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Bird Watching Made Easy

December 2, 2011 | by Diane Tipton

For those who enjoy the outdoors and like feeling part of something bigger than themselves—bird watching may be just the activity.

The Montana Bird Conservation Partnership, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Audubon think so. They all offer web pages that make it easy for people of all backgrounds and levels of experience to get involved in bird watching and bird conservation.

Birders have an amazing information network that supports their activities and links them to each other and to state and national databases that record the public's bird sightings.

Birders also have a number of special events to look forward to soon. One, the annual Christmas Bird Count, will occur Dec. 14-Jan. 5. There is a $5 fee to participate and kids are free. Audubon reports that tens of thousands of birders throughout the Americas take part in the Christmas Bird Count—now in its 112th year. It has become a family tradition in many cases. Families and students, birders and scientists, armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists go out to spot and then report on the bird species they observe.

The Montana Audubon website provides details on how to participate in the Christmas Bird Counts in Montana, including directions to the more than 30 individual events that occur. Experts use the data reported by birders in the Christmas Bird Count to identify how different bird species are faring from year to year and place to place. Participants go alone, or as part of a group, to national parks, nature centers, urban parks, nature trails and other places where they are likely to see a variety of birds.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, February 17-20, 2012, is another important annual birding event. It is hosted by Audubon, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a Canadian partner, Bird Studies Canada. Last year, participants turned in more than 92,000 checklists of birds online, creating the continent's largest one-time snapshot of bird populations ever recorded.

The goal of the Great Backyard Bird Count is to get as many participants as possible engaged in this free event to watch and count birds for at least 15 minutes on any day of the count. Participants fill out an online checklist at the Great Backyard Bird Count website to report their observations and then watch as the tallies grow from across the continent. This four-day bird count typically records more than 10 million observations.

According to the website, hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds participate in bird-watching projects. These "citizen scientists" are considered an essential element of bird conservation today.

For more on becoming a citizen scientist, visit the new Montana Bird Conservation Partnership's Citizen Science Monitoring website page. Opportunities include links to the Breeding Bird Survey and eBird, a real-time, online way for birders to submit a checklist of birds they have observed. The eBird site has morphed into a phenomenal resource for birders and bird conservation in part thanks to the magic of Internet communication.

The Breeding Bird Survey occurs annually during the avian breeding season, which is June for most of the U.S. and Canada. Participants skilled in bird identification record their sightings along preset survey routes. This cooperative effort between the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Environment Canada's Canadian Wildlife Service produces critical information that professionals use to estimate population trends and identify emerging conservation and other issues.

Whether you like to work alone or with others, focus on the details or enjoy the big picture, birding may be a pastime it is time to investigate. Even if you don't get out into the field or record your observations via one of the many electronic options—you are guaranteed a fascinating learning experience touring these and other websites dedicated to bird watching and bird conservation.