Citizen science volunteers count birds for Project Feederwatch

Digital Originals

(WHTM) — For Mary Lou Rohrbaugh, Ed Hamberger, and Karen Healy, it’s their regular routine.

“We come, the three of us usually, come every Wednesday morning from ten to eleven,” says Rohrbaugh. The three volunteer at Nixon Park in York County. Their mission-count birds for Project Feederwatch.

“Project Feederwatch is a citizen science program,” explains Kelsey Frey, manager of Education and Outreach for the York County Park System, “which means anyone can participate in collecting data that scientists can view.” And what this project hopes to find out is the abundance and distribution of birds all across North America in the winter.

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“We start in November, and we go to the first week of April,” says Rohrbaugh. On this day they are sitting in chairs, looking out a picture window at Nixon Park’s Nature Center. Outside, multiple bird feeders hold everything from seed to suet; a little something to temp a variety of discerning bird palates.

Rohrbaugh is peering at the birds with binoculars, while Hamberger takes aim with a camera. “It’s as good as a pair of binoculars and I can take a picture while I’m actually looking at something,” he explains. Healy is relying on just her eyes, in part because she’s filling in their logbook, recording who’s coming to visit. Today’s sightings include red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, and even goldfinches. The information will be uploaded to the Cornell University Center for Ornithology.

“And that goes into a huge data collection from hundreds of people that are observing birds across North America, and it helps scientists see big trends in bird populations, either increasing or decreasing or changing distribution over time,” says Frey.

Healy explains there are rules to follow when recording bird sightings.

“For example, if we see one red belly woodpecker, and it flies away, and later one comes back, we can’t record if we see two. We can only record that we’ve seen one unless they were both together there at the same time. So that way Cornell in ensuring that we don’t overcount.”

Southern Pennsylvania, as it happens, is an area where two very similar species, black cap chickadees and Carolina chickadees, overlap their ranges. Cornell asks their volunteers not to waste time and effort trying to tell them apart. “Blackcaps are really larger than Carolinas,” says Rohrbaugh, “But you see them flitting in and out of here and they’re going so fast, you hardly have a chance to look at them.”

But for these three, Feederwatch isn’t just about getting together to watch birds. They also like to trade stories about the birds they’ve spotted around their homes. Rohrbaugh brought in a picture of an unusual sighting. “It’s a juvenile red-shouldered hawk. In my backyard. On top of my feeder pole.” Healy in turn has a picture, not of a bird, but a series of holes bored into one of her trees by a yellow-bellied sapsucker. “The holes are there to trap sap and possibly bugs in the sap,” she says. Hamberger didn’t have a picture but had some fun telling how one day he tried to count a helicopter that came by, but couldn’t convince others to add it to the logbook. “A lot of the time it’s more the conversation than just the watching part,” he says.

Kelsey Frey says Nixon Park is a good place to get started with the Feederwatch program. “If you don’t know how to identify birds this is a good place to learn.” but, she adds, “You can do this from anywhere. You can do it from your church, from your school, from your house, anywhere that has anything that’s attracting birds. It could be a bird feeder, it could just be a birdbath, it could be bushes that have berries on it, you can observe that fifteen minutes a week and you can submit data from wherever you are.

To learn more about Project Feederwatch, click here.

To learn more about York County Parks, click here.

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