Annual backyard bird survey this weekend

  • Watchful observers for this weekend’s annual midwinter survey of birds seen or heard from backyards will be rewarded — and perhaps by bluebirds. They’re out there in ever-increasing numbers.

Thursday, February 08, 2018 7:42AM

A birder’s year has many regular calendar events, and this weekend brings one of my favorites: NH Audubon’s Backyard Winter Bird Survey (BWBS). Well over 1,000 people statewide keep count of birds seen from their yard, flybys included, and any birds heard as in a croaking raven out there somewhere. Thirteen mourning doves just flew up and away from our feeders as Carl headed out for the day. If this was count weekend I’d watch to see if a larger group showed up. If not, 13 would be that species’ total.I love count weekend, an assignment to observe our backyard — my favorite laboratory — as part in what’s come to be called “citizen science.” Worldwide volunteers collect data that’s analyzed by scientists or following scientific protocol. Ever-expanding citizen science projects range widely from monitoring water quality to glacier melt to a plant species’ bloom time.

In the case of the annual BWBS, Dr. Pam Hunt, NH Audubon’s senior conservation biologist, analyzes the data. Participants receive her annual narrative of notable trends plus predictions for the season ahead. If you’d like to participate, it can be done online—of course. An Internet search “NH Audubon Backyard Winter Bird Survey” delivers you to protocol and forms. It’seasy. Pam’s annual report includes population trends like an increase in over wintering robins and bluebirds, photos, graphs — and predictions for the next year. In her most recent report she suggests that the “predictions” section is “perhaps best renamed as the ‘wild guesses’ section.” Predictions tend to focus on northern birds that head this way when food is scarce in Canada, whether it’s conifer seeds (cones), fruits, or lemmings. All are cyclical, boom to bust. That’s the way nature works.

Keene’s celebrated snowy owl likely headed south after a boom year in lemmings created a population boom in snowy owls. Too many owls; too little food. A lot of juncos will be counted this weekend. Christmas Bird Counts around the state found record or near-record numbers.

Pam Hunt characterizes juncos as “highly variable and irruptive” along withAmerican goldfinches.

As for reasons why, it seems a mystery. Members of the sparrow family, juncos are seed generalists — unlike the two snaggly-billed crossbill species that specialize in extracting seeds from certain conifer cones that are very cyclical in production.

What drives a generalist south some years and not others? Although “highly variable,” juncos will be one of the most often reported species in various winter bird surveys nationwide.

John James Audubon wrote almost 200 years ago that “there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird.”

It’s a species seemingly associated with winter, reflected in its scientific name, “Junco hyemalis,” translated as reed bird of winter. Linnaeus named juncos after information from Mark Catesby’s mid-1700s illustrated studies of “New World” flora and fauna. Catesby, an English naturalist, focused on the South where juncos are a winter species found pecking around reeds the way sparrows do. He might not have known they nest in northern conifer forests, but his species name, “Snow Bird,” indicates a knowledge of northern winters.

I’m curious what the survey will find for black-capped chickadees, noticeably few this winter. Our local Christmas Bird Count found the second lowest number in the count’s 45-year history.

A “Where are my chickadees?” news report from NH Audubon noted that chickadees are inconsistent migrants: Some years they stay put; other years they head south. Food availability and weather appear to be determinants.Best guess is that Canada chickadees didn’t push south; and/or our locals did.I hope that’s the reason. My memories of encountering winter chickadee flocks, always good companions on a winter walk, are fading.It’s more than one winter’s anomaly.

As inducement to keep a watchful eye to your backyard this weekend, you might see what Maude Odgers did one day last week in her Peterborough backyard. She sent around photos of three visitors with the message “Blessed by bluebirds. JOY!” The BWBS has documented a steady, impressive increase in winter bluebirds. Some are birdfeeder regulars while others, like Maude’s, are a tease. They show up, snack at sunflower seeds and suet blocks, investigate backyard nestboxes or natural tree cavities (raising hopes high they will return in a month or so tonest)— and move on.Maude’s two males and female did move on, just the way two pairs did here a couple weeks ago in a gentle snowfall.

To be touched by a bluebird’s aura. . . Maude’s photo communicates just that. May many backyard observers be touched this weekend.