CADILLAC — Bird-watching can be surprisingly competitive in the technological age.
Roger Hagerman, of Marion, for example, knows how he ranks statewide on eBird.org, a website where birders track the number of species they’ve seen every year.
Hagerman is one of the birders the Cadillac News spoke to in honor of the upcoming Christmas Bird Count who said that, anecdotally, he thinks bird-watching as a hobby increased during the pandemic.
Hagerman pointed to his slipping statewide eBird rankings as evidence of birding’s increasing popularity this year.
“Let’s put it this way: Last year I was in the 80s in the top 100 of Michigan,” Hagerman said. “And this year I’m at 136 with even more birds than what I had last year.”
Others compete against themselves.
Daryl Barnard, of Dryden, was recently in Wexford County in an attempt to make progress on his goal of seeing 100 species of birds in every Michigan County.
“I think I’m at 89 species in Wexford right now,” Barnard said. “I only have 14 more lower peninsula counties to go and Wexford is one of them, so I’ll be back.”
The Audubon Society has numbers that suggest it’s true that folks have been spending more time birdwatching during the pandemic.
“As people have adjusted to life at home during the pandemic, interest in bird-watching has soared,” said Erin Rowan, a conservation associate at Audubon Great Lakes, via email. “Downloads of the National Audubon Society’s bird identification app in March and April doubled over that period last year, and unique visits to the Audubon website are up by a half-million.”
Chris Schumacher, a retired district biologist for the Forest Service, has organized the Audobon Society’s Christmas Bird Count in Wexford County since the mid-1990s.
He is also an eBird.org user and has seen the most species, 217 as of Thursday, in Wexford County compared to other eBird.org users. The website is a program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where birders log the birds they see.
It’s a tool that helps experts verify sightings of rare bird species and helps birders learn of hotspots where they might find unsusual birds or rack up their numbers.
Either the Audobon Society bird identification app or the eBird website are good tools to use if you’re thinking of giving birdwatching a try.
Though you can certainly spend a lot of money on fancy binoculars and long-range camera lenses, you can also get started birdwatching inexpensively.
“A lot of us got started before we even had optics or anything,” said Caleb Putnam, a Grand Rapids-based eBird.org volunteer who reviews reports of rare birds. “Especially in the internet era, you can get started before you even have a book or anything. It can be in your backyard, it can be at the local city park.”
Though some birders chase their stats, they’re also said to be friendly. Hagerman says he’s made friends across the state through birding.
“Here’s something that nobody really talks about,” Hagerman said. Unlike with deer hunting, where you need to be quiet, with birdwatching, “You don’t have to worry about that. If you spoke the bird off, chances are it will come back to you. You don’t have to be camouflaged.”
Hagerman said birdwatching hotspots include Lake Cadillac and the canal to Lake Mitchell; the Marion millpond and the Osceola-Missaukee Grasslands State Game Area are also good; Hagerman said he’s expecting that snowy owls and short-eared owls may make an appearance shortly.
THE BIRD COUNT
This year’s Christmas Bird Count will be the Audobon Society’s 121st. It will be different this year in observation of public health protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Typically a more social event, there’ll be no group lunch this year.
The Christmas Bird Count does not necessarily happen on Christmas Day. Instead, local organizers pick a day within a specified time frame for local birdwatchers to count the number of bird and the number of species they see.
Schumacher has selected Saturday, Dec. 19 for the Wexford County Christmas Bird Count. Though birding newbies are invited in non-COVID times, Schumacher said he’s mainly reached out to people who have participated in the past because they already understand how the count works and are familiar with routes that have been used previously.
The counting area is a 15-mile circle centered west of Cadillac. While some birders will drive or hike routes to count birds, others will stay home and count the birds and species that come to their feeders.
During an average Christmas Bird Count in Wexford County, participants will see a total of about 40 bird species and a couple thousand birds, Schumacher said.
Last year, the numbers were lower; 35 species and a little over 1,600 birds.
The weather plays a big part in how any species are typically spotted.
“Usually if the lakes are open, we have a species total that’s a lot higher because you get a lot more ducks,” Schumacher said.
The Audobon Society says Christmas Bird Count data has been instrumental in predicting “how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble,” Rowan, the conservation associate, said. “Our models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.”
You can email Schumacher at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on how to participate from home.