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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Cardinals © Herbert Lange
During the Christmas Bird Count, fledgling birders join experienced hands, learning to identify birds by sight, flight, song and other distinguishing characteristics.
© Herbert Lange

December 2008

Creature comforts

Count the flocks. Bird watchers join seasonal counts and tallies.

Natasha Kassulke


The Great Backyard Bird Count | The Christmas Bird Count
Project Feeder Watch | Free birding information

It's cocoa-sipping weather and whether you are more inclined to watch wildlife through the window or slip on a hat and coat and get outdoors, there's a way to meet your needs and level of enthusiasm. It's sort of like exercise. Some want to start slow, and just walk at their own pace. Some want to jog. Others want to log their run time, head for a gym, hit a treadmill and vary the incline to test their inclination. Still others get into company and competition starting with fun runs, 5K foot races and work up to marathon running and Ironman competitions.

In the wildlife watching world, some start by looking out the picture window or by taking winter walks. Maybe you will get a few field guides to identify tracks, note birds' field markings and work up to a pair of binoculars. Perhaps the next step is getting a CD of bird calls and observing bird behavior in fields, forests or city parks.

To share the enthusiasm and get some company, others go on guided birding hikes then take part in bird-watching programs with varying levels of commitment. Here are three popular programs where birders of a feather flock together in winter. All these programs are designed to use the collective powers of observation of birders nationwide (or worldwide) to give bird researchers a snapshot of bird populations and distributions at a given point in time.

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the count will run from February 13-16 this winter. Birders can take as little as 15 minutes a day or as long as you like during the four day event. Simply watch one place or several places for a set period of time and record the highest number of each bird species that you count in each location. Also record the location, time of day, weather, and send your results to Submit Your Bird Checklist.

The Christmas Bird Count

A one-day early winter census of wild birds conducted some time between December 14 and January 5 this year. Birders join a group and designate a 15-mile-radius circle within which the viewers attempt to identify and count every bird they can see or hear on that one day. This is a fine opportunity for fledgling birders to join experienced hands, learning to identify birds by sight, flight, song and other distinguishing characteristics. This bird count, in its 109th season, started in 1900. It is the longest-running citizen science program to compile records used to estimate bird populations and distributions worldwide. To join the program and find a "compiler" nearest you who organizes the birding field groups, contact the National Audubon Society.

Project Feeder Watch

For those of you with a bit more of the marathoner spirit, consider signing up for Project Feeder Watch. From mid-November through early April each year these birders visit hotspots in back yards, nature centers, local ponds, parks and woods to make weekly or biweekly observations that are submitted on forms or in online reports. The data are compiled and used by ornithologists to mark population trends, document spreading diseases, highlight irruptions into unusual ranges, form long-term range changes as well as note the foods and environmental factors that attract birds to an area. Project Feeder Watch provides tips on how to estimate flock sizes and note bird behaviors. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada join forces for this effort.

Most of the formal birding programs include really minor registration fees to keep the programs running by providing forms and websites to compile data from across the nation, forming a composite picture of birding activities.

Natasha Kassulke is creative products manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

Free Birding Information
For an online checklist to the more common native bird species you can expect to see in Wisconsin, view or download the free PDF file, Checklist of Wisconsin Birds. For those who want to hit the road to find best bets for birding throughout the year, we highly recommend the five-booklet series Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail viewing guides. Download them at Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail. The pocket-sized checklist and glovebox-sized viewing guides are also available free of charge through DNR service centers, Wisconsin information centers and through Travel WISCONSIN.com.