Backyard Birder

Bird survey needs your eagle eyes

I write, as always, in view of our front birdfeeders, basically a pole stuck in the ground with both a platform mounted on the pole and a couple feeders hanging above the platform.

It's a standard set-up. The platform is for ground-feeding birds, and the hanging cylinder feeder serves birds that forage in trees.

The suet cage needs filling, and I'll be sure to do that well before New Hampshire Audubon's annual Backyard Winter Bird Survey, Feb. 8-9.

To anyone reading this who hasn't participated in the survey — the second weekend each February — you must! It's good fun for everyone in a household.

There's time to request the forms in the mail as well as downloading them from N.H. Audubon's website. Call Audubon at 224-9909 or, better yet, e-mail to request the packet. The prior year's survey results are included along with the form and instructions.

The protocol is simple: Keep a watch on your backyard and mark down the highest number of each bird species seen at any one time. Devote as many hours as your schedule allows.

I think you'll be surprised at what you notice — beyond the usual. My survey weekend memories include a barred owl perched above the kitchen-yard birdfeeder, a brief stopover by a flock of robins, and wild turkeys in single-file procession across the far field.

If you have children in the household, the survey is a great introduction to the many “citizen science” projects that rely on nonprofessionals for data collection.

The data tracks population trends, and sets up the next step: analysis of causes behind those trends. In the long-term mix are the big three: climate change, habitat or landscape transformation, and increasing numbers of backyard birdfeeders.

Throw in the short-term, annual ups and downs that relate to weather, as well as cycles in cone and fruit crops.

Pam Hunt, senior conservation biologist at N.H. Audubon, manages to wrap it all up in her always-engaging annual narrative that accompanies the numbers.

Here are a few highlights from those reports.

First, bluebirds. Here's what Pam wrote in 2011. “This year it was Eastern Bluebirds that stole the show, hitting a new record high [390] and showing no signs of slowing down.”

She was right. The 2012 backyard survey set a new bluebird record of 414. And then along came 2013 with a new record of 785.

What's going on with bluebirds? It's a question a lot of people are asking. I think we're getting used to seeing robins in winter, another increasing trend, but bluebirds still look stunningly out of place against winter's frozen backdrop.

One strong hypothesis has to do with landscape transformation. As the wild landscape is being tamed, residential and commercial developments often are planted with crabapples and other berry-bearing trees and shrubs.

And then there's the invasive plants, living up to their name: oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, autumn olive, glossy buckthorn. Turn your back on a field or field edge, and they take over.

Birds do not mind frozen fruit, and survey data shows the “frugivores” trending upward in winter surveys.

Years back, Pam also noted that bluebirds have benefited from placement of bluebird houses. Their numbers are on the rise — never high but on the rise — and it makes sense that winter numbers are increasing, too, as long as there's reliable food. Birdseed can be added to that food. The past few winters bluebirds have visited our feeders, albeit rarely.

In her reports over the years, Pam mentions a general warming trend but states that winter bird populations are determined more by annual ups and downs in food resources, the timing of winter storms, and breeding success the preceding summer. Long-term climate trends are being watched with vigilance, of course, and appear to have more impact on breeding ranges inching northward than on winter populations.

In her report of last year's survey, Pam mentioned an upward trend in “half-hardy” species. These are birds that typically overwinter somewhat south of New Hampshire, but show up in small numbers in mild winters. This does not appear to be a mild winter, but here's what Pam Hunt included in her “Dr. Hunt's Predictions for 2014”:

“And finally, I'm going to go out on a limb [pun intended, I'm sure] and predict multiple Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Hermit Thrushes. Remember — you heard it here first!”

So lend your eyes Feb. 15 and/or 16 to help prove Pam right or wrong, and to join the 1,369 volunteers who spent more than 4,500 hours last year finding and counting 76 species.

(Results from past years, survey forms, and Pam Hunt”s annual write-ups are just a few clicks away on the Internet. A word search for “NH Audubon Winter Bird Survey” gets you there.)

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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