The Mast-Head: A Different Bird Count

   Looking ahead to Presidents Day weekend, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is getting ready to tally North American birds in what it calls the Great Backyard Bird Count. Unlike the almost invitation-only Christmas counts for experienced birders, this one draws on the willingness of even the most casual observers, so it appeals to me with my middling identification skills.
    Last year, I took a crack at it, submitting a checklist along with more than 92,000 others from all over New York State. Observers counted 11.4 million birds of 594 species. I was responsible for logging 224 birds of 8 species, mostly gulls, although a fair portion were goldeneye, black duck, and mergansers, which I saw in Napeague Harbor.
    My home hamlet of Amagansett should be better represented by birders I concluded after seeing in a list on birdsource.org that the 83 herring gulls I counted that day were just about the only ones for which numbers were submitted by only three people. Submitters from the East Hampton ZIP code coincidentally produced a mere 83 herring gulls in five reports.
    There was a lone checklist filed from Montauk in 2011 from a single observer who counted 59 birds, with 14 red-winged blackbirds the high-species winner. A single observer put in a list in 2010 as well. It’s wide open territory for the ornithologically oriented to make a mark.
    The process of taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count is simple enough. Participants are asked this year to tally birds for at least 15 minutes on at least one day from Friday, Feb. 17, to Presidents Day, Feb. 20. You can count in as many places as you like, so, for example, I might peer through my binoculars at Lazy Point for a while, then head to Montauk to look at sea ducks at the Point.
    Regional checklists can be foundon the birdsource Web site, which is where results are entered daily. One of the features that I appreciated in the online form was that I could rate my birding skill as fair, good, or excellent. Presumably, this allows the lab to mash the results using a sophisticated mathematical formula to account for the fact that from a distance, for example, I find it hard to tell a hen mallard from a black duck — and forget about me and sparrows.
    This year, I hope to get at least one of my daughters interested in helping out. Provided it is not too cold or windy and that I can set up in my truck where the viewing is good, I may get some help from youthful eyes. Maybe we will beat last year’s gull count.