Edmonds scientist is a birdwatcher with purpose

EDMONDS — Alan Mearns is an ecological inquirer. He likes to ask questions, find connections and discover how things work in the natural world.

That has led him to a decade of observing and recording birds, right in his Edmonds back yard.

“If you think like a child, you don’t get easily trapped in looking at just numbers,” said Mearns, 67.

“You have to be observant and ask questions. There are a lot of puzzles out there.”

As a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mearns is a member of the federal agency’s emergency response division. He assesses how oil spills, and now the debris from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster, affect the ocean.

Despite his marine science profession, it is birds that have captured Mearns’ eye.

“Fish can’t just be seen,” Mearns said. “Birds you see anywhere. They are an indicator of a healthy environment.”

People don’t have to get out in the field to do the type of recording work Mearns is doing. The habitat is in any back yard or park.

“I hadn’t planned on doing this for 10 years,” he said. “I just wondered what would happen next.”

More than mere hobbyists, birdwatchers like Mearns are “citizen scientists,” said Peter Hodum, a bird specialist and assistant professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

“There are not many ecologists that have 10 years of data on one system. If done well and thoughtfully, this sort of work can fill a gap for scientists,” Hodum said.

• • •

Every day Mearns takes a short walk about his property, often with his wife, Bonnie, armed with 3-by-5-inch note cards and a pen to record the types and numbers of winged creatures they encounter.

One day in late March, Mearns noted a nesting wren, a thrush, song sparrows and bushtits.

Where Mearns leaves the casual birdwatching behind is in his copious records edging into the scientific realm.

He takes his findings and enters them into a spreadsheet, recording the species, the number of birds and the date. He has trending data for each month and tracks seasonal cycles with graphs crafted from the spreadsheet numbers.

“The challenge for professional scientists is in accumulating long-term data,” Hodum said. “Citizen scientists can make a significant contribution to understanding patterns.”

Local data can help target areas birds congregate in. Armed with that insight and in the event of a disaster, scientists know where to send rescue help first, Hodum said.

Mearns is hoping for a peer review of his data one day to vet his theory on effects of climate change and birds.

In the past decade he has recorded 75 species. The numbers are heaviest with juncos and bushtits that winter over in south Snohomish County plus warblers and flycatchers in early spring as they migrate. He has recorded a single sighting of a ruby-crowned kinglet.

Mearns’ 5,000-square-foot yard has plenty of fir, cedar and birch trees. It is one of 300 in the city certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a backyard habitat. He shares it with his wife, his grown daughter and her toddler. His grown son lives with his wife in an adjacent house, expanding the habitat he observes.

• • •

Sadly, one of his lead findings is that the bird population around his home is declining. Some species are not as bountiful as they were in 2005.

“We have never seen a year with the abundance of birds as we saw in ‘05. Maybe we just had a way-above average total number of birds? Something is interrupting the cycles of birds,” he said.

It may be climate conditions, predicated by El Niño and La Niña. It could be related to the number of trees disappearing from his general area. Perhaps it’s a combination of the two acting in concert. Mearns is continues his study, looking for the answers.

“In the 70s the (Pacific Ocean) got warm,” he said. “In ‘07, the warm spell ended. It is good for salmon and lousy for birds in this region. The abundance and variety of birds appears to be tracking climate change.”

The native of Long Beach raised tropical fish and had a pond in his back yard growing up. When Mearns found an injured red-tailed hawk, there was no question — he brought it home and nursed it back to health.

“I have always wanted to figure out how things relate to each other,” he said.

After graduating with a biology degree from California State University at Long Beach he landed a job with the University of Southern California in Barrow, Alaska, in mid-winter.

He later graduated with an advanced degree from the University of Washington fisheries school and returned to Long Beach working for a project that researched water pollution.

Those experiences laid the groundwork for his professional work in Alaska for NOAA and put him in the position to be part of the spill response team, headquartered in Seattle.

Get watching

Alan Mearns has been observing his backyard birds for 10 years. He recommends bird-watching with a few aids:

• Resource books to help identify birds

• Binoculars to get a close-up look

• 3-by-5-inch cards and a pen to record your findings

• A video camera, still camera or camera phone to take pictures of birds and make identification easier

• A feeder to attract birds

• Food, berries, flowers, nectar plus water and shelter for birds

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