Mid-winter bird census 26 years and counting

Seeing is believing, but hearing will suffice for inclusion on Mike Weilbacher’s list.

Weilbacher is Executive Director of The Schuylkill Center, a Roxborough-based institute for environmental education. He’s leading a group of bird-watchers – birders, in parlance – through the Center’s 340 acres to participate in the 2012 Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census.

“A good number of birds stay here all year,” says Weilbacher as he explains that, due to the absence of foliage, bird identification is much easier in the winter than the spring.

Others, like the four white-bellied juncos that Weilbacher points to, are migratory birds from Canada and the Adirondacks that winter in Philadelphia.

Auditory clues – like the cheering of the nuthatch, the choo-chooing of the titmouse, and the honking sound of the red-bellied woodpecker – suggest that even more species await counting.

Looking upward, a flock flies far overhead.

In five minutes, almost 40 birds have been spotted – and he’s still in the parking lot.

A 26-year old tradition

Saturday, Jan. 7, marked the 26th annual Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census.

Taking flight in 1987 after three-decades of hibernation, the purpose of the census is to locate, identify and count birds in Philadelphia.

In addition, the census monitors the change in bird populations over longer periods of time.

“It’s the only monitoring effort in which birds are counted throughout Philadelphia County,” Keith Russel told The Fallser in January.

Russel, a Mt. Airy resident, is the Philadelphia Bird Census Coordinator and a Science and Outreach Coordinator for the National Audubon Society (NAS).

The Philadelphia-area is significant in the bird world – according to The Fallser, in 2008, Fairmount Park was declared an “Important Bird Area” (IBA) by the NAS, one of two in Philadelphia and 85 state-wide.

The NAS defines an IBA as providing essential habitats to one or more species of birds, and meeting a set of criteria in regard to the relative vulnerability of the bird population therein.

“Fairmount Park was chosen for the diversity and concentration of its bird life,” says Russel.

He notes that the park serves as both stomping grounds and anchoring area for many birds.

“(The park) attracts a really large number of species,” he explains, adding, “many of which you would think would only be miles away.”

However, he notes that birds are less sensitive than humans to urban and rural distinctions.

“Birds do not look at the world as ‘our place, their place,” he said.

“We have to hunt”

Though dissimilar to the serene settings of the Schuylkill Center, birding is possible in urban and residential environments, but brings with it a unique set of challenges.

Walking point for the Bird Census in East Falls is Winston Moody, a retired librarian and 11-year Bird Census veteran.

“It’s a great way to get outdoors,” he expresses, “but with a purpose.”

Moody is being assisted in his field work by his wife Wendy, VP of the East Falls Historical Society and Phillip Hineline, a professor at Temple University.

Explaining the challenge in East Falls, Winston notes that since there are few wild areas, “we have to hunt.”

Since joining the census, he has compiled the names and addresses of Fallsers who are bird enthusiasts, and stops by their homes during the census to observe or, in the case of more-experienced birders, collect the raw numbers of identified birds.

“We rely on people with bird baths and bird feeders,” he states, as these important sources of food and water tend to draw more birds and more diverse species.

In fact, Moody remarks, “we do better at feeders than we do in the wild.”

The right approach

Exiting from chauffeur’s seat in the Volvo wagon that transports the East Falls troika, Wendy Moody suggests that there’s an art to surveying birds.

“Part of the trick,” she says, “is taking the right approach so that you don’t scare the birds.”

“You want to put the best birder in front,” she adds, with a slight gesture to her husband Walter, as the lead observer will have the best chance at identification in the event of a fly-away.

Hineline provided a rationale for this tactic.

“Birds are more sensitive to motion than they are to sounds,” he offers, as their auditory responses are attuned to higher frequencies.

These tricks of the trade are in their mind as they enter the yard of Doris and Phil Steinberg of Netherfield Road in East Falls.

Described by Wendy Moody as being “very avid feeders,” the Steinberg’s have developed a de facto aviary in their expansive yard.

As they look upwards into the trees, Hineline and the Moodys begin identifying the birds seen through the lenses of their binoculars.

“Robins, dove … another dove,” says Hineline, commenting, “Boy, we’ve got robins all over the place here.”

Wendy asks, “Is that a chickadee I hear back there?”

Hineline spots a hawk, but it flies from view before being positively identified.

“My suspicion is that it was a red-tailed hawk,” says Winston.

Since this isn’t conclusive, it can’t be counted. It’s time to move on.

Giving her cell-phone number, Wendy asks that Doris calls if she sees any other birds of note.

“We may swing by again,” portends Winston, thinking of hawks uncounted and warblers unseen.

An activity for all ages 

The Bird Census, while driven by the experience of veteran birders, is also a chance for fledgling observers to participate – and learn.

This is the first time out for Angella Irwin. A resident of Mt. Airy and Arcadia University Masters student, she was looking at First Friday event listings and saw the Schuylkill Center’s advertisement for the Bird Census, and took a chance.

“I wanted to be outside, and I wanted to learn,” said Irwin, describing her motivations.

She comes from an ornithologically-inclined background – her dad’s a birder – but had never seen the attraction.

“I never understood the fascination for something that is so difficult,” she said.

But, now that Irwin is out in the depths of the Wissahickon, her skepticism is receding, and she is beginning to recognize birding’s appeal – and wishes that she had brought dad along.

“I feel guilty I didn’t invite him along,” she says, adding, “he would have loved to be here.”

At the lower end of the age – if not experience – scale is Jack Feldman, 7, of Ambler.

By far the youngest person present at the Schuylkill Center Saturday morning, Jack is under the watchful eye of his mother Alison.

“Jack’s the birder,” says Alison, and clarifies her role as one of driver, accompanist – and agent.

“I scout out these things,” she says, “and happily take him wherever they’re happening.”

Alison tells that Jack’s first interest was in butterflies, but over the course of the last two years, it has changed to birds.

Asked for background into his interest in winged-species, Jack answered shyly, “I like the colors.”

Russert believes that birding is a wonderful way to bring people together, as it cuts across age, class and background.

“It’s a wonderful equalizer,” he says.

Collecting a sense of trends 

Obtaining exact numbers of birds in the Philadelphia area would be a difficult, if not impossible, task.

“We can’t be exact about this,” says Winston Moody, “but the census can give you a sense of trends.”

According to Russell, the 2011 Mid-Winter Census tallied 90 total species and 19,351 individual sightings.

In 2012, Russell expects reports from approximately 30 groups located throughout Philadelphia.

Of the observers reporting thus far, 101 species have been identified. Moody reported 29 species in East Falls.

Russell credits Saturday’s favorable weather and a mild winter as contributing to this year’s increases.

The average, Russell offers, is 92 species, with the peak number – 108 – having occurred twice.

He plans to have a final tally by the end of January, along with accounts of notable sightings, like the snowy owl spotted at Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

Russel says that While he is pleased with the bird tallies, he’s also encouraged by the human dimensions of the census.

“We had a bunch of new people participate this year,” he noted, and is hopeful that new participants recognize “that their little contribution might be unique.” 

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