For the birds

Birding has acquired a new cachet, and backyard bird watching has become an important scientific tool.

Last weekend, local bird watchers joined enthusiasts across the country in “The Great Backyard Bird Count” -- a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The count is done on a Web site, where people are given tips on identifying and counting the varieties of birds in their own backyards.

The purpose of the count, say ornithologists, is to help scientists identify where the birds are during the winter. Since bird populations are dynamic, sightings and record-keeping are important to scientists trying to figure out patterns and how this winter’s snow and cold temperatures will influence bird populations.

According to a recent Audubon survey, both birding and backyard bird watching are two of the most popular hobbies in the nation. Dash Point resident and bird watcher Adele Freeland believes the statistic is easily verifiable with a trip to the garden section at Fred Meyer or the Wild Birds Unlimited Web site.

“It’s obvious it’s a popular hobby, and it makes sense, because it brings the birds into close view,” Freeland said.

Freeland said she became interested in birding 15 years ago, at a bird identification class in Federal Way. “Through the class my husband and I were introduced to some of the parks here in town,” she said. “Then I joined the local chapter of the Audubon Society.”

That chapter, though smaller than its Seattle counterpart, has been active in getting a number of South King County residents interested in bird watching. “We recently took a group of 17 people birding at Hylebos Park, and last weekend we took another group of 18 for a walk in the Kent-Auburn valley. There’s a lot of interest in bird watching these days.”

In her own backyard count, Freeland noticed some trends with the local birds.

In the wintertime there’s more of a mix of species, as the birds flock together to forage for food, she said. In spring and summer they separate, breaking off in nesting pairs.

“But right now it’s a mixed circus of birds,” she said.

Typical bird species for the area include the Red-breasted Nuthatch, the Varied Thrush, the Northern Flicker, the Black-capped Chickadee and the Red-tailed Hawk.

There’s no way to tell if the same bird is returning to your yard, she said. “I had a University of Washington professor here doing ornithological research. He caught some hummingbirds and banded them. That’s the only sure way to tell if it’s the same one.”

But her counts have been consistent, she said. That’s telling in itself, and it’s that kind of information researchers want.

“The website for the count is a wonderful educational tool,” Freeland said. “But the whole experience, either in the woods or watching out the kitchen window, is just great fun.”

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