Kathy Van Mullekom
6:28 AM EST, February 11, 2010
Even though he studies biology and lives on campus at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Nick Flanders often visits his mother's home in Newport News where he maintains bird feeders filled with sunflower, mixed and thistle seeds and suet.
This weekend, he will be there, participating in the 13th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which begins Friday and ends Monday. Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada, the event asks novice and experienced volunteers to count birds in their backyards, parks or wildlife refuges. Last year, participants turned in 93,600 checklists online, creating the continent's largest, instantaneous snapshot of bird populations ever recorded, according to organizers.
Anyone can join in the Great Backyard Bird Count, and count birds for as little as 15 minutes or as long as you want. Sightings are reported online at www.birdcount.org.
"It's important to count the birds we see and make this data available to scientists," says Flanders. He does year-round bird counts through www.ebird.org.
"Keeping lists is fun for most birders and it's exciting to find a new species to add to your yard, county, state, year or life list. Birding is a great excuse to simply get out and enjoy the outdoors while you observe wonderful seasonal changes."
When Flanders, 21, is outdoors watching birds, he always carries one book — the "Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America."
"It's small, compact and contains several illustrations and useful text for each species," he says.
A member of the Hampton Roads Bird Club and Cape Henry Audubon Society, Flanders makes sure his mother's yard is landscaped with as many native plant species as possible because they provide natural food sources and cover for birds of all kinds. He also finds leaf litter, a natural compost, attracts ground-feeders like brown thrashers, eastern towhees and sparrows.
"One of the keys to attracting birds to the yard is protective cover," he says. "Native plantings are preferable, but most thick, evergreen shrubs placed near feeders increase visitation levels. And don't forget water because birds need water features year-round. I think too many backyard birders concentrate solely on birds visiting their feeders. Planting native sources of food attract more migrants to your yard as they stop over in our area."
Common birds that visit feeders at his mother's house include the house finch, goldfinch, white-throated sparrow, cardinal, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, downy woodpecker, mourning dove, white-breasted nuthatch and Carolina wren.
If you want to learn to recognize local species, Flanders suggests you pay as much as attention to their sounds as you do their colors and shapes.
"Listening to their sounds helps you detect birds farther afield," he says.
You may also enjoy some rare sightings, the kind that avid birders covet.
During migration season, Flanders has seen "goodies" like the scarlet tanager and Cape May warbler.
"During the recent snow storm, a fox sparrow enjoyed seed around the house," he says.
To learn more about songbirds in Virginia, Flanders suggests visiting the Virginia Society of Ornithology at www.virginiabirds.net, Hampton Roads Bird Club at www.hamptonroadsbirdclub.org, Williamsburg Bird Club at www.williamsburgbirdclub.org and the Eastern Shore's Cape Henry Audubon Society at www.chasnorfolk.org.
Upcoming local opportunities to learn more about songbirds include:
•Meet Keri, an American kestrel (small falcon), during a meeting of the Hampton Roads Bird Club at 7 p.m. today at Sandy Bottom Nature Park, 1255 Big Bethel Road, Hampton. Guests are welcome.
•Hear Mary Elfner, coordinator of the National Audubon Society's Virginia Important Bird Area program at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at Millington Hall, Room 150, at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg. She speaks during a meeting of the Williamsburg Bird Club. The birding program is an international effort to identify, conserve and monitor a network of sites that provide habitat for bird populations. Free, open to the public.
•Take a bird walk with members of the Williamsburg Bird Club at 8 a.m. Saturday at New Quarter Park, adjacent to the Queen's Lake neighborhood, in upper York County. For details, call 890-5840.
•Take a bird walk with members of the Hampton Roads Bird Club at 7 a.m. Feb. 21 at Newport News Park. Meet at the ranger station. For details, contact Jane Frigo at 873-0721.