Thursday, January 15, 2015

MD: Deep Freeze and Fun on the Bay -Youth Winter Bird Count at Swan Harbor County Park

This has been a very cold week at the Head of the Bay in Havre de Grace, Maryland. But that didn't stop the kids from coming out to Swan Harbor for a winter bird count with the Harford Bird Club, a chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society. The clear skies and brisk arctic winds promised a challenge for the kids but they were eager to go! Volunteer group leaders, some of Harford County's best birders, rallied their bundled and layered charges in the classroom at Swan Harbor and off they went!

The ice hasn't started to pile yet, but note the ice mirage across the Bay as if it was stacking up!

Kenzey's group, led by Dr. Dennis Kirkwood, worked their way around the farm and followed the road to the Bay. The winds were fierce but the birds were out! They quickly gathered up species and numbers. At the approach to the long fishing pier a small open water patch in the ice provided good looks at a pied billed grebe and a American coot foursome. Canada geese, canvasbacks,  hooded mergansers, and a pair of bald eagles were counted out at the end - brrrr! But no one complained as binoculars went up and down, kids lined up at the spotting scope, and the tally was checked off. We even saw an ice mirage!

Dr. Kirkwood helps Kenzey get a life bird!

Seasonal bird counts are great traditions in birding history. There are counts for backyards, Christmas, Sea Watches, fall hawk migration, nesting surveys. But the youth counts are special. This is the next generation of citizen scientists, researchers, conservationists, and wildlife advocates. Most state and local birding societies have youth events and even youth groups. This is outdoor mentoring at its best.

Kenzey bundled and layered!

Here in the Mid-Atlantic winter is a great time to be a birder! It seems all of the feathered arctic shows up at our doorstep blanketing our fields and marshes in geese, swans, and ducks. Atlantic inlets and open water Bay channels fill up with diving ducks, coots, mergansers, loons, and enormous rafts of waterfowl. Snowy and short-eared owls invade the vast intertidal zones along our biggest rivers. Hawks, falcons, and eagles of all shapes, sizes, and ages work the wild beaches, woods, and fields and gather at Conowingo in huge numbers at the open water there to scavenge and hunt fish. The excitement of winter is infectious among birders, especially the kids! One little girl who snuggled up against my granddaughter as they waited to see the bald eagle pair through the scope said "This is the best thing I've done all winter! I LOVE this!"

Checking open water - or leads - for rafting ducks and geese

The most important part of any count is tallying and sharing the data.  All the groups returned to the classroom to warm up with hot chocolate and homemade oatmeal cookies while leaders prepared to take the day's totals. Groups reported in from the wetlands, the ponds, the road, the woods, and the Bay. Kids read from clipboards as grown-ups did the math and entered the count with Cornell's E-Bird data entry software. The global map projected on the wall 'blipped' as submissions poured in from all over the world and the kids were excited to see our own bright green bubble of accomplishment light up for Swan Harbor Farm. Our winter count was complete! Cheers and applause!

Taking the final tally while warming up with hot chocolate!

I often hear people complain about the cold and the winter season. But I have to celebrate the parents who brought their kids out on this day, when some would have questioned their 'parenting skills' by exposing children to such weather. These parents, some having never participated in a birding event, not only brought their kids bundled and layered for a morning in the arctic wind, but went out themselves! It is too easy to say 'oh it's too cold' and park ourselves in front of a computer or TV, believing we've made the safer choice to stay inside. But in the long run, this is teaching kids to take the easy-out with avoidance and apathy (and the complaining that comes with it). 

Winter landscapes inspire us to observe and appreciate the persistence of life.

As they say - and as I know to be true - inactivity, especially in winter, leads to long-term behavior and health issues. We are now witnessing the emergence of a younger generation that will not live as long as their grandparents because of poor eating and lifestyle habits. We need to step up, as parents and grandparents and outdoor mentors to encourage kids to embrace winter as a great time to venture out. Winter is a great teacher that offers greater awards for the effort. I'm so happy that these parents brought their kids out and that the kids are now hooked and looking forward to more birding fun!

Frozen bubbles locked in ice on the edge of the Bay.

Live in the Mid-Atlantic? There's lots to do with your state and local birding groups and some groups have youth groups - like the Dunlins (my granddaughter's group) with the DOS.

Harford Bird Club was the sponsor of today's youth bird count:
Maryland Ornithological Society
Pennsylvania Audubon
Delaware Ornithological Society
New Jersey Audubon

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