Even before they could be sent trudging through snow Sunday in the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, suburban bird-watching enthusiasts spotted what appeared to be a great horned owl through the trees.
A DuPage County Forest Preserve District ranger had just handed out binoculars and clipboards to record their observations in the Darien preserve when someone spotted the bird. It would be the first of many that birders would record as part of the Great Backyard Bird Count.
Suburban residents joined the global event over the weekend to help track patterns and trends in where birds roost during the winter.
The different species and their numbers are sent to Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society to be logged in a database, a citizen science project to help researchers. Because birds are considered a barometer in nature, the observations help scientists learn more about the environment and climate.
For Joe and Susie Granias of Lombard, the bird count was an excuse to get outside and perhaps meet other nature enthusiasts. Almost immediately they had spotted a female Red-bellied Woodpecker high up in a tree.
"I love the outdoors and just love open space," Susie Granias said.
Even if the birders couldn't spot the birds, they were supplied with a cheat sheet describing the calls of dozens of species. Bird calls are also recorded into the database.
This was the second year that Christina Theobald of Darien had participated in the event. She recalled the excitement last year when birders spotted a Pileated Woodpecker in the preserve, The bird had declined sharply in numbers during the 18th and 19th centuries but has made a gradual comeback since 1900.
"I'm not really a birder," Theobald said. "I do it just to be outside."