to the website again. So thank you for giving us an opportunity to show where the FAQs are. Chelsea, this will be very helpful. Lots of really helpful things under that dropdown on help.
On our website home page, you can navigate from there. The FAQ is pretty extensive. And it’ll walk you through some general inquiries, counting birds, eBird, checklists, and so forth. And if you open these up, there’s a nice answer to those questions. That was one that you asked there, Chelsea, why is it in February?
So lots of answers to some of your burning questions. And then in terms of some more support tools for folks, if you are participating as a group like Leigh was discussing, how you enter that data can be somewhat flexible. So again, under our Help tab, we provide a couple of different scenarios that may guide people.
So maybe you’re a one liter organization with one group and you want to create a workflow for how to quickly kind of get your group’s data in, and then you’re going to be the one person that enters it. And maybe you’re a one liter and you’re kind of pulling together lots of different people and helping support them to have their own checklists and you’re just kind of nurturing them through that process.
So we give you some really nice walkthroughs of how to consider organizing that for yourself. And that’s under your group counts. And then I won’t go into trip reports into too much depth, but this is a fun new feature for anybody who’s been doing GBBC for a while.
And I think Kathy mentioned, she goes out with one of her friends sometimes. This is a great thing to do with people that maybe you’re sharing the weekend with. And it could be people all over the world. You’re sharing the weekend with. And you want to look at your list together and get a sense of the cumulative totals and the types of species that you’re seeing.
We have a help tab on how to use trip reports. This is a new feature that came out in eBird just last year. And a lot of people have used it pretty successfully. So again, this is a great quick place to kind of pull all of your eBird or Merlin sightings. Both of them will appear in one report that you can look at and invite people to share and enjoy all the birds with that you saw that weekend. So those are some tools. Again, please navigate to our website and click around and have fun.
[Chelsea Benson] All right, thank you so much for sharing that. So I want to go through a few questions that people have submitted before we wrap up. And one of the questions is for Kerrie around creating a safe feeding environment for birds. Some people are worried about disease at feeders or window strikes. And I would just love if you could elaborate about how you keep feeders safe, and what you recommend for people.
[Kerrie Wilcox] Sure. Feeding birds, putting up feeders makes their life easier, and it makes our lives more enjoyable. So if we’re going to feed birds, we have to keep them safe. So we recommend that you clean your feeders every two weeks.
And by cleaning them, I mean take them down, scrubbing them, using a bleach solution to give them a really good cleaning. And we also recommend that you clean up all of the seeds that have fallen below your feeders, because they can become mildew, and they’re also mixed with– can become moldy and mixed with [LAUGHS] bacteria. So we need to get rid of that as well to prevent disease.
If you see a sick bird– so signs of a sick bird are fluffed up, lethargic, they can have crusty eyes or growths. So if you see any signs of disease at your feeder, please take them down right away and keep them down for about two weeks. And this will allow the birds to disperse.
And also if there’s a report of illness in your area, please take them down as well. And if you have seed that has become wet, discard that, so that it doesn’t become moldy and spread disease. And we recommend that you keep your cats indoors because cats kill millions of birds every year. And prevent window strikes.
There’s lots of resources on our website to help you break up reflections so that birds aren’t seeing your windows as something they can just fly right through. So visit our website for resources on that.
[Chelsea Benson] Great. Thank you so much. That’s really helpful to know, especially like the regularly cleaning your feeders, even just hot soapy water or running it like some feeders are actually dishwasher safe.
So you can kind of sanitize them in a dishwasher. I’d like check on that before you throw it in there, because I’d hate to melt your feeder. But that’s an option too. So if people are already actively eBirders, do they have to do anything special to participate in the GBBC? Kathy, do you want to take that one?
[Kathy Dale] Sure. I mean, the answer is no, because everything that goes into eBird, when you report your birds to the GBBC, it becomes part of eBird. So you don’t really have to do anything special.
