The Garden Spotter

Great Backyard Bird Count – Citizen Science at its Best


Bird feeders. Check. Bird seed and suet. Check. Guidebooks. eBird account. Check.

I’m ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Are you?

Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada, the GBBC is this weekend, starting first thing Friday, February 17, and ending at the end of the day Monday, February 20. Enormously popular, the count last year drew a record 162,000 citizen scientists from more than 130 countries. Birders counted more than 5,600 species, including 655 in the United States. Surprising, according to Audubon, was the sighting of several species – among them, the White Throated Thrush -which are usually found much farther south, a possible signal of climate change.

This will be my second year, and I think I will be a little better prepared. Last year, the count just happened to fall on the coldest days of the winter, and I decided to go on a hike at a local wildlife sanctuary to count, and, incidentally, spotted not a single bird on my bitterly cold excursion. Not one bird. Zero. As citizen science goes, however,  zero data is good data, too.

Great Backyard Bird Count

Great Backyard Bird Count Since last year, I’ve followed the birding community here in Maine and familiarized myself with the birds that typically appear in winter. I’ve set up more feeders in my yard, and hung suet to attract more birds. For this year’s count, I will not be venturing out into the wilderness. Oh, no. I will be sitting instead beside my window at home, with camera in hand and a cup of coffee. ( It is after all a backyard count, is it not? I’m expecting more action, too, this year, as I have been observing a number of visitors in recent days, including Northern Cardinals, Dark Eyed Juncos, Nuthatches, American Tree Sparrows (above), and American Robins (below).

Great Backyard Bird Count

Great Backyard Bird Count

Great Backyard Bird Count I was excited last weekend when I came home to a large flock of American Robins resting in the trees in our yard and feeding on the neighbors’ holly berries. In the days since, I’ve learned that large flocks have been spotted throughout Maine and New England, and they may be birds from Canada wintering here in the Northeast. This is just the kind of information the GBBC seeks. When ordinary citizens around the world input data during a specified time frame, it gives scientists a clear picture of where certain species are and how they might be fairing due to any changes in the environment, climate, or their own health.

Do you have to be a bird expert to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count? Absolutely, unequivocally, not. In fact, it is so easy that even those new to birding, or even children, can do it. All you do is sign up for an eBird account and familiarize yourself with its easy dashboard and then begin counting. GBBC organizers recommend that you count on any or all four days, and count for a minimum of 15 minutes at a time. eBird will ask you to input an approximate location, number of species, and types of species, if you know what they are. If not, Cornell and other websites have a number of easy apps they can recommend to help you identify the birds you see.

I am looking forward to this weekend’s count, and hoping for better weather than last year, but the forecast hasn’t been promising. We’ve already had near record snow here this winter, and another storm is approaching as I write.

If you like birds, if you enjoy citizen science, or if you just want to have a little outdoor fun with a purpose, do this. Take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count this year. Trust me, you will have no regrets and you might just get hooked on birding as I did.

Counting Birds in the Great Backyard Bird Count



The Great Backyard Bird Count has ended, and it turns out, that for our area at least, the weekend weather was not the best for counting birds. Throughout coastal Maine, temperatures barely made it to 10 degrees during the day, and wind chills overnight were down around 30 below. Monday’s temps in the 20’s were balmy by comparison, and while you might think this would entice all the birds to come out and scavenge for food, that was far from the case. In fact, a slow, one-and-a-half hour hike through the shoreline trails of the Hamilton Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bath produced not a single bird siting. Not a single one.


Sponsored by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Great Backyard Bird Count, GBBC, is held every February, before the spring migration. With more than 100,000 participants siting more than 5,000 bird species around the world in 2015, the GBBC has become one of the great successes of modern citizen-science.

One likely reason it’s been so successful is that it’s so easy to do. All you have to do is create an online account and input the time, date and location, along with the number of birds you see and their species. During the four-day GBBC, you can enter as many counts as you like, in the same location or different locations. You can also use your account to keep track of your bird counts year round.

Scientists involved with the GBBC say they’re gaining a wealth of information about such things as the current patterns of migration and the health and numbers of certain bird populations.



The woods were extraordinarily quiet Monday afternoon, except for the occasional chatter of chipmunks off in the distance or the cracking of ice out in the cove. Ordinarily, you would see gulls or herons or maybe a duck or two. But all I saw was evidence of deer that had gone down to the water to drink, rabbits scampering around the trunks of trees, and small animals burrowing deep into the snow.

My findings – or lack thereof – surprised me. I thought surely the birds would be out following the cold snap, surely they would be looking for food. I had seen bald eagles out on the river in the past, but, alas, that was not the case today; perhaps they were out hunting elsewhere. Still, it was fun just to get out in the woods and look, and I definitely plan to do more of this citizen-birding in the future.


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