Bill Evans Unique Songbird Acoustic Monitoring

For nearly 30 years, Bill Evans has had his ear to the sky,  listening to the calls of songbirds as they travel through the night. The process is called acoustic monitoring and the data he collects provides valuable information on songbird migration and the health of their populations.

Bill’s journey as a renegade scientist began in 1985 after a long night of delivering pizzas. He was resting on a bluff in eastern Minnesota at two in the morning when he heard it: the sound of hundreds of unseen birds flying overhead in the dark spring sky. He was entranced by their calls. “It was just such an enthralling experience for me,” said Bill. “To hear those calls so clearly – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Bill Evans night sky

At that time Bill was a history of science student at the University of Minnesota. He didn’t know how, but that day he decided he would find a way to record those calls over the duration of an entire night and to archive the data for others. He’s been committed to this work ever since.

Bill’s process has evolved with technology. He recorded his first calls on hifi VCRs, playing back the tapes and noting the calls by hand. The advent of computers has sped up the process and he now uses software that can extract the calls automatically.

He left his academic path to pursue his passion full-time and now works from his make-shift laboratory at his home in Ithaca, New York. His methods are unorthodox.  He constructs his microphones with the cheapest materials he can find: buckets, rubber bands and plastic wrap. He publishes his songbird data and his do-it-yourself methods on his website, www.oldbird.org, in the hopes of empowering citizen scientists to participate in this ambitious and important long-term bird acoustic monitoring project.

Similar to the Breeding Bird Survey, bird acoustic monitoring employed by citizen scientists across the continent has the potential to become a valuable tool for ornithologists and conservationists. He wants his work to become an index for looking at change, not just for the birds, but for the health of the planet as well.

Mic and Observatory

“These birds are tied down to habitat,” said Bill. “If you’re monitoring the population of the species, especially those neotropical  migrant songbirds, you have a sort of pulse on the condition of central or southern America wherever those birds go. You have a way of tuning into the changes of the planet from your home.”

Bill’s innovative methods give scientists a new way to measure the population trends of migratory songbirds. He is still driven by the same passion from that awe-inspiring moment but now, considering the many threats faced by songbirds, with a greater sense of urgency.

The SongbirdSOS documentary crew filmed with Bill on a beautiful night near the Cornell Night Sky Observatory in Ithaca, New York. 

Are Pesticides Causing Problems for Tree Swallow Songbirds?

The call of the Tree Swallow is a familiar sound to anyone living in the fields and wetlands of rural North America. These songbirds winter farther north than any other American swallow and return to their nesting ground long before other swallows come back.

Distinguished by their deep-blue backs and pure, white fronts, Tree Swallows are known for their impressive flight acrobatics as they chase after insects.

This songbird species has historically thrived in agriculture areas and grasslands.  The species has traditionally fared well in grasslands but has quickly begun to lose ground in terms of its population stability.  Scientists are beginning to notice that aerial insectivores associated with farmland are now the steepest in decline.

The North American Breeding Bird Survey  reports that tree swallows in Canada have declined 62% since 1966.  This alarming pattern is also appearing in the USA and Europe.

“Their numbers are telling us something about the environment that they’re living in,” says Christy Morrissey, an eco-toxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan. “The common denominator there is that they are living in an area which is susceptible to pesticides.”

The tree swallow habit of nesting tree cavities and bird house/nestboxes means that scientists can study their breeding behaviour in great detail; they know more about Tree Swallows than any other aerial insectivore. Bob Clarke, a professor at the University Saskatchewan, has been studying them for over twenty years.  His research has provided the Morrissey with a strong foundation for continuing to study pesticides and their impact on the species.

Christy suspects the recent introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides could be affecting insect populations, which in turn impacts the Tree Swallow’s diet. “We are seeing very clear differences between sites that have more agricultural intensification than sites that are more natural,” she says. Let’s hope that Christy can find the answer. The Breeding Bird Survey reports that tree swallows in Canada have declined 62% since 1966.

 

Saskatchewan Scientist Studying Impact of Pesticides

Christy Morrissey is in a race against time to prove that neonicotinoid pesticides are causing steep songbird population declines in the Canadian prairies. An ecotoxicologist at the University of  Saskatchewan, Christy has been researching how these powerful pesticides are seeping into the surrounding wetlands and poisoning the food chain.

We filmed with Christy last year as she collected her first wetland samples. The results were troubling. Of her 80 test water samples, all but two were contaminated with neonicotinoid pestcides. We checked in with Christy to see how her research is progressing this year. Christy and her team collect spring wetland water sample

Christy Morrissey

A portion of her study involves measuring the clutch size and body condition of Tree Swallows in different regions across the prairie. Could there be a connection between weaker birds and pesticides?

