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Winter is prime time for bird-watching, feeding, counting

| Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

February makes gardeners pine for spring, but birders bask in the cold weather.

“Winter is an excellent time to look for birds,” says Rock Moeslein, assistant education director at the Virginia Living Museum ( in southeastern Virginia.

“There are few leaves to block our viewing. The air is also more likely to be still to give us a chance to follow the chirps and quieter call notes of many smaller birds.”

You can look for birds in your community as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 15 through 18. The four-day event is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada and the National Audubon Society ( Wild Birds Unlimited is a retailing participant.

It's easy to participate in the bird count — just count for as little as 15 minutes or as long as you want. Count birds you see at feeders or at local parks, fields and woodlands — anywhere you happen to go that weekend. Then tally the numbers of each species you see, and report your findings online at

Scientists use your data to analyze bird populations, migration patterns, habitat needs and identify endangered species. Data will be powered by eBird (, an online checklist program for all of the world's 10,240 bird species, according to a news release. Birders can view what others see on interactive maps, keep their own records and have their tallies recorded. This year's count is the first time it's open to birders worldwide, thanks to online tracking resources.

“Bird-watching, particularly Citizen Science efforts such as Audubon's Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count, give the public the opportunity to contribute to the collective scientific knowledge that helps scientists make decisions regarding the health of an ecosystem and what to protect,” says Mary Elfner with the Virginia Audubon Council.

Here's what Marshall Iliff, a leader with the eBird tracking project, says about birds nationally:

• Winter finches, of all types, have been on the move this year, and you can expect a superb number of them south of “normal” ranges. Although many years can have invasions of some species of finches, this year is unique because experts in the phenomenon have characterized it as a “superflight,” with a wide range of finch species on the move in very high numbers. Specifically, we expect flocks of repdolls (including some hoaries) across many of the northern tier of states — red crossbills and white-winged crossbills in many areas that they do not normally occur, elevated numbers of evening grosbeaks and pine siskins and pine grosbeaks as far south as southern New England in the Northeast.

• Some birds lingering north of their normal range. With each winter being warmer than historical winters, we continue to see species trying to overwinter in new areas. This year, Philadelphia is again hosting its regular flock of northern rough-winged swallows at a local sewage plant. This would have been unheard of a decade ago, but it is of particular interest this year because the cave swallows overwintering the farthest north ever seen have joined that flock. This is just one example of many. Although much of the country has had a recent cold snap, we expect some lingering insectivorous birds (like the swallows) to appear on the Great Backyard Bird Count as they attempt to winter well north of their normal zone.

• Boreal owls and great gray owls are invading southeastern Canada, so are to be watched for. Sightings of either would be very special, especially in the Lower 48.

Common and widespread birds, like American robins, red-winged blackbirds, American goldfinches, American crows and even European starlings have much more complex movements than we generally recognize. Imagine that, while last year's snowy owl invasion may have involved tens or hundreds of birds in some states, think that the large roosts of robins could involve 500,000 or even more than a million birds. This means that these species are very important players in our environment, so even small changes in their numbers can potentially have large effects on the areas that they live.

“As we watch out for rare species on the Great Backyard Bird Count this year, perhaps we should also spend some time thinking about appreciating the birds that often get ignored,” Iliff says.

Kathy Van Mullekom is a staff writer for the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).

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