Are Different Animals Showing Up? Or Are We Just Getting Better at Spotting Them?

When you hear a report of a unexpected animal or bird showing up someplace, is it because they really moving into new places? Or did we just become better spotters? Or maybe it was the biological authorities who became less dismissive of citizen scientists? That was the gist of what ornithologist Shibail Mitra mulled over at a lecture at the Linnean Society of New York last night.

Mitra, who a biology professor at the College of Staten Island, came down for the citizen scientists, showing through several bird species examples how official guides willfully overlooked several species–counting them as an unremarkable subspecies, invasive escaped pets or just rare lost souls. Then when a committee somewhere declared it was a legitimate species, people started reporting more of them.

Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis

Courtesy of Ucumari

This bird breeds in Greenland, so its appearances early in the 20th Century were written off as escaped pets. Serious birders would put parentheses around them on their lists because they didn’t really count. Now they’re showing up more than once a year and records counters are accepting them.

Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii

The Cackling Goose was dismissed as a a subspecies of the Canada Goose. So nobody counted it and it was “grossly overlooked,” Mitra says. Then in 2004 the American Ornithology Union decided that this much smaller bird that breeds in the arctic and winters in the west from Oregon to Mexico really is a separate species. That manmade distinction always makes the

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Got 15 Minutes? Become a Citizen Scientist This Weekend

For four days starting Friday, anybody can be a birder and a citizen scientist. The Great Backyard Bird Count, now in its 13th year, is the first bird census of its size to have its tally be all online.

Unlike more hardcore events like the Christmast Bird Count, which requires all-day spotting, the GBBC is for all levels and you only have to commit to 15 minutes. You can bop around anywhere you want in the four days –February 12-25–and then submit your report online.

“It’s a neat way of getting school and scout groups,” involved, says Audubon’s Geoff LeBaron, , [all] kids a way of get them going

Worried you won’t know your birds well enough? They have some pointers on how to tell apart tricky pairs. To me, they look like those games where you try to tell one seemingly identical picture from another.

If you’re competitive, check out their photo contest, which has several categories. I thought the “People Enjoying Birds” would be a lame one, but I was wrong. Check out last year’s winner, Harry Mueller of Manitoba took an amazing shot of a woman pouring thistle into a feeder while four eager sparrows perched on her hat and mitten. Just shows how much fun you can have with even ordinary backyard birds.

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Citizen Bird Counts Going Global — Just as Warming Shifts Migrations

Americans are between bird counts, but this weekend the Brits worked on their big event, the Big Garden Birdwatch.  The bird counts are now spreading around the world–just in time to help capture how climate change is shifting birds’ ranges and migration patterns.

Once written off as somewhat silly and “wobbly” data, citizen scientist data is are now being taken more seriously says Audubon’s Geoff LeBaron, who runs the Christmas Bird Count, which was started by Audubon a century ago as an alternative to going bird hunting on the holiday.

“We could never afford to pay people to do that,” LeBaron says. Now known by the trendy name crowd-sourcing, this data is free and vast. But wait, that’s not all. The bonus is that it helps promote and prioritize conservation and creates bird advocates.

All of the surveys work differently and target different audiences. In terms of sheer data, the biggest is probably Christmas Bird Count: in the 109th count last year 59,000 birders tallied 66 million birds. But it’s a long, cold day in the field and no place for kids.

That’s where lighter events come in, like the Big Garden Birdwatch or the American Great Backyard Bird Count,  which starts here February 12. They’re kind of a gateway drug that birders hope get students and dilettantes hooked. From the comfort of their homes, half a million Brits count for just an hour. Americans have to stay focused for just 15 minutes. (And if that’s not convenient enough,

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