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Young birder racks up numbers for worldwide bird count

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Kyle Martin, Staff Writer

SHADY SHORES — Dean Hoagland can recognize a turkey vulture by the shape of its wings, a Carolina chickadee by its mating call, and when he saw an American kestrel, he was quick to mention it's the smallest falcon in North America. 

At just 13 years old, the kid loves birds, and the young birder was keen to share his appreciation of the world's feathered aviators during the second day of a four-day worldwide event called the Great Backyard Bird Count — a global bird census launched as a research project in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. 

Once per year, bird enthusiasts — amateurs and experts alike — are asked to count the species of birds they spot during 15 minutes or more, on one or more days during a specific four-day period in February, and file their findings online via a free online GBBC account. This year, organizers chose Feb. 16-19 as their documenting period. The goal of the project is to be able to study bird populations and behaviors, as seen by citizens around the globe. 

Researchers ask for the public's help because "no single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document and understand the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time," according to the project's website.  With more sets of eyes and ears, scientists are able to get a larger sampling of bird populations. 

"You never know what you're going to see. It's different every time," said Dean, a student at Myers Middle School. "It really keeps me going."

In 2017, Great Backyard Bird Count participants in more than 100 countries counted more than 6,200 species of birds on more than 180,000 checklists, the site says. 

This year, an app called eBird, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will help birders keep a track of  which species they encounter in the skies by keeping a digitized record on their mobile devices, according to the Cornell Daily Sun. But this Texas teenager instead does it the old-fashioned way: with his eyes, ears and a pen and paper. 

Dean likely will be out and about counting birds for some time during all four days of the event, and on Friday and Saturday alone, he was able to document dozens of species in his neighborhood near Lewisville Lake. 

The teenager said he first got into birding one day in July, when he was surprised to see a painted bunting — a rainbow-colored bird of the cardinal family, native to North America. Ever since, he's been developing an in-depth knowledge of the birds around Shady Shores and surrounding lands. 

"All you have to do is look up, and you'll see them," Dean said. 

So far, that's been true for him, because in the few months since last summer, he said he's been able to see or hear about 108 species of birds in the Denton area. Most of the birds he's encountered, he said, he's seen in his neighborhood, Hidden Valley Airpark in Shady Shores. 

"I love this neighborhood," Dean said. "We have all kinds of areas where birds can stay." 

Since he picked up his new hobby, Dean said he saved up enough of his own money to buy a Canon PowerShot camera to document the birds around the area. His mother, Sally Carne, especially seems keen on his birding because she got a pair of binoculars herself and started taking some photos of birds on her phone while out spotting fliers with Dean. His sister, apparently, isn't quite as enthused. 

"It drives my sister nuts," Dean said, joking as he cupped a hand over his eyes to block the sun, searching for more winged creatures across a local pond in his gated-community neighborhood. "But that's what brothers and sisters do, they argue." 

Now, feeding off Dean's eagerness, Carne said she found one of her favorite birds while out with her son — a belted kingfisher, which is a funny little bird commonly found in North America that looks like it has tuxedo and a mohawk. 

"I learn all of this from Dean," she said. "[He's] got heightened senses. It took us a while to figure that out." 

In this family's neck of the woods, birds come and go because the neighborhood has several ponds and acres of trees for them to nest in. Surprisingly, they've even seen a bald eagle a time or two while out with a group on a guided bird watch. Dean spends his free time riding his bike around and searching the skies for the next new species he might encounter, often showing up at 6:30 a.m. at a local pond just to catch some birds shouting their calls and taking flight.

Next on the list, Dean said he hopes to see a golden eagle, but he'll have to find one first, and they're fairly rare. 

"I don't think I'll ever see myself stop birding," Dean said. "Once you bird for a while, everything really catches your eye."