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Cornell Bird Count sees invasive species influx

Bird feeding at Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca N.Y
Bird feeding at Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca N.Y
The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology has observed a significantly sharp influx in winter finches seen in the Western hemisphere. The Lab has combined its eBird counting program with its 16th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which has helped the Lab observe an unusually high invasion of winter finches this season.

Although the yearly southward migration of the birds – called “irruption” – tends to rise and fall cyclically, bird watchers are spying one particular species, the Common Redpoll, in amounts that rise off the charts.

Marshall Iliff, eBird’s project leader, said the mass irruption of Redpolls could have serious effects on local ecology. Since the bird feeds primarily on Birch seeds, the larger numbers will lead to more Birch trees being preyed on.

“Every bird watcher in the world has seen a higher than average number of Redpolls this year,” Iliff said. “Lots of feeders have hundreds of Redpolls at them. They’re travelling down to Maryland and beyond, something you don’t see every year.”

According to eBird’s databases, almost 15 percent of reporting birdwatchers have spotted Common Redpolls, compared to 13 percent in 2009 and much smaller numbers in prior years.

Iliff believes this irruption will lead to increased interest in the Bird Count.

“People will look out at their feeders and they’ll see all these Redpolls,” Iliff said. “They might realize it’s a variety of bird they’ve never seen before or haven’t seen in a long time. It’ll make them more likely to report.

The Bird Count, held by Cornell Ornithology in conjunction with the National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada, is a widespread four-day survey in which birdwatchers can tally the species of birds they see in certain locations. This year’s Bird Count is from February 15 to February 18.

For the first time ever, the Bird Count is utilizing eBird, an online bird checklisting program started by Cornell and the Audubon in 2002. The database has since become one of the largest and fastest-growing biodiversity resources on the planet, according to eBird’s website.

Iliff said the combination of the global application of eBird with the Bird Count’s massive participation in the United States and Canada has allowed the Ornithology Lab to group their data to the benefit of both programs.

“It just makes management of the projects much easier, forming a single project rather than two separate ones,” Iliff said. “It allows the Bird Count to become global and it pushes the event to be a little more site-specific.”

Since the event’s beginning on Friday, the Bird Count has already seen massive growth in participation. Thousands of checklists from Europe, India, Australia, and other international locations have flocked in. According to Iliff, previous species record counts have been more than doubled compared to previous years.

The information compiled from the Bird Count, eBird and similar programs is used by scientists for studying the effects of weather on bird populations, comparing migration patterns, and looking at the biodiversity of different regions across the world.

Locally, bird enthusiasts explore Sapsucker Woods, where the Lab of Ornithology is located, Stewart Park in Ithaca, N.Y, Dryden Lake in Dryden and Myers Point in Lansing. Yamila Fournier, a resident of Ithaca, said she visits Sapsuckers Woods with her son Jacob Ellis every year.

“There is something that is incredibly calming about looking out those glass windows and looking out into the lake,” Fournier said. “I never once left here without feeling somewhat lighter and stronger and better. It’s a good place to be.”

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