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Backyard bird count more than a hobby for couple

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By Sharon Wootton
Herald Columnist
Here's the definition of dedication: On 2,400 days in the past 10 years, Bonnie and Alan Mearns have collected data about their backyard birds.
"(Bonnie) and I are religious about counting birds in our back yard. We do it about 20 days a month, usually a few minutes in the morning and after our walk."
As dedicated as that effort is, it may have competition. Alan Mearns current project is putting the data into a spreadsheet to discover what the seasonal cycles are for each species, annual trends, which species have disappeared from the yard, which have increased in frequency, seasonal cycles and other emerging patterns.
Now he's going to give a class Saturday to introduce bird-watchers to the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place Feb. 15 through 18.
"It's another citizen-based project that results in a huge amount of data for us to understand as a nation as to what birds are doing," the Edmonds resident said.
"With climate change, are they disappearing in certain area or increasing in other areas? It's information to help biologists and other scientists to understand how things are," Mearns said.
Last year 104,285 checklists were submitted, 623 species were seen and 17,382,831 birds were counted.
"On the website (www. you can see the data organized by ZIP code. Folks in Edmonds can type in 98020 and see the number of observers and each bird species' numbers."
The Mearns have identified 75 species in their back yard, and the seasonal appearances. One species disappeared from his back yard in 2005: the house sparrow.
They may have settled at the downtown Starbucks, "where two or three little chirpers come and beg crumbs," Mearns said.
Townsend's warblers, on the other hand, have been increasing in Mearns' backyard numbers.
Alan Mearns' avian interest started when he was teenager who had just learned to drive.
"We were out in the country and we saw a red-tailed hawk hopping along the road, so we stopped. It had a broken wing. To my mother's horror, I brought it home. I built a big cage for it and fed it chicken hearts.
"One day I found the cage open. Mom had let it out. In those times (in suburban Orange County, Calif.), people thought birds and wildlife were dirty. But it launched my career."
He's now a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
While many birders thrive on their life lists, traveling far and wide to find birds to add, Mearns takes another approach.
"My life list is my backyard list," he said. "It's why I'm training people and getting them involved. We need people to observe over many years."
There is one faraway bird that Mearns would like to see.
"Penguins, and where they live."
Until then, collecting backyard date is fine with him.

Counting birds
Alan Means' class to prepare for the Great Backyard Bird Count is from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at Willow Creek Hatchery, 95 Pine St., Edmonds. Bring a pair of binoculars for a short outing.
Field trip: Take a walk to take part in the bird count with the Pilchuck Audubon Society of Snohomish County to the Montlake Fill and UW Center for Urban Horticulture's Botanic Garden. Meet at 8 a.m. Feb. 17 at the Everett Mall by the transit center and L.A. Fitness.
Bring binoculars, water, a snack, good hiking boots, foul weather gear and gas money for if you wish to carpool. A late lunch stop is planned. Call trip leader Jonathan Blubaugh, 425-244-7633, to sign up.
GBBC information: Register online to participate in the count from Feb. 15 to 18:
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or
Story tags » Bird-watching

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