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Issues Of The Environment: Bird Watching Grows In Popularity During Pandemic

Erin Rowan
Audubon Great Lakes

With so many people staying home during the pandemic, levels of outdoor activity have been on the increase.  That includes bird watching.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment,"  WEMU's David Fair speaks to Erin Rowan, conservation associate for Audubon Great Lakes, about the growing popularity of bird watching and its impacts on Michigan's bird conservation and environmental protection efforts.  



  • 2020 has been a slow year for many industries, but hobbies like bird watching--safely be accomplished while mask-wearing and social distancing--have gotten a huge boost.  Sales of birding supplies, like binoculars, feeders, field guides, etc... are stronger than ever.
  • Not only are there more birders out there this year, birding in Southeast Michigan in 2020 is better than usual due to an irruption year, where many species not normally found in our region have been sighted, due to optimal nesting success and an ensuing expansion of population territory.
  • The influx of new birders into the field is a boon for conservation groups that track population numbers through reported sightings by volunteers.  The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground, conservation, and they are calling all birders to help with counts.
  • 2020 marks the 120th anniversary of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.  All new and seasoned birders are invited to participate through the Washtenaw Audubon Society.
  • Erin Rowan, Conservation Associate for Audubon Great Lakes, will discuss the importance of counts, the irruption, and how birding helps support conservation.

Birdwatching Interest Booming in 2020

If 2020 was the year you became a birder, you’re not alone.  Birdwatching got a big boost this year, putting it on the list of outdoor activities that saw a large increase in interest on account of stay-home orders and social distancing during the pandemic.

Google searches for “birds” reached an all-time high in the U.S. in early May, while searches for “the best binoculars for birdwatching” increased 550%, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

To encourage all these new birders in Michigan, the DNR has launched a weekly text alert called “Winged Wednesday” to update birdwatchers on birds being spotted in state parks. A new bird and new park will be highlighted each week.

The text alerts could be particularly helpful for novice birders.  Users can sign up for the DNR alerts online at this link, or by texting BIRD to the number 80888. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/2020/10/dnrs-winged-wednesday-text-alerts-aim-to-encourage-beginner-birdwatchers-in-michigan.html)

Birding Supply Sales up 50%

Kevin Hanzie feels kind of bad about having good news.  After all, a global pandemic has killed more than 158,000 Americansand continues unabated.  As a result, the country’s economy shrank by 9.5 percentfrom April to June, by far the worst quarter on record.  Mom and pops are getting hit particularly hard: Nearly 7.5 million of the nation’s 30 million small businesses are at risk of closing permanently over the next few months, according to Main Street America.

But even as the country slides further into recession, one sector—Hanzie’s sector—is doing better than ever before: backyard birding.

“I say this somewhat sheepishly, but our business has been great because of the lockdowns,” says Hanzie, co-owner of Lizzie Mae’s Bird Seed, a manufacturer and distributer based in Millersburg, Ohio.  He estimates that sales of Lizzie Mae’s house-mixed bird seed and various birdwatching accessories the company sources from other manufacturers have increased by about 50 percent compared to last year.

A few factors have fed the sales spike.  For starters, birding-supply companies are considered essential in most parts of the country, which has allowed them to stay open when other businesses have had to close. Then there’s the most obvious factor: People have been stuck at home, and they’re realizing that birding is easy to do while staying socially distant.  Longtime backyard birdwatchers have been filling their feeders more regularly, while people who are only just discovering birds are buying their first feeder sets, binoculars, and field guides.  The weather may have helped, too.  Hanzie says a relatively mild winter probably allowed more birds to survive into spring, resulting in more visitors to backyards. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.audubon.org/news/birdwatching-bright-spot-pandemic-stricken-economy)

Audubon's 121st Christmas Bird Count

Audubon's 121st Christmas Bird Count will be conducted between the dates of Monday, December 14, 2020 through Tuesday, January 5, 2021.  The Christmas Bird Count occurs December 14 to January 5 every year.  Sign up to receive information and results about all of Audubon's community science programs through American Birds, our quarterly newsletter by email.

Please note that the COVID-19 pandemic will affect CBC participation.  Pending local restrictions, many counts will be done under the COVID-19 guidelines sent to compilers, while others will likely be cancelled.  Visit the map linked below for current information.

A map view of the circles expected to be included in the 121st CBC is available here.  If you're interested in participating this season, check out the map to find a count near you; more circles will be added as they are approved.  Green and yellow circles are open for new participants, and red circles are full.  Online registration is not available—please contact compilers by email using the information from the pop-ups on the map.

