Be a citizen scientist at Tri-City bird count

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 1, 2014 

The local chapter of the Audubon Society is offering the public a chance to become citizen scientists Saturday and help with a national count of birds.

The Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society has been helping with the national Christmas Bird Count for around 40 years, spotting and identifying birds across the same 177-square-mile area with the help of volunteers.

Kids are welcome. Those ages 10 to 14 often prove to be some of the best bird spotters participating in the count because of their keen interest, sharp eyes and clear minds, said coordinator Dana Ward.

Those willing to help with this year's count should meet at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at the fingernail in Howard Amon Park in Richland, the Audubon Nature Trail in Columbia Park in Kennewick or the Chiawana Park boat ramp at the end of Road 88 in Pasco. Counters can participate on driving routes or walking routes. Volunteers will be paired with experienced bird watchers. Bring binoculars, water and lunch if you are staying through the afternoon.

Those who cannot meet in the morning may call to arrange to meet teams later in the day. For Richland call 375-1343, for Pasco call 554-7936 and for Kennewick call 430-0053.

A potluck is planned at 5:30 p.m. at the Columbia Grange, 6300 Court St., Pasco. The grange also will be open starting at 10 a.m. for those wanting a warm drink and conversation.

The group's goal is to find more than 100 species, which usually is possible given the good habitat around the Columbia and Yakima rivers.

Finding that many species is the fun part, Ward said. But the scientific goal is to tally the number of birds seen in the count area, a circle with a diameter of 15 miles centered on the Columbia River south of Road 68 in Pasco.

The count will be used by the national Audubon Society as it compiles numbers of birds counted during the holiday season across the nation to look for trends, including to determine if avian populations have shifted.

Nationally, the society has seen indications that global climate change may be expanding ranges for some species, Ward said.

Locally, counters are spotting fewer burrowing owls, Ward said. Last year none were counted, but one year does not make a trend and counters will be looking for them again this year.

They also are having trouble finding chukars, which used to be seen on Badger Mountain. But they have fled since the mountain became a popular hiking area.

The Tri-Cities landscape has changed drastically in the past few years with the development of wood lots and shrub steppe areas, Ward said. The 20 or 30 acres of sagebrush habitat that once was included in the count on the Pasco side of the river is almost all gone.

But while that leaves fewer wildland birds, such as burrowing owls and meadowlarks, to count, there are more city-dwelling birds to be spotted, including juncos, house finches and house sparrows, he said.

One group of Audubon members also conducts a predawn count, listening for owls in the darkness, when the birds are more active.

Even if a bird is not seen, it's included in the count if its call is heard and recognized. Great horned and screech owls may be heard at night, and kingfishers and robins may be identified by their calls during the day.

The national Christmas bird count, now conducted in 24-hour periods between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, started in 1900 when ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed it as an alternative to the tradition of shooting birds on the holiday. The data collected since then has become one of only two large pools of information informing ornithologists and conservation biologists how the birds of the Americas are faring over time, according to the Audubon Society.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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