by Bryony Angell
Cool morning light slowly saturates the edges of the woodland landscape and birds are beginning to sing. Several well-insulated figures stand in a circle clasping binoculars to their faces, watching and listening in silence. One of the figures quietly calls, “Time!” and the circle dissolves into a chatty cluster of humans listing off bird species seen or heard.
These frost-immune folks are Seattle Audubon’s volunteer citizen scientists, gathering on a weekend morning to audit Seattle’s urban parks for bird species as part of SAS’s Neighborhood Bird Project. Granted, not every morning is as cold as this, nor as dark, given that the count happens every month of the year, at the same time of morning and for a duration of about two hours.
What is the Neighborhood Bird Project?
This citizen science Neighborhood Bird Project (NBP) is part of three monitoring programs run by Seattle Audubon. In addition to the NBP, Seattle Audubon also manages the Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS) and the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The CBC is the oldest count, and sponsored by National Audubon, which collects the data found among its chapters every year. Seattle Audubon first participated in the CBC in 1908, and this year’s count will be the 88th, according to Toby Ross, SAS’s Science Manager. Why not the 108th? “There were a few breaks in counts due to the wars,” he says.
While the CBC is conducted once a year around Christmas, the NBP and the PSSS take place monthly. The NBP has 9 locations in various parks across the Seattle, while the PSSS has 122 sites located as far north as Deception Pass on Whidbey Island, South to Olympia and West to Cape Flattery. The NBP’s oldest count site is Magnuson Park, which just celebrated its 21st year of bird census collection.
Who are these citizen scientists?
Powering all three of these counts are volunteer citizen scientists. What brings these volunteers to the count is fairly easy to identify: an initial love for birds and wanting to learn more about birdlife within Seattle and the region. But what keeps the volunteers coming back month after month?
In talking to the volunteers of the Golden Gardens NBP in Ballard, two themes emerge to explain the long term dedication: bird identification skill building and community. Koji, 47, sums it up: “I have casually birded the area for 20 years so I thought it would be interesting to formally count in the area as well as get help seeing more species and identifying them. (And) I’ve met some really great people!”
The modest commitment of three hours a month brings new friends and learning together in one activity. “I look forward to seeing the lovely people in the group and seeing what we can find in our little corner of the world each month,” says Jane, 70.
For Emily, 30, a Golden Gardens volunteer who was brand-new to birding, the bird count found her: a birder friend and SAS board member invited her to join, and she’s subsequently strengthened her knowledge. “I now integrate looking for birds in daily patterns. I can incorporate from bird skills while on a run or even just in transit,” she says.
Citizen science leads to greater curiosity about the natural world
Be careful, though, citizen science might be the springboard to increased involvement in Seattle Audubon’s programs. Roland Kilcher, 47, (who is also co-leader of the Golden Gardens count with Mike Freund, 41), is not unusual among the volunteer counters for the additional activities he’s taken on. “I've taken numerous classes, including the Master Birder class. I'm volunteering to help out with the current master birder class, I'm part of the bird count at Carkeek park (and periodically help out at other parks), I've done the Puget Sound Seabird Survey in the past, and I'm volunteering for the CBC this year,” he says. And the afore-quoted Jane also shares the passion for bird counts, participating in the PSSS, and this year helping Ross as coordinator for the 2016 Christmas Bird Count on December 31st.
Citizen science leads to lasting conservation impacts
These bird counts influence science and conservation, both locally and nationally. “The Seattle Christmas Bird Count data contributed to analyses that formed Audubon’s Climate Change Report amongst others,” says Ross. On the local level, the park counts act as a sort of watchdog to Seattle Parks management. “One of the major outcomes from the NBP work was the identification of the decline in Savannah Sparrows in Discovery Park. This decline could be the result of mowing practices in the park that detrimentally affect this ground-nesting species. The data from the NBP were incorporated into analyses which can be seen in this SAS report,” says Ross.
“Data from the PSSS have yet to be incorporated into comprehensive analyses, however a scientific paper was written indicating a positive trend in the occurrence of seabird species across the Puget Sound,” he adds.
The birds themselves are the icing on the cake for these volunteers, and the time dedicated to the field work is total pleasure. “It gives me a sense of responsibility to nature and my community,” says Golden Gardens NBP co-leader Mike Freund. “I would like to continue the bird count for as long as I can. It is an easy way for me to contribute to SAS programs while getting out and doing what I enjoy; birding.”
How to get involved
Field sign-up for the 2016 Christmas Bird Count is now closed, but please consider signing up for the Feeder Watch which is part of this effort. If you would like to join a NBP count near you, please visit our information page to learn more. We look forward to seeing you there!
Bryony Angell is a member of Seattle Audubon's board of directors and a long-time citizen science volunteer.