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Great Backyard Bird Count set for Feb. 17-20

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, 11:45 p.m.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
A chickadee sits perched on a rhododendron branch outside of a window during a discussion about the Great Backyard Bird Count at the Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center in Bethel Township on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
Environmental educator of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania Scott Detwiler leads a discussion about the Great Backyard Bird Count at the Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center in Bethel Township on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
As paper bird decorations are displayed in the window, Terry Ranger, of Kittanning, listens as Environmental Educator of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania Scott Detwiler leads a discussion about the Great Backyard Bird Count at the Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center in Bethel Township on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
Terry Ranger, of Kittanning, looks at a print-out to help distinguish different types of similar birds during a discussion about the Great Backyard Bird Count at the Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center in Bethel Township on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
Lauren Mabe, of Indiana, PA, listens during a discussion about the Great Backyard Bird Count at the Crooked Creek Environmental Learning Center in Bethel Township on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017.

An amazing number of birds, maybe a dozen or more varieties, are in most backyards even in the dead of winter.

However, identifying those species — separating the song sparrows from the white-throated sparrows from the house sparrows — isn't always easy.

In preparation for the 20th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb. 17-20, an Audubon Society educator visited Crooked Creek Environmental Center in Bethel Township Sunday.

The bird count is built on volunteer watchers, from beginners to experts from around the world, to tally the number and species of birds in their backyards in as little as 15 minutes.

“Because you don't know all of the birds that doesn't mean you can't report all the cardinals or blue jays you see,” said Scott Detwiler, an environmental educator for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania headquartered at Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel.

Attending Sunday's presentation, Terry Ranger, 72, of Kittanning, said he has three different kinds of woodpeckers in his backyard.

He wants to learn more about identifying birds. “I have a bird feeder and I'm going to take another try with the backyard count,” he said.

Detwiler presented a free mini course on identifying local birds from discerning a bird shaped like a hawk from a woodpecker.

Size matters: Is it as large as a crow or about the size of a robin or as small as a sparrow?

Those white lines on the wings known as “wing bars” are a prominent feature on some birds and is one of a number of field marks, that if seen, can clench the identification of a bird.

Sound is important as well from the “potato chip” call of the American Goldfinch to the “Chick a dee dee dee” of the black-capped chickadee, or the loud and bold calls of the diminutive Carolina wren, which sings year-round.

Detwiler pointed out the distinctive and familiar song of the red-winged blackbird, “konk-a-ree-ree.”

“It sounds like spring, doesn't it,” he said of the blackbird, which is heard when it returns to the region in March.

Recording a blackbird for the backyard count at the end of February is unlikely but possible, he said, “maybe we'll get some ‘early returns.'”

Speaking of spring, Detwiler spoke about the robin and how people report their return in the spring.

The birds leave their familiar environs of suburban lawns and fields in early fall and flock together in the winter in search of berries.

“Flocks from here can head south while flocks of robins from the north might be here,” he said.

“It's hard to tell.”

Regardless, flocks of robins are reported locally throughout the winter.

Some residents who are totally new to watching birds, like Lauren Mabe, 24, of Indiana, sees the Great Backyard Bird Count as a way to get involved in something worthwhile.

“Citizen science is important and I thought this would be a great place for me to start,” she said.

Citizen science is becoming more popular, as is evident by the uptick in the number of participants for the count plus other wildlife surveys, Detwiler said.

Last year, more than 160,000 volunteer watchers submitted their bird reports online for the Great Backyard Bird Count — the largest snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded, according to the sponsors of the event, the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The importance of citizen science has been recognized by the Dominion Foundation, which provided the local Audubon Society chapter a grant for Sunday's education program as well as others throughout the region.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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