As I drove down Route 14A the other day, I took in the scenery of the open fields covered in a layer of snow. Passing one large farm house, I noticed a black van in the driveway and some folks setting up a spotting scope. My trained birder’s eye followed where they were directing the scope and there, on top of the roof of the farmhouse, sat a large, white bird. I knew it was no snow bunting, that was a snowy owl!
I continued past the farm house but decided to turn around. The folks with the spotting scope were gracious enough to let me look through it at the beautiful, golden-eyed bird, and even let my kids take a peak when I brought them back later. The owners of the farm house came out and said that at least one owl finds its way down to their property every year. This one entertained us by swooping out over the field and then flapping back up onto the roof of the barn. Once my top bucket-list bird, this snow owl is only the second that I have ever had the joy of witnessing.
Snowy owls may be visitors that have come from the north, but it is not too early for some southern migrants to be making their way north as well. The males of some early spring migrating birds should be arriving any day now. That will set them here just in time for this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science project begun by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon Society. Citizen science is data that is collected by regular, everyday people, just like you and me, allowing professional scientists to have a much larger data pool than they ever could on their own. Information gathered in the Great Backyard Bird Count is used to study bird population dynamics over time. For example, according to audubon.com, 2014 data showed that there was a large movement of snowy owls across the northeaster, Mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes areas of the US, probably due to a harsh winter.
Participation is easy and only requires 15 minutes of observing birds on any or all four of the days of the count. Data is then entered online at gbbc.birdcount.org, or using the eBird app. Both webpages offer additional information on bird identification, as well as links to real-time information as data is being entered from around the world.