By Jeff Nations
I generally refrain from straying into Gerald Almy's neck of the woods -- our weekly outdoors columnist does a bang-up job keeping readers informed about all things nature -- but this is one time I'm making an exception.
First, the obligatory anecdote (bear with me). I vividly remember the first time I saw an American goldfinch, bopping up and down in that unmistakably buoyant flight pattern. It was a male, in full summer splendor -- unbelievably vibrant gold and black colors, heading no doubt for a stash of thistle plants somewhere nearby. This was in Pennsylvania, on the way to Pittsburgh, right outside a service station. I recall thinking it had to be an escaped pet, something exotic and rare condemned to a hardscrabble life in the Alleganies.
A week later, I saw two more in my backyard.
Here's the kicker -- I was 27 years old. It's true, it took nearly three decades for me to spot what has to be one of the single most noticeable birds in North America, if not the planet. I realized this after some rudimentary research at the library ... a copy of "The Sibley Guide to Birds" clued me in pretty fast. After all, the cover featured that same American goldfinch.
I wouldn't say I was hooked on birds at that moment -- shamed into paying attention, more like. But it did inspire me to start watching, and guess what -- I started seeing lots and lots of birds. The obvious ones (and that's relative) like cardinals and robins, grackles and mourning doves -- those I began to count. I started to eagerly anticipate the arrival near dusk of barn swallows, swooping and diving in glorious aerobatic flight as they gobbled up insects disturbed by my lawn mower. I put out feeders -- black sunflower for the cardinals, thistle for the finches and sparrows, suet for the blue jays (and starlings, always starlings), nectar for the hummingbirds (and bees). Summer turned to fall, and suddenly my backyard was bird central.
It's been that way ever since, too, and it took one gas station-loitering goldfinch to open my eyes to what I'd been missing.
It's never too late, or too early, to start paying attention. And that leads into the purpose of this column -- starting Friday and running through next Monday, the 16th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) kicks off to provide you, me, and anyone else willing to spare a few minutes to look out a window and count what we see the opportunity to take part in a wide-ranging, citizen-science project that is truly an addictive treat. A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, the GBBC generally functions as a snapshot of the overall health and population density of North America's bird population -- although this year, the count has been expanded to include checklists submitted from all over the world.
That checklist is provided through the GBBC's website, www.birdsource.org/gbbc, along with most all the information you'll need to get started on this worthwhile weekend project. Internet access is necessary, at some point, although checklists can be submitted weeks and even months after the fact. There are photo contests, as well, along with all the identification help you likely will need if you're agonizing over a particular species -- but if you're puzzling over what you just saw was either a black-capped or Carolina chickadee, good luck with that one!
I always plug my checklist in right away (I only count my backyard population once, then go "on location" if time permits). The coolest part, for me, is tapping that submit checklist tab, waiting a few minutes, then seeing my entry updated into the national database. I know this because I can check, by state, by town or by zip code. Better yet, if I want to go back and see previous tallies, that information is readily available on the website. In Virginia last year, a total of 178 different species -- 266,018 birds -- were reported by participants. Canada Goose topped the most commonly reported birds with 23,308 counted, which I suspect has more to do with the unmistakable features of that particular bird than its actual preeminence as Virginia's most numerous.
Looking at a more local level, Winchester residents submitted 41 checklists with 38 different species spotted by participants. Strasburg had only 10 checklists submitted to the GBBC last year, Maurertown six, Front Royal, Mount Jackson and New Market four apiece, Stephens City two, and Fort Valley and Woodstock just one list each.
I usually do three lists -- one for my backyard, one for a park just down the road and one around water for a chance to count some birds who wouldn't ever visit my backyard. My wife is a willing accomplice, and our 5-year-old daughter is just about ready to help out this year. Last year my checklist contained nothing special or exotic -- dark-eyed juncos, a scattering of intrepid robins, the ever-present mourning doves, a few furtive cardinals, and raucous blue jays and mockingbirds.
Basically, it's the every-day birds I tally with my list. Always, too, I can expect to see my favorites, an extended family of American goldfinches who have been paying regular visits to my backyard for years now. They were always nearby -- I just wasn't paying attention.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>