Already signed up for a count?  Then head over to our CBC Live tracker to see photos posted from others who are scouting for or participating in the Christmas Bird Count, and upload your own photos! 

In November, you will also be able to view the circles by state or use ESRI's free mobile app to view updated public maps of all CBC circles by state!  Click here to download the free ESRI Explorer app for iOS or Android.  Find CBC circles by searching on your state’s full name + “Christmas Bird Count.”

Since the Christmas Bird Count began over a century ago, it has relied on the dedication and commitment of volunteers like you.  Please keep reading to learn more about the Christmas Bird Count.

When does the count happen?

All Christmas Bird Counts are conducted between December 14 to January 5, inclusive dates, each season. Your local count will occur on one day between those dates.  Participate in as many counts as you wish!

How does participation work?

There is a specific methodology to the CBC, and all participants must make arrangements to participate in advance with the circle compiler within an established circle, but anyone can participate.

Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler.  Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day.  It's not just a species tally—all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.

What is the Christmas Bird Count?

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a long-standing program of the National Audubon Society, with over 100 years of community science involvement. It is an early-winter bird census, where thousands of volunteers across the U.S., Canada, and many countries in the Western Hemisphere go out over a 24-hour period on one calendar day to count birds.

Can I just do my own CBC and send you my data?

No. Since each CBC is a real census, and since the 15-mile diameter circle contains a lot of area to be covered, single-observer counts (except in unusual circumstances) cannot be allowed.  To participate in the CBC, you will need to join an existing CBC circle by contacting the compiler in advance of the count day.

As an alternative, you may be interested in getting involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) organized by Audubon with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  It takes place President's Day weekend each February, and you can count the birds each day in your backyard/community and then enter the results online.  For more information on the GBBC, visit the Audubon GBBC page.

If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.  If your home is within the boundaries of a CBC circle, then you can stay at home and report the birds that visit your feeder on count day as long as you have made prior arrangement with the count compiler.  Check out the sign-up link above during the sign-up season for information on how to contact the compiler.

Since it is free, how is this program funded?

The Christmas Bird Count relies 100 percent on donations to provide support to compilers and volunteers on count day, to manage the historic database, and to fund the technology to make historic data available to researchers.  The data collected by CBC participants over the past century and more have become one of only two large pools of information informing ornithologists and conservation biologists how the birds of the Americas are faring over time.

In 2012. we made CBC participation free to make it accessible to anyone.  Now we ask for your support to keep the program free and to help us ensure the future of the program.  Please make a donation today to this very important community science effort. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count)

2020 Irruption Year

The lemming-like fluctuations in Canadian cone crops is what leads to a handful of northern bird species being known as ‘irruptive’ in the United States.  Along with the Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Redpolls, Crossbills, and several species of Grosbeaks, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is largely a hit-or-miss species in the U.S. and it’s all dependent upon the availability of conifer seeds in the Great North.  Many winters (last year, for instance) we see none of these birds; other years, we can be inundated.  In years of low seed production, most of the finches mentioned above travel from the Canadian taiga down into the Adirondacks and northern New England, where they suddenly show up at bird feeders in large flocks, after years of being absent.  Sizable numbers may even appear in the Mid-Atlantic, as was the case with White-winged Crossbills in the winter of 2012-13 and Pine Siskins two years later.  With Red-breasted Nuthatches, which are more solitary birds to begin with, irruptions take a different form, as they occur more often (seemingly every 3-4 years) and are much wider spread; typically, small numbers of Red-breasts begin to show up across most of the United States, as far south as the panhandle of Florida and northern Texas, in early or mid-Fall.  Essentially their normal winter range extends in area five- to ten-fold, as they search for locations with plentiful food.  Not surprisingly, the most noteworthy irruptions occur when an unusually good cone crop (which leads to higher natality and winter survival rates in the birds that eat them) is followed by a crop failure the following year.

The most recent irruption of Red-breasted Nuthatches was just two years ago, in the fall of 2018.  The dramatic nature of irruptions is easy to see, given the graphic capabilities of eBird reports.  Compare the density of sightings (indicated by blue and red markers) in the Mid-Atlantic during these two consecutive Septembers, the first an ‘ordinary’ year in which almost all RBNU remained in Canada year-round, the second marking the beginning of our most recent irruption!The most recent irruption of Red-breasted Nuthatches was just two years ago, in the fall of 2018.  The dramatic nature of irruptions is easy to see, given the graphic capabilities of eBird reports.  Compare the density of sightings (indicated by blue and red markers) in the Mid-Atlantic during these two  consecutive Septembers, the first an ‘ordinary’ year in which almost all RBNU remained in Canada year-round, the second marking the beginning of our most recent irruption!

