Nationwide bird count covers county
Birdwatching enthusiasts and volunteers gathered early Sunday morning at the Barnett Cabins at Mill Point for the annual Pocahontas County Christmas Bird Count.
West Virginia state ornithologist Rich Bailey organized the event. Bailey, originally from Arlington, Virginia, said he's been involved with the Pocahontas County bird count since 2008 — before he even moved here for the job. Bailey has been in his position for about a year-and-a-half now, and he said he supervises and coordinates monitoring and survey projects for non-game birds throughout the state. Bailey said he does a lot of education and outreach work with the general public by leading walks and helping with bird counts.
“It's a piece of a much larger whole. A single circle will tell you what's going on in that circle, but once we chip in all our data from a thousand other circles — we start to get a clearer picture of bird movement and population numbers across the country. All that data is actually being used and analyzed by scientists, and each year they publish the results and talk about these long-term trends,” Bailey said.
The Pocahontas County Nature Club provided coffee, delectable baked goodies and volunteers for the count. Birders were assigned an area in the county to cover, tally sheets and maps were handed out, and the birders hit the road to monitor their respective territories. Some local landowners even offered count organizers to let observers on their property for the project.
Bailey said they try to pay close attention to who is assigned which area because they want to avoid overlapping and affecting the research.
“The last thing we want is for the same place to get hit twice and have the same birds counted twice,” said Bailey. “That messes up your data pretty bad. That's why we're so careful about who goes where.”
Bailey said the Christmas Bird Count is a nationwide effort, and there will be thousands of volunteers in the field all across the country collecting data over the course of the next couple of weeks.
“It's one of the biggest, on-the-ground, citizen-science projects out there,” Bailey said. “It enables us to track large-scale changes in bird populations over time. Large-scale movements, large-scale population trends. With a single count, in a single circle, in a single state — you're not going to be able to infer a whole lot from that. But if you have thousands of circles over most of the United States and into Mexico and South America, you start getting a better picture of what might be going on.”
Bailey said teams all across the country will submit their research into a central database.
“Each count has what's called a compiler — they're the ones that deal with getting the volunteers, setting the dates, and handling all the logistics. After the day is spent in the field, and everyone has collected their data, the compiler takes what was collected and enters it into an online database that's hosted by Audubon.”
Idun Guenther, wildlife biologist at the Buckeye USDA office, said bird counts are an important tool in gauging bird populations.
“We do these every year,” explained Guenther. “They're important because they help us determine the status of a population. For this count we did a circular plot. We counted the number of species of birds, that's referred to as species richness, and then also the number of each species, called abundance. Species richness and abundance go hand-in-hand. We're just monitoring whether they're going up or down. It's important to keep an eye on that. If something starts declining, that might be an indicator that there's something wrong with the habitat, or some other environmental effect.”
Bailey said the Christmas Bird Count is a great way to track wintering birds outside of the breeding season and any potential changes in habitat.
“Is a particular circle seeing different species because the landscape is changing?” asked Bailey. “In the upper panhandle of the state, land use has changed from relatively rural to almost suburbanized a little bit. Or with climate changes. All of a sudden, if certain birds just aren't showing up, is there something bigger going on that's affecting their population?”
Bailey said by this time of year, pretty much all migration has already taken place so birders are getting a wintertime “snapshot” of what bird life is like right now.
“Except for the regional movement of some irruptive species,” he said. “There's kind of a sub-set of birds we call winter finches that are what we call an irruptive species. They tend to breed in Canada, and stay in Canada for the most part, or the very northern United States. If there's a reduction in the amount of available food for them up north, they get pushed south. That's what's called irruption. Certain years we'll get some real interesting birds down here in Pocahontas County because of it.”
Bailey said you might see totally different birds here in Pocahontas County in the summertime.
“We have what are called neotropical migrants that come up here in the summer to breed,” he said. “But in the winter, they're spending time in central and South America.”
Bailey said he enjoys bird counts because he likes getting people outside and engaged with birds. He said the dozen or so volunteers that took part were about on-par with involvement in years past, but he was pleased with the turnout considering the rainy weather.
“Our goal is to get more people out in the field. We hope over time as the years goes by we'll get other groups or other folks involved,” he said.
Bailey said they're hoping to start a count using volunteer help from the community. The idea is to simply get volunteers to monitor their bird feeders at home and record any activity.
“You don't need to know how to ID every obscure bird,” said Bailey. “Some people can get intimidated by that, if they don't have the field skills. But can they identify chickadees and gold finches at their feeder? Definitely. So that's something we're hoping to kind of draw on in coming years.”
Bailey said he thinks the count went really well. He said he's still compiling all the information, but from what he could tell, they counted more species than last year, probably close to 50.
“We had a couple things that were interesting — there's always something,” laughed Bailey. “We encountered a flock of maybe 15 or 17 meadowlarks. In the wintertime that's a bird that isn't seen as commonly. That was great. We also saw a lot of birds of prey, lots of kestrels and a northern harrier.”
Bailey said it's easy to get into birding, and it's a relatively cheap hobby.
“Other than dressing for the weather and having a vehicle that'll get you where you want to go, the most essential piece of gear is a set of binoculars,” suggested Bailey.
Bailey said there are even field guides for smart phones now.
“Audubon has a good one for iPhones and Android,” he said. “They're definitely a good reference for people in the beginner-to-intermediate stages of their “birding career” so-to-speak. If they're not sure about a bird, they can just open it up and take a look.”
Bailey wanted to thank the Pocahontas County Nature Club for all their help, Gail Hyer at the Pocahontas County Convention Visitors Bureau, and Barnett Cabins.
“We're definitely hoping to draw more people and get more folks to come help out in coming years. The next count is the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is coming up in February, it's another effort to document winter birds.”
For more information on how to get involved in The Great Backyard Bird Count, visit the DNR web-site at www.wvdnr.gov