We asked readers to spend the summer birdwatching. This is what happened. | ET REALITY


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

It was a marsh sparrow, a species threatened by rising sea levels. Without significant conservation action, climate change could drive the species extinct by the middle of this century, some scientists predict.

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

Ms. Simmons took some photographs and recorded the observation. eBird, a website and app that allows scientists at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to collect observations from birders around the world. The data has already helped scientists monitor bird populations, many of which are in sharp decline, and track how their behaviors and lives are changing with climate change.

But the data has gaps; eBird generally receives fewer submissions in the summer than during the spring and fall migratory seasons, and much of the data comes from popular birding locations, such as parks and nature reserves. That’s why this summer, The New York Times collaborated with the lab on a citizen science project, inviting readers to make birdwatching part of their daily routines and share their observations with researchers. Participants were encouraged to continue birding during the off-season and to venture beyond their favorite birding spots.

A video summarizing the project will be shown during the New York Times’ Climate Forward event on Thursday, where business, scientific and public policy leaders will discuss climate change and efforts to address it.

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

About 25,000 people, including Ms. Simmons, signed up to participate; 46 percent said they were new to bird watching. Although it’s unclear how many of them actually complied, more than 2,000 people submitted eBird checklists using the designated #NYT hashtag; Collectively, 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 on bird-watching outings.

Data provided by Cornell (and interviews with participants) also suggest that the project encouraged existing eBird users to remain more engaged during the slow summer season and to submit data from a greater variety of locations.

Karla Simpson, a birder relatively new to Indiana, said the project expanded her knowledge of where she might find interesting birds. When she attended her niece’s wedding in Michigan, she recorded 20 species. — including wood ducks, northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers — in a pond behind their 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 the only one to record a sighting of the marsh sparrow; More than 100 people using the hashtag #NYT reported seeing one, providing more data that experts could use to better guide conservation efforts, Dr. Curtis said. “It’s very valuable information,” he said. “They’re seeing a bird that’s on the brink, that their children or grandchildren may 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 climate warmer. In Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Emily Clark spotted an anhinga, a long-necked waterfowl often found in Florida. “It’s great to see an anhinga in New York,” Ms. Clark said. “But it’s not necessarily a good thing, especially if they are forced to come here.”

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

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

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

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