With the El Niño weather phenomenon warming Pacific waters to temperatures matching the highest ever recorded, participants in the 2016 Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), may be in for a few surprises. The 19th annual GBBC is taking place worldwide February 12 through 15. Information gathered and reported online at birdcount.org will help scientists track changes in bird distribution, some of which may be traced to El Niño storms and unusual weather patterns. “The most recent big El Niño took place during the winter of 1997-98,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the eBird program which collects worldwide bird counts year-round and also provides the backbone for the GBBC. “The GBBC was launched in February 1998 and was pretty small at first. This will be the first time we’ll have tens of thousands of people doing the count during a whopper El Niño.”
“We’ve seen huge storms in western North America plus, until recently, an unusually mild and snow-free winter in much of the Northeast,” notes Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham. “And we’re seeing birds showing up in unusual places, such as a Great Kiskadee in South Dakota, as well as unseasonal records like Orchard Oriole and Chestnut-sided Warbler in the Northeast. We’re curious to see what other odd sightings might be recorded by volunteers during this year’s count.”
Though rarities and out-of-range species are exciting, it’s important to keep track of more common birds, too. Many species around the world are in steep decline and tracking changes in distribution and numbers over time is vital to determine if conservation measures are needed. Everyone can play a role. “Citizen-science projects like the Great Backyard Bird Count are springing up all over the world,” says Jon McCracken, national program manager at Bird Studies Canada. “More and more, scientists are relying on observations from the public to help them gather data at a scale they could never achieve before. The GBBC is a great way to get your feet wet: you can count birds for as little as 15 minutes on one day or watch for many hours each day at multiple locations–you choose your level of involvement.”
Learn more about how to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count at birdcount.org.