Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count to take place Saturday


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Saturday is for the birds. Or, to be precise, the birdwatchers.

It’s the 114th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running “citizen science” survey in the world, according to the experts.

The national count takes place across the country on dates from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5. The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania will be conducting its count throughout the region Saturday.

“This is our second year for it,” said Stacey Widenhofer, an environmental educator at the Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley. “We were asked by a local resident who has been doing it for 30 years. Basically, he came to us and said, ‘I need some help. Can you lend a hand?’ And we said, ‘Absolutely!’”

There are more than 2,300 “circles” collecting data in North America. The Fern Hollow Nature Center is just one of more than a dozen Pittsburgh-area locations where the bird-counters will be flocking together.

“We’ll meet here at the Nature Center at 8 a.m. and I’ll pair people into groups assigned to parts of our Pittsburgh circle,” Ms. Widenhofer said. “We will go out and count how many birds of a species we see, how many species we see, and we document that. Then I submit that data to the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania and they submit that to the National Audubon Society.”

They’re not just doing this on a lark. Like everyone involved in the project, Ms. Widenhofer stresses the importance of the annual count.

“It’s a big deal. The National Audubon Society ornithologists take this data and study and monitor migration patterns,” she said. “Are we having influxes of birds and why is that? It really does help them see if there are any potential problems or things to watch for. And we always see some really cool things. Last year we had a Baltimore oriole, which is migratory and shouldn’t be here. They actually got pictures of it.”

Tracking the birds is important — and fun.

“They’re pollinators, they’re seed dispersal, they’re insectivores, meaning they eat all the bad bugs that can potentially hurt us, and they’re beautiful,” Ms. Widenhofer said. “There’s a lot of good migratory paths that come through here.”

You don’t have to be an expert to take part. Ms. Widenhofer said she and the other organizers will pair your eyes with those of experienced volunteers who will accompany you out into the fields.

“It’s amazing to me the stuff some of these people know about birds. But we are more about getting people to participate, enjoying the day and learning. We share the knowledge.”

The Fern Hollow Nature Center is a nonprofit venture located on 33 acres adjacent to the Sewickley Heights History Center along Glen Mitchell Road.

“The land was donated by the Snyder family,” said Ms. Widenhofer, who has been at the center for six of its 16 years. “Mr. Snyder had a vision of wanting to connect people with nature and keep the history of Sewickley alive. Our facility is actually the old carriage house converted to the nature center. We’ve got green space and trails. We do environmental education with school groups. We do ‘owl prowls.’ We get about 6,000 visitors a year.”

Counters from the center will fan out around Franklin Park and Ohio Township.

Participants are encouraged to dress for the weather and bring binoculars and field guides if you have them. The free event is open to young people, but they must have parent supervision. And be prepared to travel.

If you’re interested, email Ms. Widenhofer at stacey.fhnc@gmail.com. Or, if you want to take part in a count in another part of the region, visit the Audubon Society of Western PA at www.aswp.org for details.

“We’ll be counting all sorts of wild birds,” Ms. Widenhofer said. “Wild turkeys, cardinals, sparrows, blue jays, chickadees, titmice, you name it. Last year we had a foot of snow and it was a nightmare. But tomorrow is supposed to be like 46 degrees and that’ll be great.”

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.


First Published December 27, 2013 3:43 PM

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