Time flies for bird watchers at Robert E. Lee Park

February may not seem like the peak time for bird-watching, but this past weekend proved to be the perfect time to learn about species and their surroundings — and to take part in a national effort to track bird populations.

Robert E. Lee Park in Towson was the site of the "Bird Extravaganza," an activity aimed primarily at educating the public about the area's bird population.

The program featured a display of live birds, opportunities for bird-watching hikes and outdoor-themed crafts at the scenic 453-acre park on Lake Roland.

The park, which is the site of several resident nesting eagles, also served as a weekend perch for the Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual program that helps the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society track winter bird populations and migratory patterns.

"We're running bird walks every hour and keeping track of the birds we see," said Shannon Davis of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, which operates the Robert E. Lee facility.

"By doing this, we can watch the fluctuations of the species — which ones we're seeing, and where we're seeing them," she said.

Cornell and the Audubon Society provided a series of instructions for people to take part in the count. For instance, participants were asked to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days, in a public park or in their own backyard; and count the greatest number of birds of each species that were seen together at one time. After collecting the data, participants were asked to enter results through the Greater Backyard Bird Count's website, http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc.

Bird counts are held throughout the year on a national basis. Once information is gathered, scientists interpret the data to find out about the progress of species and how climate change may be altering migration patterns.

"The bird counts are very helpful for scientists, because there are a lot more citizens than scientists that can help with the count," Davis said. "It's a nice 'citizen's science' project. And the bird count helps to broaden the interest in birds and get people to bird-watch. As people start to get interested in birds, they might learn how they can protect them."

"We want humans to interact with their environment," she said. "They may have several species in their own back yards, and we want to let them know what they should and shouldn't do that will help the birds."

Two members of the Baltimore Bird Club were integral to the bird-counting process. Jim Myers and Kevin Graff, bird enthusiasts for decades, took attendees on walks through the park.

"We had a lot of kids come out, including a Cub Scout troop on Saturday," Meyers said. "During the walks, we listen and look for the birds and try to identify them. We're really trying to make the public more aware of the types of birds in this region and their natural habitats."

The most common counted species were chickadees, chick mice, wrens, crows and cardinals. Walkers also spotted a red-headed woodpecker, which organizers said is hard to find during the winter.

"This area is one of the hot spots of bird migration, and we've recorded more birds in this park than anywhere in the county," said Graff. "Over the years, we've spotted over 230 different species of birds in this park. In the last two days, we've counted 40 species here, even though it's wintertime."

At the "extravaganza," enthusiasts could also learn about nature in other ways. At a craft station, attendees could construct their own bird environment using tree branches, acorns and leaves.

Cornell also provided information and tips on identifying four of the area's most common winter birds: the American robin, the black-capped chickadee, the downy woodpecker and the northern cardinal.

Several live birds were also on site, including a European starling, a red-tailed hawk, a cardinal and three different types of owls — the Eastern screech, the bard, and the great horned.

A calm and collected bard owl, held by naturalist Laura Soder, was the star of the show.

"The birds that I brought today can never be released into the wild," said Soder, animal care and exhibit coordinator for the Irvine Nature Center and a naturalist at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center.

"None of them are endangered, but a lot of them have been hit by cars or have flown into windows because they've been in such close contact with people. They associate people with food and safety, so they're not afraid of humans," she said. "They're very majestic and intelligent creatures, and it's pretty neat to work with them."


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