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Hit the road, Desert Companion readers! And while you're at it, have a look around. This issue invites you to not only escape to the outdoors, but also to think about the environmental issues affecting our pursuits and our world.

Birding for Dollars

Birders using binoculars to spot purple and orange birds
Dawid Rysky

The Great Basin Observatory turns competitive birding into conservation fundraising

Across Nevada’s wetlands, deserts, and woodlands, birders will spot birds this May in the statewide annual Bird-a-thon, a competitive fundraiser to help conserve Nevada’s priority bird species.

Competitive birding? You read that right. “It’s a win-win,” says Ned Bohman, biologist and Bird-a-thon coordinator for Great Basin Bird Observatory, a nonprofit dedicated to studying and conserving birds in Nevada. Birders get to have fun doing what they love, and the observatory raises money for research on Nevada’s priority birds. Great Basin Bird Observatory hosted its first Bird-a-thon in 2020, and donations have increased each year; the event raised $5,150 in 2023.

How does it work? Birders can compete individually or on teams, and they can sign up for either the 24-hour or 10-day categories (the Big Day or Backyard, respectively). Competitors solicit donor pledges in a certain amount for each species they spot, so a $1 pledge would raise $25 for a team that spots 25 species. Great Basin Observatory tracks numbers of species recorded and donations pledged.

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“It’s a fun day,” says Northern Nevadan Dennis Serdehely. “You’re exhausted at the end, but (it’s) a good exhaustion.”

Serdehely’s team participates in the Big Day’ category, recording as many species as possible around the Lahontan Valley and Carson River. Among the species his team saw last year were migratory waterfowl and warblers that depend on the Lahontan Valley wetlands for food and shelter.

Even urban and suburban areas, such as the Pittman Wash Trail in Henderson, can attract a lot of birds. Elle OumGhazi has participated since 2022, when organizers added the Backyard category.

“As a full-time single mom who doesn’t have the luxury to go someplace far away to bird, the Bird-a-thon makes me prioritize time to go outside for a good cause,” OumGhazi says. “This is something I can do locally.”

So far, the plucky, cerulean face of the Bird-a-thon has been the Pinyon jay, a mysterious songbird of pinyon-juniper woodlands.

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“They’re not a typical songbird, so you can’t use typical research methods,” Bohman says. “They could be there one day and gone the next.”

Pinyon jays don’t sit still. Their lifestyle depends on fluctuating crops of pinyon pine seeds, a tree they’ve developed a symbiotic relationship with over thousands of years. They can travel hundreds of miles in a day, scattering seeds as they go and helping the pines reproduce. These nomads are critical to the health of the whole woodland ecosystem.

But recent studies show that ongoing drought could be having a negative impact on the production of pinecones, making seeds more difficult to find for the Pinyon jays. That’s why Great Basin Bird Observatory used Bird-a-thon donations to launch the Pinyon Jay Hub GIS-mapping program in 2022, allowing people to record Pinyon jay sightings. With more eyes on the jays, scientists get a clearer picture of their habitat needs and how climate change is affecting their food supply and ranges.

Two birds are stepping up to be the face of this year’s Bird-a-thon: the LeConte’s thrasher and Bendire’s thrasher. Getting their name from the way they thrash their bills through underbrush to eat bugs and seeds, thrashers are a conservation priority because of habitat loss and climate change. With limited ranges, they depend on desert scrub in public lands across Southern Nevada.

Little is known about their life histories. The observatory will use 2024’s Bird-a-thon donations to study thrashers’ habitat and movements across Nevada. This information will inform land managers on the best way to protect these birds.

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“I like their approach to monitor different habitats throughout the state, to monitor how they change over the years,” Serdehely says.

The competition also creates a connection between birders and bird habitats. “When I see a Pinyon jay,” OumGhazi says, “I feel a kinship.”

To participate in or donate to the 2024 competition, visit in April or follow their social media.