Christy and her team are in year three of their Tree Swallow study and are developing a stronger understanding of the birds’ diet. In spite of disruptions in their food supply, the birds maintain their diet of midges and mosquitoes, even if they are in short supply.

“We hypothesize that birds at agricultural sites must work harder to deliver to the chicks,” she said. “They will either increase the number of foraging trips or increase the amount of time spend attending the nestlings.” She hasn’t been surprised to notice that the birds are generally weaker in areas with more intensive agriculture and higher concentration of pesticides.

Pest damage

The flea beetle is an incredibly damaging pest for farmers if left untreated

Her team has also started to use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on the tree swallows to record the number of feeding trips they make to their nests. This new possibility opens up doors to exciting research opportunities; Christy can now relate the number of feeding trips by each sex to their stress response.

This summer will be a busy and exciting time for Christy but at the same time, troubling. During filming, Christy made an interesting comment about her complicated relationship to her research. “I get excited about the results,” she said. “The fact that there are neonicotinoids in the water, seeing impacts as a scientist makes me excited because it’s interesting. But as a naturalist and even just a mother I guess it makes me concerned that…very little work has been done from the regulatory perspective to address this.”

Boreal Alberta: 6 hours, 13km and a Coin Laundry

The SongbirdSOS crew (Daniel Grant, Jason Milligan, and Josh See) arrived at the airport in northern Alberta to film at the Boreal forest. We rented a very large SUV, loaded our camera and sound gear and drove straight to Slave Lake. Away from the city, I realized our SUV was tiny compared to the monster trucks that rule the road in Alberta. Like our shooting in the Netherlands, we were cursed with rain. Since all of our work is outdoors, this makes filming quite tricky. If you listen closely to the sound in the boreal forest scenes in the documentary, you might even hear the drip drip drip of rain.

Boreal

Mourning Warbler

We were heading to Calling Lake, where our Boreal host, Dr. Erin Bayne, keeps a small research cabin. Erin was concerned about the road to Calling Lake. It has been raining for days and the road was very soft and muddy. But we made it into the cabin all right and had a great day filming.  Erin netted an oven-bird for us, as well we documented two of his researchers doing Point Counts. You can see the stats for Boreal songbirds at the Boreal Avian Modelling Project website.

Boreal Oven Bird 4

Calling Lake Alberta

Calling Lake Alberta

However, it was the trip back to Athabasca that Erin was really worried about because if we had any more rain, we risked being stuck at the cabin. Well, it poured. But we had to go. So we packed our gear, loaded the ATV’s and truck, and headed down the road through the depths of the Boreal forest. 

Loading out of CallingLake

Loading out of CallingLake

As Erin suspected, the road was far too soft and the truck sank into the mud. A few kilometers into the journey, we were stuck. Very stuck.  After numerous attempts to free ourselves, we eventually walked. For a camera crew this means we had to walk, carrying our gear (ten very heavy  cases loaded with expensive equipment as well as our personal back-packs) in a kind of convoy. After a few kilometers, we were rescued by ATV’s that shuttled us to a spot where we would eventually be rescued by a relief biology crew – aka Our Heroes!  It took us six hours to travel a mere 13 kilometers. Seven hours later we were wiping ourselves down in the Athabasca Super 8 motel. Good thing they had coin laundry.

Enjoy this one minute cell phone video of three bird biologists and four filmmakers stuck in the mud.

Listening to Boreal Birdsong while filming SongbirdSOS

When the SongbirdSOS crew was shooting in Alberta, I was keen to wake up with the birds and document Erin Bayne’s team listening to Boreal birdsong, doing point counts near Calling Lake Alberta. One challenge when you are working at such northern latitudes is that dawn is around 4 am! But to hear the Boreal birdsong was well worth the effort.

Diana Stralberg - point counts in Boreal

cabin at dawn, calling lake alberta

A point count is a field method used to study avian population trends. The data fuels research for many scientists and can be found on the Boreal Avian Modelling Project website. A familiar favourite for many people (for me this songbird is synonymous with forest)  is the white-throated sparrow. Eighty-five percent of the population of white-throated sparrows breed in the Boreal. Sadly, these songsters are also in decline, as their population has dropped by thirty percent since 1966.

white-throated sparrow

Below is a sample recording of Boreal birdsong. Listen for the Tennessee Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco.

Another great resource for Boreal birds and how you can help is the Boreal Songbird Initiative.

 

Songbird photos by Joshua See.

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