Great Backyard Bird Count takes place on Belle Isle

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As blue jays and mourning doves pecked for seeds, a stray cardinal landed near a pair of European starlings. Perched on a bird feeder was a downey woodpecker, showing off the vibrant red dot on the back of its head.

Against the backdrop of an overcast sky, a bald eagle soared above Belle Isle. 

Holly Vaughn is logging each sighting of the different species. Sure, she appreciates the winged creatures that inhabit the almost-1,000 acre island, but she's not observing the birds as a hobby. This is for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

"People all over the world participate," said Vaughn, a wildlife communications coordinator with the DNR. "The goal is to gauge the abundance and distribution of wintering birds."

The citizen science project is now in its third decade of counting. Run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society between Feb 15-18, participants are asked to spend at least 15 minutes outside over the weekend and record the sights and sounds of the birds they see.

On Friday, the DNR partnered with the Michigan Operation Freedom Outdoors (MiOFO), which assists veterans in making outdoor recreation activities more accessible to those with mobility issues.

"It's really important to me, and it's already part of the DNR's focus of expanding accessibility," said Tom Jones, president of MiOFO. "There's nearly 7,000 of us (veterans) in Michigan and I'm always looking to expand public land access anyways.

Jones said that opportunities like these give veterans a chance to escape the confines of indoors and experience outdoors in the best way they can. 

"Don't become a product of your mom's basement. Get out, breathe some fresh air," he said. "It's a really comfortable environment to heal in."

While attendance was sparse during the bird watching event, the presence of birds wasn't.

"Oh there's lots of great stuff," Vaughn said. "There's redheads and buffleheads, goldeneyes; so many interesting ducks."

And that list is limited to just the water fowl. During a walk through the middle of the island, Vaughn pointed out a nest embedded between two branches high up on a tree. "That's where the red-tailed hawks nest."

Dwarfing that nest however is the nest of the bald eagles that have taken residence on the island. "Eagle's nests have been known to get as big as a small car."

While the recorded information may appear insignificant, it's part of a global initiaitive to better understand the trends and changes of general bird populations around the world. Those trends are tied to a changing climate that's shifting the behaviors of many seasonal species.

"Historically, northern cardinals weren't plentiful in Michigan. They're a southernly species," Vaughn said. "Over the last few decades, maybe 40 to 50 years though, we're starting see many more."

Because the species is a generalist, Vaughn said a warming climate that has made Michigan more hospitable coupled with more than enough space for their presence means often seeing them is no longer a surprise.

If anyone would like to participate this weekend, they can report their sightings at