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Howard County naturalist sees global bird count as a chance for citizen scientists to stretch their wings

The Baltimore Sun

The Great Backyard Bird Count is just around the corner, and Woody Merkle is hoping to motivate nature lovers to take part in this global citizen-science project.

The mammoth effort to create a detailed snapshot of the world’s bird population will take place for four days starting Feb. 16, and anyone can participate said Merkle, a volunteer naturalist who will lead a free introductory program Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock.

“This isn’t a precise, scientific study, but it does give scientists insight,” he said of the annual effort that regularly attracts 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is marking its 20th anniversary this year. In 2017, participants in more than 100 countries tallied some 6,200 species of birds, according to the website for the count, co-sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

To get ready for the count, Merkle is conducting “Frog Calls for Beginners and Counting Birds How-To,” a program Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at the conservancy’s Mount Pleasant headquarters off Old Frederick Road. Preregistration is required.

On top of learning the basics of monitoring birds and recording observations — which, in turn, will help the experts at to track bird populations by density and distribution — participants will also get a bonus lesson in identifying local frog species by their distinctive calls.

Merkle, a lifelong county resident and retired personnel manager, grew up in Woodstock at a time when the great outdoors was everyone’s playground.

“This was farm country; you didn’t spend your time indoors,” he said Merkle of growing up in the 1950s and ’60s.

His father often took the family to the Patapsco River a mile away from their home to fish, skip rocks and just soak up nature, he recalled.

Merkle’s seventh-grade math teacher at then-Ellicott City Junior High School was Frances Brown who, with her sister and fellow teacher Ruth Brown, left behind a will in 1993 requesting their 300-year-old family farm on 232 acres be preserved and used for educational purposes.

“I think the Brown sisters would be very happy with the way things turned out,” Merkle said.

While the conservancy manages the entire property under a conservation easement, it only owns the 84 acres that encompass the farmhouse and historic farmstead buildings, said Meg Boyd, the conservancy’s executive director.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources owns 103 acres and the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks owns 45 acres, she said.

On top of his sentimental connection to the site, Merkle lives with his wife across the street from the conservancy on property next to the house where he grew up, so it was only natural for him to begin volunteering at the facility, he said.

“There’s so much out there to explore,” Merkle said of the rolling farmland that is crossed by two small branches of the Patapsco River.

“But you don’t have to be a master naturalist” to make a meaningful contribution to the conservancy’s mission, he said. “Just be willing to learn and see where your curiosity takes you.”

While even the most casual bird watcher can identify a male cardinal by its bright red feathers, for example, Merkle has come to prefer the muted coloring of the female, which is pale brown overall with reddish tinges on the wings, tail and crest.

He said some of the most commonly seen birds across Howard County — aside from cardinals, warblers and sparrows — are junco, goldfinch, red-bellied woodpecker, blue jay, bluebird, titmouse and chickadee.

Ravens have become more common in the area over the past decade — there may be a nesting pair on the conservancy’s property, Merkle noted.

One way to tell a raven from a crow is by their calls: crows caw while ravens make a nasal sound, he said.

Ravens also soar more when they fly, he said, while a crow “rows” its wings during flight, almost like oars.

For the Great Backyard Bird Count, participants can devote as few as 15 minutes and can take part without prior training, Merkle said, by following prompts on the project’s website, gbbc.birdcount.org. They can count what’s literally in their backyard or go elsewhere.

On Saturday, Merkle will devote the first 30 minutes of his program to discussing the calls of the eight most common frogs in the county, most of which are unmistakable once you learn them, he said. He will also play recordings of frog calls, which residents will soon begin to hear outdoors.

“The top most recognizable call is that of the thousands of spring peepers since they are so loud,” he said. “They are looking for love and singing their hearts out.”

Wood frogs sound like ducks, green frogs sound like broken banjo strings, and an American toad has a long, high shrill that is almost insect-like, he said.

Merkle is one of those rare volunteers who “does everything,” Boyd said.

“I can’t think of one thing he hasn’t had a hand in,” she said of his decade of volunteering. “He organizes field trips and nature hikes, helps with event setup and trail maintenance, and is a member of our board.

“Woody has blossomed into so much more than a volunteer,” she said. “He’s just a hands-on guy.”

Merkle has also volunteered as a naturalist with the county’s school system and department of recreation and parks, as well as with the state. He is a member of the Howard County Bird Club and has participated in the Frog Watch USA citizen science program.

Volunteering holds a lot of meaning for him as he strives to get more people to become as passionate as he is about the outdoors.

“What we hope to accomplish is to get people connected to nature,” Merkle said. “We want them to stop and smell the roses.”

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“Frog Calls for Beginners and Counting Birds How-To” will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 10 at the Howard County Conservancy at Mount Pleasant, 10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock. The program is free, but pre-registration is required. Call 410-465-8877 or go to hcconservancy.org/events.

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