A male evening grosbeak perches on a branch. These large, colorful and noisy finches are extremely fond of sunflower seeds. Some participants in this year’s GBBC may have an increased chance of counting these birds because of a winter “irruption” of evening grosbeaks and other Northern finches. (Photo by Ted Schroeder)

By Bryan Stevens

Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Virginia, plans some bird walks on Saturday, Feb. 16, to coincide with the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The 22nd annual GBBC is taking place Feb. 15-18 in backyards, parks, nature centers, on hiking trails, school grounds, balconies, and beaches—anywhere you find birds. The GBBC is a free, fun and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard or anywhere in the world.

Each checklist submitted during the GBBC helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how birds are doing, and how to protect them and the environment we share. Last year, more than 160,000 participants submitted their bird observations online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

To help participants become better citizen scientists, some field guides and binoculars will be provided during the activities at Hungry Mother State Park. Supplies of these items, however, are limited.

The walk will commence at 8 a.m. Either Master Naturalist Randy Smith or Hungry Mother volunteer Mike Evans will conduct the walk. Participants are also welcome to bird solo or with a few friends to cover more territory.

At 9 a.m., participants will return to parking lot five for “Breakfast in a Bag” with the Holston Rivers Master Naturalists. While enjoying breakfast, attendees will be invited to wander over to the park’s restaurant to check out various hands-on birding activities.

The special event will wrap up when Smith teaches participants a little more about backyard birding with an informative session at 10:30 a.m. at the restaurant.

All ages and skill levels are welcome. Attendees are encouraged to dress warmly as the event will be held rain or shine.

A lot has changed since the first Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was held in 1998. Each year brings unwavering enthusiasm from the growing number of participants in this now-global event.

“The very first GBBC was an experiment,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the eBird program. “We wanted to see if people would use the Internet to send us their bird sightings. Clearly the experiment was a success!”

Iliff noted that eBird collects bird observations globally every day of the year and is the online platform used by the GBBC. In the United States and Canada, 2019 bird lists are more likely to include sightings of winter finches and grosbeaks that are moving farther south than usual in what’s called an “irruption.” This type of movement is often sparked by poor cone, seed and berry crops in parts of Canada.

“This year is a very exciting one for backyard birders in the East, headlined by the largest evening grosbeak movement in at least two decades,” noted Iliff. “From Atlantic Canada to North Carolina, these colorful feeder visitors have been making a splash.”

Although seed crops were better in western Canada, eBird maps still show significant number of evening grosbeaks are now being reported in the West all the way down to the border with Mexico. eBird collects bird observations globally every day of the year and is the online platform used by the GBBC.

Evening grosbeaks have been reported this winter in Tennessee in such locations as Palmyra and Sewanee. Although I have not personally seen an evening grosbeak for 18 years, I remember fondly how large flocks of these colorful and noisy birds overwhelmed my feeders during winters in the late 1990s. I’d love to see some of them again at my feeders. People should be aware that hosting a flock of evening grosbeaks can represent a significant investment. A grosbeak flock can literally consume hundreds of pounds of sunflower seeds when they take up residence for the winter at a feeding station.

Whether or not evening grosbeaks make an appearance this winter, I will still be taking part in this year’s GBBC. I encourage others to do so, too.

Learn more about how to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count at gbbc.birdcount.org where downloadable instructions and an explanatory PowerPoint are available. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada and is made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

For more information on the GBBC event at Hungry Mother State Park, call 276-781-7400. The park is located at 2854 Park Blvd., Marion, Virginia. Details are also available by calling 1-800-933-7275 or visit www.virginiastateparks.gov.

The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb.15, through Monday, Feb. 18. Please visit the official website at gbbc.birdcount.org for more information.

If you go:

• What: Hungry Mother State Park Great Backyard Bird Count events

• When: Feb. 16 beginning at 8 a.m.

• Where: Hungry Mother State Park, 2854 Park Blvd., Marion, Virginia, starting at parking lot five

For more information: Call 276-781-7400 or 1-800-933-7275 or visit www.virginiastateparks.gov

And:

• What: Great Backyard Bird Count

• When: Feb. 15-18

• Where: Your backyard or anywhere

For more information: gbbc.birdcount.org