We Asked Readers to Spend the Summer Watching Birds. Here’s What Happened.

by The Technical Blogs


One Saturday morning in June, Amy Simmons spotted some sparrows flitting around a coastal marsh in Maine. She and her two companions, all dedicated bird-watchers, quickly identified one of the foraging birds as a Nelson’s sparrow, a small, round bird with a yellow stripe over its eye. Then, overhead, they spotted something slightly different. The stripe over this sparrow’s eye had a more saturated, orange tint, and its breast was speckled with black and white.

It was a saltmarsh sparrow, a species threatened by sea level rise. Without significant conservation action, climate change could render the species extinct by the middle of this century, some scientists predict.

“It’s a beautiful bird,” said Ms. Simmons, who works in fund-raising at the National Audubon Society. “It’s exciting to see it. But then it kind of breaks your heart at the same time. Because it is so threatened right now.”

Ms. Simmons snapped some photos and logged the observation in eBird, a website and app that allows scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to collect observations from bird-watchers worldwide. The data has already helped scientists keep tabs on bird populations, many of which are in steep decline, and track how their behaviors and lives are shifting with a changing climate.

But the data has gaps; eBird generally receives fewer submissions in the summer than it does during the spring and fall migratory seasons, and much of the data comes from popular bird-watching locations, like parks and nature preserves. So this summer, The New York Times collaborated with the lab on a citizen science project, inviting readers to make birding part of their daily routines and to share their observations with researchers. Participants were encouraged to continue birding throughout the slow season and to venture beyond their favorite bird-watching haunts.

A video summarizing the project will be shown during The New York Times Climate Forward event on Thursday, where leaders in business, science and public policy will be discussing climate change and efforts to deal with it.

“People took that call to action to heart,” said Jenna Curtis, who is a project leader for eBird at the Cornell lab.

Roughly 25,000 people, including Ms. Simmons, signed up to participate; 46 percent said that they were new to birding. Though it’s unclear how many of them actually followed through, more than 2,000 people submitted eBird checklists using the designated #NYT hashtag; together, these eBird users submitted more than 95,000 checklists between mid-May and the end of August. Readers also submitted their drawings of birds and reported joining others for bird-watching outings.

Data provided by Cornell — and interviews with participants — also suggests that the project prompted existing eBird users to remain more engaged through the slow summer season and to submit data from a greater assortment of locations.

Karla Simpson, a relatively new birder in Indiana, said the project expanded her understanding of where she might find interesting birds. When she attended her niece’s wedding in Michigan, she logged 20 species — including wood ducks, northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers — at a pond behind her hotel, a Fairfield Inn & Suites in a busy business district. “As long as there was habitat, there were birds,” she said.

Ms. Simmons was not alone in logging a sighting of the saltmarsh sparrow; more than 100 people who used the #NYT hashtag reported seeing one, providing more data that experts might be able to use to better target conservation efforts, Dr. Curtis said. “It’s super valuable information,” she said. “They’re seeing a bird that’s on the brink, that their children or grandchildren might not see if we don’t do something.”

Many participants also reported seeing birds outside their typical ranges — a red-bellied woodpecker outside Montreal, a Carolina wren in Vermont — a sign that species are being pushed north by a warming climate. In Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Emily Clark spotted an anhinga, a long-necked water bird often found in Florida. “It’s cool to see an anhinga in New York,” Ms. Clark said. “But it’s not necessarily a good thing, especially if they’re being forced up here.”

Climate change, and the extreme weather that comes with it, can also make life hard for birders; participants in this summer’s project had to deal with extreme heat and unusual plumes of wildfire smoke.

Even with the not-always-favorable weather conditions, Ms. Clark said that the project motivated her to get back into birding after having a baby this spring, and that she hopes to share her love of birds with her new son. Bird-watching, she said, has brought her closer to her own father, a lifelong birder who gave her the middle name Wren. Ms. Clark passed the name on to her newborn, and when her father came into town to meet the baby, they bonded over the strange tropical bird that had landed in Brooklyn.

“On his first visit down to meet his new grandson,” Ms. Clark said, “he hung out with the baby for a few hours and then he said, ‘Is it all right if we make a quick trip to Prospect Park to see the anhinga?’”


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