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Birders flocking across Calgary

Wielding a popular mobile app, a group of Calgarians are searching the city under the mantra of ‘gotta’ catch ‘em all.’

But they are not Pokémon trainers – they are birders.

The Calgary 2020 Big Year Birding Challenge, supported by non-profit Nature Calgary, is a friendly competition among those people who search far and wide for birds in their spare time. It has no entry fee or prizes, but it has a winner: whoever can record the most bird species this year or have what is known as a ‘big year.’

Participants must record their observations using eBird, a web and mobile platform developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a leading research group. Therefore the challenge is not only an opportunity for participants to explore Calgary’s natural world, but also for them to contribute to science, said event organizer and former Nature Calgary president Andrew Hart.

“Besides experiencing the thrill, you are contributing directly to a worldwide citizen science enterprise.”

Once submitted to the platform, these records are added to a global database used by researchers, explained Hart.

“It’s applying big data to birding – while many observations may seem insignificant themselves, together they allow for the study of migration routes, the effects of climate change, or whatever.”

But there are other advantages of using the platform, he added.

“All the data comes in a consistent manner, participants can see how other people are doing and what they have seen, so they can go out and see the birds themselves,” he said.

‘Instant bird news

Matt Wallace, Calgary 2020 Bird Year Birding Challenge participant, records a sighting with the eBird app on his smartphone. SEAN FEAGAN / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

While some birders may be embracing the competitive nature of the challenge, those that find new or rare species seem to have no problem sharing their bounty.

A WhatsApp group to share information about bird sightings throughout Calgary was created by Gavin McKinnon, 16, who recorded 307 species throughout Alberta in 2019.

The group allows participants to share “instant bird news,” he explained.

“If people go out and find something rare, they can send a message to the WhatsApp group to all participants, so they can all go out and find that rare bird.”

McKinnon said the best way to see the greatest number of species is to “visit a variety of habitats at the right time of year,” but that getting winning numbers “takes dedication.”

Rather than finding the most species, what’s important is setting a goal, he added.

“You don’t have to go for a huge number,” he said.

“Do whatever you want to do.”

Keep looking, keeping counting

Events like the Calgary 2020 Big Year Birding Challenge could help to get people from broader demographics into nature, said Matt Wallace, participant and organizer of the City Nature Challenge Calgary, another citizen science program held in the city.

“Most people in the 20 to 35-year-old demographic are not actively engaging with nature,” he said.

“My efforts are to just get my friends out – or people with mental health issues, who desperately need nature.”

Wallace records all the birds he sees downtown, even if they are mostly ravens, house sparrows, magpies, and pigeons.

The best approach to finding the greatest number of species is to keep searching, said Wallace.

“Never stop looking,” he said.

“Birding doesn’t turn off.”