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Christmas Bird Count back for 113th year

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 8:52 p.m.
The Herald
Bird counting will be going on soon through the state including here at Beechwood Farms. Jan Pakler | for The Herald

Whether it's hiking through Squaw Valley Park or sitting with a cup of coffee in the back yard, aspiring birdwatchers are being sought to help compile data for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

In its 113th year, the Christmas Bird Count is one of the nation's oldest and largest community science projects, but it needs volunteers from the Lower Valley to thrive.

“No experience is needed,” said Rachel Handel, spokesperson for Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel, Audubon Society headquarters.

“They don't even need to go far from home.”

From novices on up, people are asked to simply count the birds in a particular area.

Counts will be occurring simultaneously across the country throughout December. In the Pittsburgh region, divided into 13 boundaries, the count will be Dec. 29. Volunteers will tally all the birds they find during that day and provide leaders with information that supports the Audubon's work to understand bird populations here.

About 100 locals who participated in last year's count, Handel said.

The Christmas Bird Count provides a snapshot into what's happening in this area, as well as across the country, thanks to tens of thousands of volunteers, Handel said. It helps compare changes in the environment to those in bird populations, and, helps to understand what can be done in terms of conservation.

“This program is valuable because the information on the overall health and numbers of our birds,” she said.

Brian Shema, Audubon's conservation director, said the 2011 bird count found “remarkably low” numbers in some common birds.

“The 10-year average of American Robin is 821 birds,” he said. “Only 168 were found on count day.”

The 112 White-throated Sparrows was the second-fewest number found in the history of the Pittsburgh count, and only 65 Blue Jays were spotted last year, which Shema found surprising.

“With a 10-year average of 440 birds, this number could be a factor of fewer feeder watchers or an increased availability of natural food,” he said.

A plus side showed a higher number of rare species spotted because of the mild temperatures seen during fall and early winter of 2011.

“A Bald Eagle was reported, as were two Horned Grebes and higher than average Pileated Woodpeckers,” he said.

Decidedly, the most unusual sighting was a Nashville Warbler at Squaw Valley Park in O'Hara, Shema said — nearly 2,500 miles north of where it would be expected to be found. The birds are neo-tropical migrants with the bulk of the population leaving in September and October for South America.

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2 or at tpanizzi@tribweb.com.

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