[Chelsea Benson] Excellent. I said some people are super curious about the homemade DIY feeders. Becca, I know you’ve got a small child. Have you made feeders? What do you do? Or Leigh, what do you recommend when you’re making those DIY bird feeders?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] I have made them with my son. I make them almost every winter for Christmas presents for our grandparents. And what we like to do is we like to get the cleanest, purest kind of lard that you can find. You can often get it at your grocery store in the meat section.
And we heat it up, melt it down, it becomes a nice liquid. We throw in lots of different types of seeds. I even threw in cranberries one year. And we put it in a reef. I let you can do whatever you want. You could just use like little cupcake things too. But I like to put it in a reef, and then put a bow on it.
And then we go and we hang it outside. And my son has a ball giving those away. You can also do the pine cones. Those are really fun to collect, and then just roll them in lard and seeds. It’s a lot of fun. Get your kids involved. They’ll have a blast.
[Chelsea Benson] Anything to add to that, Leigh, since I know it looks like you’ve been pretty active in that front.
[Leigh Altadonna]: Yeah, it’s very messy. But boys have a lot of fun. And it really does motivate the kids. I mean, they have great joy in being able to take their feeder home to hang in their yard or near their apartment or their balcony or something of that sort. So it’s a great motivational tool as well.
[Chelsea Benson] And I know that when I’ve done it, I’ve used vegetable shortening. So if you’re a vegetarian, then that’s a great option as well to get your seat to stick to whatever you’re making. We are vastly out of time. And Kathy and Kerrie and Becca and Leigh, this has been so fun, and I want to thank you all for joining us today.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Thank you. We jam packed a lot of good stuff.
[Kathy Dale] Yeah Lots to talk about.
[Chelsea Benson] Absolutely. So for all those questions that went unanswered, we’re sorry. We tried our best and I know the behind the scenes team, they are furiously typing away. Please go check out that GBBC website. It has basically everything you could ever want to know is on the website.
So the count runs from, Becca?
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] February 18, Friday. This Friday, February 18 through the Monday the 21st.
[Chelsea Benson] Wonderful. So everybody that’s tuned in or that watches the archive video, please get out there and count, and have fun, and do the very best you can. Use the resources that we’ve talked about today. Find a group, like Leigh said, and just get out there and have a great time counting birds this weekend or this Friday through Monday.
So thanks again panelists. I’m going to be emailing our attendees with the link to watch this recording, and also a lot of the resources that we talked about, including those downloads for the finches and the sparrows and the hawks and things that might be useful as you plan out and identify birds this weekend. So thanks again, everybody.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Yeah, thank you for our interpreter. She’s working so hard. She might be building up a sweat here when we get off. So thank you for being with us today.
[Chelsea Benson] I agree. Thank you so much. All right, everyone. Have a great afternoon, and happy birding. Bye.
[Kerrie Wilcox] Bye.
[Becca Rodomsky-Bish] Bye, Chelsea.
[Leigh Altadonna]: Bye bye.End of transcript
Join us for a free webinar to help you make birdwatching easier and more fun—right in time for the 25th Great Backyard Bird Count. Join our experts as we brush up on bird ID, unlock the mystery of bird songs, and practice counting birds no matter how large the flock or busy the feeder. Plus, we’ll discuss how to create group counts using new eBird Trip Reports. This webinar is designed for birders of all ages and experience—you’ll leave confident and ready to be part of the GBBC!
- View the GBBC FAQs for quick answers to all your counting questions
- Learn how to count as a group
- Turn your counts into an eBird Trip Report
- Discover more bird ID resources from the Cornell Lab and Audubon
During the webinar, many of you asked for links to downloadable North American bird ID guides and Zoom backgrounds. Here they are—we hope you enjoy them!
- The Tricky Finch Guide differentiates between Purple, House, and Cassin’s Finches
- The Sparrow ID Guides are cheat sheets to Eastern, Western, and widespread sparrow species of North America
- The poster of Common North American Feeder Birds is great to hang near your window
- Spot Backyard Hawks and Raptors with this illustrated poster
- These beautiful bird images are sized for desktop, mobile, or Zoom backgrounds