Apr 25, 2019
By Song Hunter, Fort Ross Conservancy
It’s spring and no matter where you are in the northern hemisphere, there’s likely a bird migration underway. It’s safe to say, the last couple months have been the most unprecedented any of us have ever lived though. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all been forced to stay home during this beautiful seasonal shift. While sheltering in place can be tough for everyone, it can also be a golden opportunity to familiarize ourselves with our backyard friends - the birds.
There are four main flyways, each spanning from the top of North America into South America: they are the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific. California lies along the Pacific Flyway, which covers lands from the Arctic tundra to wetlands in South America. This Flyway is a major migratory route for over one billion birds annually. Natural rest stops along these flyways are essential for the birds to break up their migration, take a rest, eat and sleep. The San Francisco Bay Area is a particularly important stopover for many species of waterfowl, sea and shorebirds as well as songbirds and raptors. Every year, increasing human development takes away critical areas these birds use during their migrations, making these rest stops fewer and farther between.
Over 1,100 species of birds have been historically documented in North America. According to data from both Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are actually 2,059 bird species in North America. Either way, many of them travel tens of thousands of miles each year during their fall and spring migrations!
Any good field guide will tell you which species of bird you’re most likely to see in any given location and month. However, as citizen scientists we’ve been frequently seeing more unusual sightings of birds in places or at times where they previously had not been documented. These sightings may be evidence of how climate change is affecting their habitat and behavior.
In light of these birding anomalies, it’s critical that scientists have enough data to better track the changes in their range and migratory patterns. Obviously they can’t do it all, so it’s up to us as citizen scientists to help make these extremely important observations.
Think of birding as a puzzle or mystery and you are the detective. You have to use whatever data you have, be it plumage (feathers), color, a bird song or call, behavior, habitat, size, shape, body type, etc. to deduce the species of bird you're trying to identify.
Since we are all cooped up, the kiddos are out of school and everyone needs something exciting to keep ourselves busy and positive, becoming a backyard birder is the perfect new hobby for everyone at any level of proficiency.
Thankfully, there are many helpful birder sleuth apps one can use to become a master birder. My personal favorite free app is Merlin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Using Merlin, you can input the date, location, size, coloring, and behavior and presto! you have a list of possible birds. You can also use one of your photos to ID your bird. You can even use the app offline, meaning you are not dependent on wifi or cell service, a huge bonus when this shelter in place order is lifted and we are all back at our favorite beach or hiking in the mountains.
eBird is for the serious citizen scientists looking to capture real data and share it with the professional birding community: “ eBird is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year by eBirders around the world.” This is also a great site on which to upload your data if you have only an audio file of a songbird, with no visual ID. Check out the April eBirder Challenge of the Month. For the kids in the house, check out their K-12 educational material resources.
Alternatively, if you have a photo, but no clue what type of bird you’ve captured, upload your picture to iNaturalist. This huge naturalist community will help you to ID any unknown species of plant, animal, fungi, or bird. This is a great resource!
If you’re already an avid birder, test yourself with this great Birding Quiz . Want something to listen to as you sit by your window with a pair of binoculars? Check out these great birding podcasts from Audubon.
As you can see, birding can be for everyone! Go birding to enjoy what little nature we have to enjoy these days - your backyard. Become a birder to photograph them, or to listen to their beautiful songs, or to contribute to science, or to build a new birding community, or for the mystery and challenge of it. Become a birder to observe the interconnectivity of nature, how birds relate to the plants and animals around us. Any reason is the best reason. Join me, enjoy the marvelous world of birds and share your observations from your own Backyard!
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