Volunteers and birders have been counting birds with the Audabon Society for 112 years. Bird counting devotees insist that the reasons they do so are important.
Larry Fischer, of Newtown, president of Southbury's Western Connecticut Bird Club, has participated in three counts a year since 1978. Describing the event, Fischer said, “For 24 hours, we go into an assigned area and count birds. It is really just an estimate, it's a sampling. Most are done from the road but sometimes we will walk into public access area and count whatever we see.”
Fischer's group covers the Woodbury/Roxbury area, and they sometimes team up with the Audubon Center at Bent of the River in Southbury. Ken Elkins, education program manager at the Audubon Center, said that the largest challenge to scientists is to understand where the birds are and how many are in the habitat. “We are always tring to collect more information. Going out and observing them in a consistent manner is important,” he said.
Retired science teacher Len Yannielli, Naugatuck, went on his first bird count this year, but he spoke like a professional on birding matters.
"This Christmas Bird Count was the first organized count in Naugatuck," he said. "It's done all over the world. They take the data and you'll see patterns and trends with climate change and global warming. Some birds migrate early, other birds might stay later and come back early."
Referencing the effects of Hurricane Irene and the October Storm on birds, Yannielli said, “The climate change is wild,” he said. “This has been the most moist year on record. The 2011 state record showed 67.7 inches of precipitation. That's 23 inches above normal, and since then there has been even more. 97% of climate scientists agree on the climate change.”
Elkins has also noted the changes in the bird world within his lifetime. “Mallard ducks were not so prevalent 40 years ago, and turkeys were re-introduced in the 1970s. Some of the southern birds have come up north, like the Northern Cardinal, the Carolina wrens, the Red Belly Woodpeckers. Each has had a different pattern over the last 25 years.”
Sadly, Elkins said Christmas Counts have also shown that other birds have declined. “There were only three evening gros beaks counted in Connecticut. They are boreal forest birds that prefer to live in spruce trees. They boomed when there were certain caterpillars, but the forest is in decline, here and in the rockies. The American kestrel, very few winter over in Connecticut anymore.”
This year's warm winter weather has changed the amount of birds people are seeing at their feeders. According to Elkins, birch trees had an abundance of seed so less goldfinches have been seen at the feeders. Inland onds and lakes haven't frozen, so fewer birds have headed to the Long Island shoreline.
“It's tough to use the bird count to compare year to year. There is an abundance of natural food in the forests and the fields this year so they aren't relying as much on human food.”
With some people reporting fewer birds in the area since Hurricane Irene and the October storm, Elkins said the harsh fall could have forced the birds to go someplace else this year. “But they know how to find their way back,” he said.
For those who want to be a part of counting their local feathered friends, Cornell University and the Audobon Centers are gearing up for the 50th year of the Backyard Bird Count, Elkins said, adding that it's completely online.
There will be an online data form where people can fill in their bird data and see what others have entered, according to Elkins. “Go to www.birdcount.org from Feb 17 – 20. Count your birds for fifteen minutes, wherever you are, refuge, park, woods, wherever you like to go,” Elkins said.
Elkins also participates in competitive bird counts. “In May, we will have a Bird –A- Thon, where we will spend an entire day counting birds to raise money for the Audubon. We find about 150 species a day in Connecticut.”
“One of our biggest threats to birds in Connecticut is that the land is not managed with consideration for them. Leaving areas unmowed, reducing the amount of pesticide to control your yard, and considering plants that support the birds would be helpful. We need more caterpillars,” he said.