The recent four-day weekend offered bird-watchers across the country and around the world the opportunity to check on their avian neighbors.
Now observing its 25th year, the Great Backyard Bird Count encourages people of all ages to become citizen scientists and “watch, learn about, count, and celebrate birds.”
For dozens of local students, the count began with a classroom presentation on why they should learn about birds and their environments. Then it was time to explore the great outdoors on their school campuses.
Former Beaufort County middle school science teacher Lois Lewis was one of three volunteers with Hilton Head Audubon who visited Bluffton and Hilton Head schools to lead students on a bird discovery walk.
During a field trip with eighth-grade science class student at H.E. McCracken Middle School, as the group walked school grounds, Lewis shared her knowledge of local species.
“In the vision statement, we seek to educate and inspire people to be good stewards of our local natural environment,” said Lewis. “Birds are basically an indicator species, and when we help the birds we help the whole environment. They depend on the same ecosystems as we humans do.”
Even if students don’t intend to become birders, she said, they can become supporters.
“One of the stories in the presentation talks about the canary in the coal mine, and shows a miner looking in the canary cage,” Lewis said. “It’s a story all the children can tell others, and spread the word about how important it is to keep the bird populations healthy. When birds start crashing in number and species, we’re in trouble.”
Canaries would be carried down into mines as indicators of the presence of carbon monoxide the miners could not smell. When the canary weakened or stopped singing, it was a warning that the miners should leave immediately.
Outside, students were paired up to share binoculars for the exploration. Coastal Discovery Museum loaned 22 sets of binoculars to supplement several pairs that belonged to the Hilton Head organization. Knowing how to use them was the first outdoor lesson.
“They all know what binoculars are, but most do not how to work them. We talk about identifying the birds and where to look,” said Lewis. “Then when they know what to look for and can spot the red feathers or other markings in their binoculars, they get excited, and many of them are turned on to bird watching for the rest of their lives.”
The walk around the school campus ranged from scanning the sky for birds, examining the winged occupants of the nearby retention pond, and heading to the woods at the other end of the campus. For some students, it was a great way to be outside and not in a classroom. For others it was an opportunity to learn and a chance to add to experiences shared with family members.
“The birds I got to see today, I never really got to see them up close before,” said Alaia Weidner.
“I like it a lot,” said Abisai Reyes. “My dad helps me look for birds.”
At the pond, the young birders caught sight of yellow rump warblers, crows and red-winged blackbirds while both black and turkey vultures wheeled overhead, searching for carrion. A male red-winged blackbird took exception to hearing another blackbird’s call when Lewis played a recording on her phone.
“He’s just going to be irritated, and he’s answering that these are his female birds,” Lewis said.
Lewis demonstrated one of the many bird-watching phone applications available, much to the amusement of her audience.
“This is just to get the kids involved in something that is bigger than they are. They can do field science like this just looking around,” she said.
While a killdeer flitted around the ground behind them, on the edge of the woods, Keisean Buchanan, Sophie Belloso and others focused on other feathered fowls high in the trees.
A particularly busy downy woodpecker kept several birders entertained as he climbed a tree devouring bugs along the way.
“This is my first experience birdwatching. It’s fun,” Buchanan said. “I’d like to find out more about every bird there is.”
The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place in February every year. Numerous bird apps, such as the free Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, can be found in app stores and online.
For more information about local bird-watching opportunities, visit hiltonheadaudubon.org.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.