When I interviewed for the position of Program Director at Audubon, I was given a wildlife quiz. No. Really. They (Jim and Becky, for those of you who remember them) pulled out a stack of photographs of local animals and asked me to identify them. I'm embarrassed to say I was stumped by the groundhog. I don't know. It was a weird angle, and I didn't know they had tails like that. Thank goodness they didn't show me too many birds if any; I can't recall now. If they had, I would have known robin, blue jay, cardinal, chickadee, and very few after that, I'm afraid.
They hired me anyway, and over the past twelve years I've tried hard to learn birds. I'm not doing too badly, either, though the little brown ones can still stump me sometimes, and don't you dare ask me about warblers. Or hawks. Or ducks. Or shorebirds. Or
Still, I've learned to enjoy watching birds as part of my job, and for personal pleasure, too. Sometimes at lunch, or during a break, I sit on the couch by the back window and enjoy the constant flow of visitors to the feeder. I've learned that the Black-capped Chickadees come for one seed at a time, fly off to a branch to eat, then return for another. I've noticed that the Dark-eyed Junco prefers to eat on the ground, but will come up to the platform feeder if no seeds have been spilled yet. I've heard the Blue Jay mimic the call of a hawk, sending all the birdie diners scattering for cover, thereby making plenty of room for himself to dine alone. I've marveled at the intense red of the male Cardinal against the backdrop of the snowy Scot's Pine; they seem to be lit from within. I've marveled equally at more subtle colors like the pale orange under the Titmouse's wing, the rusty cap of the Tree Sparrow, and the tawny velvet of the Mourning Dove's coat.
Counting Birds at the 2010 GBBC
Blue Jay by Terry LeBaron
Tree Sparrow by Dave Cooney
Male Cardinal by Terry LeBaron
What the birds see
Learning to use a spotting scope
When you walk with me now, be prepared for conversation to stop mid-sentence while I listen to a song, or check out movement in that bush over there! I've even taken to sitting on the side of the table that gives me a good view of the back windows and keeping a bird list during staff meetings. I haven't quite gotten to the point where binoculars are a regular part of my attire, and I don't pack my field guide as essential gear (though there have been times when I wish I had).
What's really fun about watching birds is that you can become a part of a larger scientific community very easily. Ornithologists depend on casual bird watchers to provide them with data for their research. There are many projects with which to get involved. One of the easiest is called the Great Backyard Bird Count: count birds for 15 minutes and tell the scientists at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology what you saw. That's it!
OK, so it's a little more complicated than that, but not much. Now in its fourteenth year, the Great Backyard Bird Count engages bird watchers of every age and skill level in counting birds. Their website at birdsource.org/gbbc has all the information you need to get started. If you don't have internet access, or prefer the personal touch, consider joining us at Audubon and contributing to our list.
The GBBC is always held over Presidents' Day weekend. This year that means February 18-21. In celebration, we'll be gathering at Audubon on Saturday, February 19, 2011 for something we're calling All About Birds. Join us anytime between 10am and 4:30pm to learn the counting protocol and how to identify a few more of those visitors to your feeder both by sight and by sound. Make a simple bird feeder from reusable materials, or a slightly more complicated suet cake feeder. Examine feathers, bones, nests, and other bird "artifacts." Take a behind-the-scenes tour of our eagle care facility. Learn how to use binoculars and spotting scopes. Scour the nature center building by taking a bird scavenger hunt.
Regular admission fees will apply: members and children under 18 are admitted free of charge; adult non-members pay only $5. There will be an additional small fee if you wish to make a suet-cake feeder. Warning: you might find things in our Nature Store that you just have to buy. A field guide perhaps? How about a bird feeder or a nest box? A bag of our Conewango Blend birdseed maybe?
Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Rd., Kiantone, one-quarter mile east of Rt. 62 between Jamestown, N.Y., and Warren. Call (716) 569-2345 for more information about the center and its activities, or visit our website at jamestownaudubon.org.
Jennifer Schlick is program director and hopes to see you on Feb. 19.