Annual bird count generates buzz in search of Snowys

A snowy owl sits on the chimney of a home in Eggertsville, N.Y., on Dec. 4, 2013. (Robert Kirkham/The Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – Every year, birders bundle up and head out into cold, rain, snow and ice during the annual Christmas Bird Count. But this year is different. Birders are hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the largest and most striking birds of prey: the Snowy Owl.

Even people who couldn’t tell a robin from a sparrow are excited by the appearance of the bird made famous in the Harry Potter movies. Snowys have been spotted across our region and as far south as Bermuda, part of something called an “irruption” – a sudden surge in a population.

Janet Millenson, the former president of the Maryland Ornithological Society, spotted a Snowy in Frederick County earlier this month. She’ll be compiling the data for the Sugarloaf Mountain Christmas bird count and hopes to see more Snowy owls on Sunday, when the group goes out. But she’s not counting on it: The forecast calls for rain, heavy at times. Still, she says, you never know what you’ll spot.

Even without the presence of the Snowy owls, Millenson says the bird count is not only fun, but important. Birds are bellwethers: they can alert us to what’s going on in the environment.

“We had West Nile virus within the past decade: The number of crows plunged,” Millenson says. Because birds are susceptible to West Nile virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has used the data on bird populations to help track the disease.

And Millenson says anyone who is bothered by bugs can thank birds for keeping them under control: “Without birds, we’d certainly be overrun by insects!”

Millenson says birding gets people out to enjoy the natural world around them. She brings the natural world a little closer to her home by designing a bird-friendly habitat in her own backyard. A small pond, no bigger than a bathtub, provides year-round water for thirsty birds. And leaving dead trees standing (trimmed back so they don’t pose a threat to power lines or any structures) allows owls and woodpeckers a chance to take shelter.

She’s counted up to 115 species of birds right on her property. “It’s fabulous to see birds at eye level!,” she says. And she hopes for a healthy count on Sunday, when her group goes out.

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