With the Christmas Bird Count results in the books, birders look forward to the next organized bird count. Fortunately, they don’t have to wait long.

Grosbeak on Branch

Over President’s Day weekend, from February 14-17, 2020, birders can enjoy the long weekend counting birds in their backyards, local parks, neighborhoods, or really anywhere in the world. The Friday to Monday count period doesn’t require a huge commitment of time. Birders are asked to spend at least 15 minutes a day, on one or more of the days, and record the highest count of each species they observe. An example is seeing 4 dark-eyed juncos at one point, then 12 a little later in the count. The high count of 12 would be recorded.

Separate checklists may be sent in for each block of time that someone observes birds. Multiple checklists may be submitted by one individual, especially if they are birding in different locations or at different times in one location. Information is posted online at www.birdcount.org.

Why Count Birds?

Snowy Owl Standing in Snow

The goal of the count is to provide a snapshot of late winter bird populations across the world. In 2018, over 160,000 birders sent in checklists, creating a huge database that researchers or the general public can examine for trends. Data posted online is also available in near real time, thus a birder looking for a particular species has that data available to them. The global approach collates a huge data set for researchers that would otherwise take years to compile.

Some locations such as National or State Parks or National Wildlife Refuges may already have a bird list for a particular area which shows the bird species that may be encountered in February. Local Audubon chapters also are a great resource to obtain a checklist for birds in your area. These lists, much like the ones created for the Christmas Bird Count, provides a good overview of the birds expected to be encountered in one area.

The 2020 count represents the 23rd annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The count was first conducted in the U.S. in 1998, and opened worldwide in 2013. Anyone, from beginners to experts, are encouraged to submit reports and help build this project. Sponsors include the Cornell lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada. Wild Birds Unlimited is a key sponsor of the project and a great source to stock up on birdseed and feeders to attract those backyard birds.

Log Your Own Bird Watching Online

Cassins Finches in Birdfeeder

Since 2013, the count has joined the eBird flock for submitting observations online. New participants should set up an account in advance on either ebird.org or gbbc.BirdCount.org or use a current one for either site. Both are free to use for new users.

What sorts of data has the GBBC shown in the past? One has to expect changes in bird populations from year to year. Food resources, weather patterns, environmental changes, and other reasons can impact the numbers of birds in a given locale from year to year. This count allows participants not only to view birds in their area but also to see how birds are fairing across the country.

Not only does the count look at common backyard species such as chickadees, finches, sparrows, jays, and other birds, but also at the more uncommon species such as Snowy Owls. In 2014, checklists for the GBBC revealed an irruption or irregular movement of these owls from their northern breeding grounds into the United States. A real treat for birders south of the Canadian border, these owls represented a notable movement that might otherwise have gone undetected or reported in certain locations. Researchers could then trace this irruption backwards, looking at weather patterns, nesting success, or availability of winter food as possible reasons for the owls to move.

Preparing to Birdwatch Winter Birds

American Goldfinch at Feeder

Birdwatchers may also have anecdotal information about wintering birds in their backyards that report unusual declines of common species that are expected each winter. The GBBC quantifies those reports and helps to form a better picture of bird populations. When common species decline, that is a notable warning sign that may reflect a larger environmental issue.

So, here are some suggestions for getting ready to count the birds. In addition to resources like an eBird account to give you an idea of what species you may spot in your area, stocking up on bird seed and make sure any backyard bird feeders are filled and cleaned for the weekend. If you're feeling ambitious or don't think your immediate area is bird friendly, visit other locations where you might complete a count to scout the birds currently in the area, as well to scout locations that seem like good areas to bird.

Nature does not run on the same tight schedule most of us do, and that includes the comings and goings of wild birds. So to avoid the inevitable lulls in watching the skies, it's always a pro tip to invite a friend to your bird counting outing.

When the count finally rolls around, you’ll be all set to take advantage of viewing opportunities and have a stream of avian traffic landing in your backyard. And as for the U.S. Presidents who were birdwatchers, you’ll be in good company with Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt who was quite a birdwatcher as a child and a conservationist throughout his life. Roosevelt established over 50 wildlife refuges during his time in office and was a supporter of the National Audubon Society. If he were still alive, he’d probably be one of the thousands to send in a checklist for the Great Backyard Bird Count.