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Birdwatchers help contribute to science through programs like Christmas Bird Count and Project Feederwatch

'You can step in and have this citizen science aspect of it where community members who have an interest, can submit their observations'

For volunteer birdwatchers in Guelph, winter can be a wonderful time of year to help scientists track different bird species.

During December, communities like Guelph participate in the Christmas Bird Count. The annual event happens between Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 in communities across North America with volunteers contributing their observations as part of a citizen science project.

“When you consider birds being such a big, diverse group of animals, and the fact that they fly around, surveying birds, if you left it to one group of scientists, or one research project, it would be very difficult," said Michelle Beltran, a naturalist interim at the University of Guelph Arboretum who participated in Christmas Bird Count.

“When you can step in and have this citizen science aspect of it where community members who have an interest can submit their observations, lessens the burden on any one research project trying to somehow monitor all the birds.”

This year, Nature Guelph organized the 55th annual Christmas Bird Count to take place on Dec. 19. Nature Guelph split the city into 13 count areas inside a 24 km diameter circle, which were patrolled by different groups.

On that day, Beltran said volunteers started before the sun came out to try and hear owls, and stayed in their chosen sections of Guelph until the sun sets.

“We’re checking out different habitats, we’re generally roaming around our little square, really intensely trying to hit all the spots where we think there might be birds, and counting them all," she said.

During the Christmas Bird Count, Beltran said she and her team observed sandhill cranes in Wellington County, which is unusual, as the farthest north these birds will fly to is typically Long Point, Ontario.

“We’re walking across this kind of agriculture road, when there’s this deafening, loud, loud squabbling call. I didn’t recognize it at first, I thought it was just turkeys being noisy, and my boss, Chris points out, ‘It’s sandhill cranes!’” said Beltran, counting 123 sandhill cranes within the group.

"That was a really exciting observation, you don’t know what you’re going to get, the day is what it is.”

Working for the university, Beltran is also part of Project Feederwatch at the arboretum. She said one of the student volunteers for Project Feederwatch also made an exciting observation during one of their volunteer shifts, which happened to coincide with the weekend of the Christmas Bird Count.

“There’s some wiggle room with a few days before Christmas Bird Count and a few days after Christmas Bird Count, where you can also submit records of the birds you see, so it happened that one of our Project Feederwatch volunteers were out watching the feeders during count week and they saw a white-crowned sparrow." said Beltran. “We don’t often see white-crowned sparrows stick around in the winter, it’s not  super unheard of, but it’s definitely not considered a common observation, so that was lovely to tie into Christmas Bird Count.”

Running from mid-November to mid-April, Project Feederwatch is a bird counting program done at the Arboretum centre and The Gosling Wildlife Gardens. Student volunteers are given areas near bird feeders to observe and record the different types of birds that appear on, or near, the bird feeder during their shift. To learn more about the program, click here.

After opening up the program for students, Beltran said they have five new volunteers. This is a larger number of students who have volunteered since she has been involved with the program.

“We have volunteers who come for 30 minutes one day, and 30 minutes the next day,” said Beltran. “I have volunteers who show up with camping chairs, and they’re really there to sit for over an hour and watch these birds, and it’s really awesome to see how excited they are to submit this citizen science work.”

Besides getting to participate in something they enjoy, Beltran explains volunteer birdwatching programs like the Christmas Bird Count and Project FeederWatch can help contribute to science.

“In both of these monitoring programs, the objective is to really keep an eye on how bird population distribution is doing, and whether that’s impacted by anything that could impact a bird, like climate change and urbanization," said Beltran.

She adds both are exciting projects and are easily accessible for those who are interested in becoming volunteers.

“I remember when I started Christmas Bird Count, I was no means a good birder, but I joined a group of people who were so nice and lovely, and taught me a lot about birding," said Beltran. “Both projects are really great if you’re interested in birds, and they have so much benefit to not just science, but also yourself.”