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Great Backyard Bird Count Shatters Records

article spread
by Pat Leonard
Photograph by Ben Thomas

Maybe it was all the news about the massive Snowy Owl irruption, or the unseasonably warm and snow-free winter in some parts of the continent. Whatever the reason, participation in the 15th Great Backyard Bird Count, February 17 to 21, shattered all previous records. Bird watchers submitted more than 104,000 checklists, reported 623 species, and observed more than 17.4 million birds.

“Every bird species has a captivating story to tell,” says Cornell Lab executive director John Fitzpatrick. “We’re certainly seeing many of them in larger numbers farther north than usual, no doubt because of this winter’s record-breaking mild conditions.”

While milder temperatures may have tempted some birds, such as the Eastern Bluebird, Rough-legged Hawk, and many waterfowl to stay farther north during this GBBC, other species were moving in the opposite direction in search of food. The headline-grabber was the Snowy Owl—participants reported 428 sightings of these ghostly owls (quadruple the number seen last year), with record-setting numbers reported in the Midwest.

Common Redpolls moved southward too, looking for seeds; a few stragglers even made it all the way to California. Sandhill Cranes and Red-winged Blackbirds were migrating during the count. Plus, a flock of more than a million Tree Swallows darkened the sky in Ruskin, Florida, placing the species on the GBBC’s top-10 list of most numerous birds for the first time ever.

Eurasian Collared-Doves and Great-tailed Grackles continued their recent, dramatic range expansions. Canadians reported twice the number of collared-doves as they did last year.

Each year the GBBC helps scientists detect changes in patterns of bird distribution and numbers from year to year on a continental scale. Claudia Bliss of South Carolina says that makes participation even more meaningful: “I think being a citizen-science participant is an exciting honor,” she says. “It’s a hobby I am so proud of—it’s fun to have a hobby that is educational as well.”

Denise St. Pierre and her family submitted the 100,000th checklist from Lac Du Bonnet, Manitoba, Canada. To celebrate the milestone, Wild Birds Unlimited donated an Eliminator squirrel-proof feeder as a prize. A gaggle of top-notch photographers submitted more than 5,000 photos to our annual GBBC photo contest. A selection of images is available on our website, and judges will award prizes in six categories celebrating composition, habitats, flocks, behavior, people, and overall merit.

We thank all who joined us for GBBC, as well as sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited. The GBBC is hosted each year by the Cornell Lab and Audubon with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada; next year’s count will be February 15–18, 2013. For a more detailed summary of this year’s GBBC trends visit www.birdcount.org.

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