For a species that is generally NOT a long-distance migrant and is accustomed to living in cold northern climates, this sudden influx is not only a classic example of a major food-supply related irruption but it’s also occurring unusually early in the year.  For those of you with bird feeders at home, this is great news–perhaps enough to convince others to go out and purchase feeders for the coming cold season!  Chances are good that you’ll see these entertaining little birds a lot this winter, and the fact that they’re arriving already means you’ll enjoy hearing their amusing vocalizations while the windows are still open!  It may–but not necessarily–also mean there are more avian surprises ahead; irruptions in one northern species often indicate others might follow, unless their alternate food sources are more abundant up north. T he forecasting expert on this sort of thing is retired Canadian naturalist Ron Pittaway, who worked in Algonquin Provincial Park in the 1970’s and 80’s.  There he became aware of the close correlation between summer cone crops and winter birds staying or heading south in large numbers.  A founding member of the Ontario Field Ornithologists, Pittaway honed his observations into a bit of an art form, with the help of cone-related feedback from botanists and field ecologists in various parts of Canada. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.explorenature.org/blog/on-the-cusp-of-an-irruption/)

Winter Birds of Michigan (December, January, February)

In the Upper Peninsula winter has settled in by December, but in southern portions of the state there is still some southbound movement of Michigan winter birds.  Late migrating songbirds, including American pipits, horned larks, Lapland longspurs, and snow buntings, continue to move through, while on the Great Lakes, large numbers of waterfowl may be present until they get frozen out and have to move farther south.  Spectacular rafts of canvasback and both greater and lesser scaup can be seen at this time, as well as thousands of common mergansers.  Most red-breasted mergansers have moved out before the onset of winter.  Glaucous gulls from the north and great black-backed gulls from the east are still moving into and through the state, as well as a few straggling Bonaparte’s gulls.  In some years, irruptions of “winter finches” do not begin until late in the season, sometimes with birds not reaching the southern Lower Peninsula until late December or even early January.  Northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, and a few red-tailed hawks may migrate throughout the month.  By the end of December winter resident passerines are mostly settled in, with a very few late lingering migrant sparrows.  Many dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows will take up residence near bird feeders throughout the state, along with good numbers of American goldfinches and the typical resident species.  Don’t be surprised if a winter resident sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk occasionally takes advantage of your bird feeders as well, generally preying on the weaker individuals.

January is truly the middle of winter in Michigan, often with the coldest temperatures of the season and plenty of snow, with the Great Lakes freezing almost entirely in colder years.  Wintering gulls, including rarer northern species such as glaucous, Iceland, and Thayer’s Gulls, move inland to smaller, often frozen lakes, and landfills.  Waterfowl are concentrated into smaller areas of open water with common mergansers, diving ducks, and sea ducks predominating.  Most dabbling ducks have out of the state by December.  In modest irruption years, “winter finches” and northern owls may not arrive until mid-month.  This is a good time to make a trip to the Upper Peninsula to look for these species, as well as boreal species including gray jay and boreal chickadee.

February often continues cold and snowy, with gulls and wintering waterfowl still dominating the birding scene.  The last half of the month typically sees the initiation of the breeding season for great horned owl, mourning dove, and gray jay.  The first migrants returning north are found near the end of the month, including northern harrier, horned lark and male red-winged blackbirds.  If the thaw is early, greater numbers of diving ducks, and a few dabbling ducks, move into the Great Lakes.  Northern finches and owls, when present in irruption years, will remain through the month, especially in the Upper Peninsula. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/regions/midwest/michigan/michigan-birding-season-winter.php)

Erin Rowan

Erin joined the Audubon Great Lakes team as the MI Birds Program Associate in 2018, working to increase all Michigander’s engagement in the understanding, care, and stewardship of public lands that are important for birds and people.  She previously worked as a Staff Biologist with the Institute for Bird Populations coordinating their MAPS/TMAPS bird banding programs before moving to Michigan where she worked with Detroit Audubon as their Research Coordinator.  Erin is an Executive Committee member of the SEMIWILD network and co-chairs the Natural Resources Conservation and Stewardship Committee, and Community Science Subcommittee.  She holds a degree in Conservation and Resource Studies from UC Berkeley.
(Source: https://gl.audubon.org/contact/erin-rowan)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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