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The Great Backyard Bird Count

New London — While many people sat in church pews or stayed in bed, 10 birders traipsed through the Connecticut College Arboretum on Sunday morning in an effort to identify as many birds as they could.

The birders were participating in the 23rd annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a worldwide citizen scientist event that lasts from Feb. 14 to 17 in which volunteers spot birds and then enter the species they've seen at The National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology co-sponsor the event.

"All of the data that people are recording this weekend goes through Cornell," the arboretum's assistant director Maggie Redfern said. "The idea is to mark winter bird populations and to look at it over these four days. You could be looking at the birds on your backyard feeder, or you could walk through areas such as the arboretum to count the birds you see or hear."

Conn also conducts a good bit of bird research of its own, such as its study of birds at the Arboretum over the past 80 years.

During this year's backyard count, more than 90 species were identified in New London County.

Redfern, along with two Connecticut Audubon Society members, Karen Gallo and John Kennedy, led the bird enthusiasts through the arboretum. It was a plodding journey in rather pleasant, 40-degree weather punctuated by stops with attractive views of ponds, bogs, meadows and forest.

Everyone on the trip carried binoculars, and most of the time all eyes were intent on the sky, scanning it for any avian activity. The collaborative effort meant multiple people confirmed sightings of each species before entering them on the checklist.

Birding is a quiet activity with its own sort of etiquette. Two people or more could be carrying on a conversation, but if one notices a bird, or even if someone outside the conversation notices a bird, the exchange abruptly stops, and the people brandish their binoculars and speculate as to the species. The lucky ones who first spot the birds use finger pointing, tree describing and imaginary clock hands to guide the other birders to the bird in question.

When people are not paying attention, bird songs and sightings can go unnoticed because they are so abundant. But when searching for birds, their songs become full-fledged symphonies, and the sight of one becomes the only thing worth seeing. Experienced birders can determine the exact species by distinctive calls or visual characteristics such as tail shape or breast color.

The two youngest birders present on Sunday, Jon Monderer and Naveen Gooneratne, both Conn students, know the arboretum well and assisted Gallo, Kennedy and Redfern with the trip. They spoke to why they originally became interested in birding.

For Gooneratne, it was being given a bird guide book as a gift.

"It started out when I was really young; my mom bought me this bird guide, which I would read a bunch, and that stuck with me," Gooneratne said.

Monderer said it was a combination of his studies and the company he keeps.

"For me, I became interested in birds from one of my classes at Conn," Monderer said. "There's a guy I lived with this past summer who knows the sound of every North American bird species, so I'd play a recording and he'd tell me what it was and help me learn."

Gooneratne and Monderer go to the arboretum as well as nearby Mamacoke Island to bird.

It was a feast-or-famine affair for two hours Sunday morning. Volunteers either heard and saw nothing for minutes, disappointment evident on their faces, or, suddenly, birds darted in and out of branches, around bushes, through trees and then out of sight. During the feast, when birds practically fell out of the sky, the chaos was exhilarating. The group would begin to shout out bird species and direct binoculars to the proper areas.

People start to get paranoid. Everything can be a bird! An odd leaf, a quivering tree branch. That isn't to say the data is invalid; it's to say everybody was paying close attention, and no one wanted to miss a titmouse, let alone a rarity.

Of the approximately 24 species of birds recognized, two were considered rare: the Eastern Phoebe and the Crowned Kinglet, both small birds that caused stirs when spotted.

Juncos, cardinals, Blue Jays, hawks, a White-Throated Sparrow, goldfinches, Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and different kinds of woodpeckers, among others, were seen at the arboretum Sunday.

"You can do it in your backyard, but it's nice to be able to do a special trip like this," Kennedy said. "Today was a good result. We got approximately 24 species, and for this time of year, that's a pretty solid count."

Kennedy, a retired attorney (or, in his words, a "recovering lawyer") lives in Old Saybrook.

"Coastal Connecticut is a fantastic spot for birds," Kennedy said. "I've taken the Connecticut RiverQuest cruise and saw 24 bald eagles in one two-hour ride, up and back from Essex."

While on the way out of the arboretum a little past 11 a.m., the group took a detour to make a final stop at the top of the hill across from Conn's campus along Williams Street. Everyone was glad they did. A striking Red-tailed Hawk flew overhead before landing on a thick branch of a tall tree, presenting itself in a direct line of sight for the observers.

There was some debate regarding the kind of hawk until the bird turned around, displaying a stark red tail. Volunteers remarked on the hawk's willingness to show off.

"You must pay these birds well," Kennedy said to Redfern.


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