For the Birds
White-breasted Nuthatch Photo © Patty Wainright
Great Backyard Bird Count
Spotlight Species: Northern Saw-Whet Owl
Spotlight Species: Northern Shrike
1. The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC)
The 4 days of the GBBC (Feb 15-18) have come and gone. Ten avid Peaks Island bird watchers logged 13 bird counts with the GBBC, totaling 38 species and 656 individual birds. Ten counts were “stationary”, i.e., from a fixed location such as watching a bird feeder through a window, and 3 counts were made while “traveling”, i.e., the birder was on the move, either walking, driving, riding the ferry, etc. You can see all 13 counts, including who made them and what species were seen, by following this link: 2019 Bird Count Participants (https://www.peaksislandlandpreserve.org/2019-bird-count-participant)
So what does this information mean, what is it good for? It is part of a worldwide census of birds conducted by professional ornithologists, and, importantly, by citizen scientists who volunteer their time and effort to make these counts (ref 1). Conducting a world-wide bird census is a monumental task; birds don’t send in data about their families to the federal government like people do. So professional researchers must do it for them. But there are not enough researchers to take on this task. What to do? Bird watching turns out to be a very popular hobby, and birders are very willing to volunteer with research about the objects of their affection. As we write this blog, this year’s GBBC includes over 178,000 counts, 6293 species, and 28,710,394 individual birds worldwide (ref 1)! If you visit eBird's Great Backyard Bird Count (http://gbbc.birdcount.org/) and scroll down to the world map before March 1, you can watch as individual counts are logged in!
By comparing the data in this year’s GBBC with previous years’ data researchers can evaluate which species are on the increase and which ones are declining. Unlike the human population, which shows a predictable increase each year, wildlife numbers fluctuate more rapidly because they encounter life and death situations every day, such as habitat destruction, predators, disease, and climate change. Not only is it important to know how bird populations are changing, but we can also learn how the birds are moving geographically. What a treat to contribute to such interesting and important research! Thanks to Judy Walsh, Paul Stenzer, Johann Erikson, and Patty Wainright for initiating and organizing this year’s GBBC!
Let us tell you a little bit about two interesting species counted on Peaks Island this month.
2. Spotlight species: Northern Saw-Whet Owl.
Observed by Rhonda in her house! This small species of owl is common but seldom seen, has bright yellow eyes and is quite small, about 8 inches tall, roughly 2/3 the length of a pigeon, the weight of a robin (ref 3). Peaks Island is part of its year-round distribution; it might even breed on the Island. It is a very secretive, highly nocturnal forest dweller, feeding on mice, shrews, chipmunks, small birds, and insects. Coastal individuals may also feed at the beach on marine crustaceans (ref 2) (but not lobsters!)
Northern Saw Whet Owl Photo © Rhonda Berg
3. Spotlight species: Northern Shrike.
This species was observed by Sam atop a tree on the backshore at dusk on 13 Feb, 2 days before the GBBC began. Their Latin name means “butcher watchman”. They only come this far south in winter; they breed in tundra and taiga habitats in northern Canada (ref 2). They are robin-sized masked predators of birds, mammals and insects, capturing their prey with a hooked beak (visible in photo below if you squint), often impaling them on thorns or barbed wire fences! Their prey are sometime larger than themselves (ref 3).
Northern Shrike Photo © Sam Wainright
By: Sam Wainright and Michael LaCombe
Reviewed by: Patty Wainright, Marty Braun, Judy Walsh, Michelle Brown, Johan Erikson.