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Birding in place: This year’s Mass Audubon count has a homey feel

  • The Tennessee warbler, which breeds primarily in Canada and northern New York state and New England, and winters in Central America, is a species that can be hard to spot in Massachusetts outside of this time of year. Contributed photo/Derek Allard

  • Bird watcher Derek Allard walks in the Brickyard Brook Conservation Area in Easthampton, Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bird watcher Derek Allard walks in the woods of the Brickyard Brook Conservation Area not far from his home in Easthampton on Thursday, May 7, 2020. Allard will be spotting for the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary team during the Bird-at-home-a-thon fundraiser for Mass Audubon on May 15-16. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bird watcher Derek Allard walks in the woods of the Brickyard Brook Conservation Area not far from his home in Easthampton on May 7. Allard will be spotting for the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary team during the Bird-at-home-a-thon fundraiser for Mass Audubon on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Derek Allard walks in the woods last week in the Brickyard Brook Conservation Area, not far from his home in Easthampton. Allard will be spotting for the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary team during the Bird-at-home-a-thon fundraiser for Mass Audubon on Friday and Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Tennessee warbler, which breeds primarily in Canada and northern New York state and New England, and winters in Central America, is a species of bird that can be hard to spot in Massachusetts outside this time of year. Derek Allard photo

  • The Arcadia Wildlife Refuge in Easthampton, which attracts birds with its varied habitat, is off limits for Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon this year. Birders will instead be counting species from their yards or nearby green spaces. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2020 8:31:14 AM

Since 1983, Mass Audubon has marked mid-May with a special event: the Bird-a-thon, a 24-hour effort to identify the dozens of bird species that can be found in the state this time of year.

It’s the venerable environmental organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year, a friendly competition that draws upward of 750 bird enthusiasts, divided into teams that represent different Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries and programs.

This year, though, the COVID-19 outbreak, as it has for everything else, has rewritten the rules for the event. The 2020 count, which started Friday and continues today, is called the Bird-at-home-a-thon — and participants will be looking to spot birds from their backyards, their windows, or a green place a short distance from their homes.

That means someplace within walking or biking distance; the use of cars will not be allowed this year.

“These are extraordinary times, so we have to do things a little differently,” said Jonah Keane, director of the Arcadia Wildlife Refuge in Easthampton, which sponsors a team each year in the bird-counting effort.

Mass Audubon properties, including Arcadia, have typically been used as locations for bird counting, but all are now closed due to the pandemic. Yet one of the organization’s long-term goals is to find ways to fight climate change, says Keane, and he says the viral outbreak gives the organization a good way to put that principle in practice.

“Instead of driving 30 or 40 miles to some place to [do birding], you can do it right at home,” he said. He points to the famous quote by Henry David Thoreau — “In wildness is the preservation of the world” — as an inspiration for this new approach to birding.

“You can find nature or some aspect of it just about anywhere, and that’s one of the ideas we try to represent” at Mass Audubon and Arcadia, Keane said. “And above all, we want to keep people safe this year and have them observe social distancing.”

Keane notes that May is the height of the migration season for many birds, giving people an opportunity to spot avians that often aren’t seen in the state, such as various species of warblers.

Many birders taking part in the event get people to sponsor them, and last year Mass Audubon raised $240,000 while identifying 273 species of birds, birds both native to Massachusetts and the Northeast and others that pass through this time of year. The Arcadia team is aiming to raise $15,000 this year, Keane says.

Others people participate in the count but do it without trying to raise money; teams receive various awards for identifying the most species.

There have typically been 40 to 50 people on the Arcadia team, Keane says, though there may well be more this year, as families and children have been invited to take part in the event through activities such as drawing birds, or taking a picture of one and submitting it to Mass Audubon.

Birders often work in pairs, so one person can verify another’s discovery. That’s still a possibility this year for family members, but serious birders like Derek Allard of Easthampton, who’s part of the Arcadia team, will more likely be going solo this time.

Allard, a website designer who’s been birding seriously for the last six to seven years and took up photography to document his work, jokes that he’s tried to enlist his wife in the hobby, so far to no avail.

“She likes birds but not that much,” he said with a laugh. “She’s more normal.”

Allard intends to do some birding from his home on Maple Street but also figures he’ll spend time in Easthampton’s Brickyard Brook Conservation Area and/or Nonotuck Park, both pretty close to his home (he’s previously done his spotting in Arcadia, which draws a variety of birds because of its varied habitat).

Allard says he’ll likely check for owls toward dusk and for other species during the day.

He and Keane also see Bird-a-thon this year as a good opportunity to enlist some new folks in birding, which tends to attract older participants.

“It’s another way of spending time in nature, which I think has become even more important today,” Keane says. “And when we can get a good count of how many bird species are in the state or passing through, it helps us make a better case for conservation.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. For more information on Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon, visit massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/birds-birding/bird-a-thon.




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