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.”

The Breeding Bird Survey: A Birder’s Guide

BBS volunteer  Jim Blakelock shares how he got into birding and became involved in an annual North American Breeding Bird Survey route with his friend  and avid songbird watcher Sheldon McGregor.

“It was embarrassment that got me into bird watching. After University I spent a number of years working at construction and factory jobs. One of these jobs was at a house with a fruit tree in the back yard. It was fall, a warm day when a flock of songbirds descended on the tree, started to gorge themselves on the fruit. They promptly got ‘high’ on the fermented fruit, and started falling from the branches and staggering about the lawn.”

“The carpenters asked me, “So college boy, what are those birds?” I had no idea. My high priced education drew a blank and then and there I resolved not to get caught short again. It turned out they were Cedar Waxwings and I went on to be able to identify most common birds but was certainly not a crack identifier.”

Jim met Sheldon McGregor in 1976, when he was a student in his homeroom grade 7 class. On the weekends Jim would take students to a local marsh to bird watch.

“More often than not it was just Sheldon and me. In June, the kids restless with the approach of the summer holidays would whine to go outside and play baseball. “Sure,” I told them. “If a Kirtland’s Warbler lands in that tree outside the window.”’

“This caused great anticipation. Baseball was surely about to begin. Except for Sheldon smiling in his quizzical way saying “Don’t go for it guys. This is not a good deal.” Of course Sheldon knew that there were only about  200 pairs of Kirtland’s Warblers in the world and the odds of seeing that particular songbird outside our classroom window were nil. “

Around 1990 Sheldon asked Jim if he would like to help him with the annual bird population census, the Breeding Bird Survey, and they have been doing it together ever since. They have a route in rural Ontario. Jim records, Sheldon watches and listens. They do this for 3 minutes every half-mile (800 m) a total of 50 times beginning at 5:02 am, ending after 10 am.

In between they catch up on each other’s lives, children, careers, and of course, the birds. Jim is adamant that Sheldon teaches him much more than he ever taught him: the voice of the alder flycatcher or the call of the flicker that really may be a pileated woodpecker. Each of the 50 stops has its own attraction.

One of his favourites is a quiet spot. The trees are thick, leaning over the road tunnel-like. The forest floor is damp and flooded. “It’s here every stop for the past 30 years, that we have heard the Northern Waterthrush calling sharply without fail. It’s reassuring but worrisome at the same time; one wonders will we hear it next year?

Of course a day will come when one, or both of them will not be doing the count. Jim has been retired from teaching for 9 years now.  On his retirement Sheldon gave him a lovely pen and ink drawing of a bird – a Kirtland’s warbler.

The Kirtland’s warbler is a bird that is so rare that the Breeding Bird Survey does not have any accurate population data on the species. It is believed that due to conservation efforts there may now be about 5000 in Michigan.

As they head out to do their count this year, Jim and Sheldon hope this is the year when they will actually get to see one.

 

 

Breeding Bird Survey Provides Valuable Songbird Population Data

It’s that time of year when many die-hard birdwatchers go out to count birds.  For some birders, the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is simply a fun tradition, but the BBS has become a valuable, one-of-a-kind resource for biologists, and conservationists.

Being able to identify two to three hundred songbird species by their vocalizations is a skill in and of itself. BBS participants will often inherit their routes from birders that have mentored them for years.  That was the case for Sheldon McGregor, who assisted a more experienced birder as a teenager and eventually took on the route when he was ready to pass it on.

We filmed with Sheldon and his birding partner Jim Blakelock on their last annual route in southern-central Ontario. “I’ve been doing my route almost 30 years,” said Sheldon. He’s noticed his route has grown quieter over the years. Especially absent are some field birds, such as meadowlarks and bobolinks.

The BBS has grown into a continent-wide population-monitoring program involving 2000 participants each year.  Close to 500 BBS routes are run by over 300 volunteers each year in Canada while more than 2300 routes are run in the U.S. Canadian participants run their routes between the May 28 and July 7.

Our documentary crew also went to Maryland and met with Chandler Robbins, who launched the BBS all the way back in the 1960’s.    The survey he created was standardized with skilled observers stopping 50 times along a route approximately 24.5 miles long. With every stop, the participant listened and watched for songbirds & other birds for three minutes and recorded the number of each species they saw.  Almost half a century later, except for some new gadgets, the process remains relatively the same.

When we walked into the basement at the Breeding Bird Survey headquarters at the USGC Patuxent Wild Life Research Center in Laurel MD,   it felt like we were stepping back in time. Over 100 cardboard boxes filled the archive room in rows of metal shelves. Each box was filled with carefully logged data sheets containing bird detections from regions across North America.

“We have 48 years of Breeding Bird Survey data in total. Over 80 million bird detections, “ said Keith Pardieck, Head of Operations at the BBS. “Those data are used to monitor the status and trends in North American bird populations, over 400 bird species.”

In 1962,  Rachel Carson used some of Chandler Robbin’s early bird population data research when she herself noticed some songbirds were dying while writing her revolutionary book Silent Spring.   Her book alerted the public to the disastrous consequences of DDT pesticides and was key to the start of the environmental movement.

Pardieck hopes that the Breeding Bird Survey’s alarming population data can be the inspiration behind a similar movement. “Birds are bell weathers of their environment. So, if we know that they are in trouble, I think it’s pretty clear that there could be things coming down the road that will be affecting us as well.”

The Breeding Bird Survey is always looking for experienced birders to volunteer in Ontario and British Columbia.  Check out their website for more information.

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