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.

FLAP recovers three species at risk from bird collisions

Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) just released a sobering news release about three federally listed species at risk that they have recovered from building collisions in Toronto. We’ve written about FLAP on our blog before, they’re an incredible group of volunteers committed to advocacy and rescue work surrounding bird collisions with buildings.

If you’re in Toronto’s financial district in the very early morning of spring or fall, you may spot someone scurrying along the sidewalk carrying paper bags and a butterfly net. That’s a FLAP volunteer, scanning the street for a stunned bird that they can rescue or a dead one they can lay to rest.

So far this spring, those volunteers have recovered a live Red-Headed Woodpecker, a dead Golden-winged Warbler and one live and six dead Wood Thrushes. All these birds are protected under the federal Species at Risk Act and we can’t afford to lose anymore of them.

Last year, we filmed with Keith Pardiek at the Breeding Bird Survey, a joint American-Canadian songbird population-monitoring program. While there, he shared some distressing statistics with us: since 1966 Wood Thrush populations have declined 62%, Red-Headed woodpecker 70% and Golden-winged Warbler 70%.

“These birds play a vital ecological role,” said Michael Mesure, Executive Director of FLAP, “There are many commercially available, aesthetically pleasing solutions that can help to reduce bird collisions with buildings. Urban structures can be made safe for birds.”

We have filmed with FLAP several times over the course of shooting our documentary. The footage is inspiring and we can’t wait to share it with you. The story isn’t all doom and gloom either; there are reasons to be hopeful. FLAP’s advocacy work has led to some especially deadly buildings to be treated with bird-friendly window decals.

The same day FLAP published this news release, The New York Times published a feature about a large-scale research collaboration with New York City Audubon, the American Bird Conservation and Fordham University focused on various types of glass and their ability to deter birds. The goal of the project is to help conservationists and ornithologists understand and prevent this needless carnage.

FLAP Canada is asking anyone who finds a bird that has collided with a building to report the incident on FLAP Mapper – a live web tool that they have developed. Users can easily report a collision on an interactive map, as well as view locations of others.


Scientist uses light study to prevent bird collisions

Last year we were with bird expert Bill Evans as he conducted one of his DIY experiments: beaming lights into the sky to test the impact of artificial light on night migrating birds.

Inside his home laboratory, Bill used weather radar to determine if the birds would be migrating across our rural New York location. That’s right – flocks of songbirds are large enough to appear on weather radar systems. “We still have a low cloud ceiling and maybe some light drizzle so the birds can’t see the stars they use for celestial navigation,” he said. “They’re going to have to rely on their internal compass or other cues that we’re not even aware of.”

The light rain is good for the study.  Water particles in the air refract light and lead birds to aggregate. Bird aggregation in cities however, is bad news. “The phenomena is of course what’s causing the tower kill phenomenon,” he said.

Toronto’s Fatal Light Awareness Project estimates that between 100 million and one billion birds die from collisions with buildings every year in North America. Bird collisions typically occur at night when birds are migrating and lights inside buildings are turned on. Bill is trying to understand the mechanism that induces light aggregation in birds, not just in cities, but for the ever increasing numbers of communication towers and wind turbines.

That night Bill learned that certain colours of light are more dangerous than others. Red light, which is typically blamed for bird mortality at tall TV towers, did not provoke bird aggregation but did with blue, green and white light.

Listening to the audio recordings was especially telling. Within minutes of the lights being beamed into the sky the calls of the confused birds increased dramatically. As soon as Bill turned off the lights the calls ended.

In some instances, industry is adopting safer lighting for communication towers and turbines. As for the rest of us, can we be convinced to turn off the lights in our cities?

Geolocators track bird migration routes

Bridget Stutchbury is tracking songbirds with cutting-edge technology: tiny light-level logging geolocators.

Every July, Bridget and her team band the birds with the geolocators and these tiny devices become luggage on the birds’ expansive migratory journey, recording light levels from the sun every two minutes, twenty-four hours per day. The technology translates sunrise and sunset times into longitude and latitude so Bridget knows where the bird was when.

These devices don’t send data, they store it, so to learn anything Bridget needs to get the geolocators back. This coming May Bridget will be in Erie, PA to remove geolocators from the birds she banded ten months earlier.

Last July the SongbirdSOS team was with Bridget when she banded the purple martins that were on their way south. She talked about the surprising results she has collected so far. “We’ve seen birds that have travelled from Pennsylvania to the Gulf Coast in only two days.” That’s 1300 kilometres.

Bridget thinks this data will shake up ornithologists’ models for songbird migration patterns. These birds are flying much faster than she ever thought they could fly. She thinks it may have to do with stiff competition over mates and nest sights.

Understanding the timing of the Purple Martin’s migration route is critical – with climate change altering the timing of the seasons, the survival of the species is at risk. “Climate change is a new threat for songbirds,” says Bridget. “Some of our studies will show that they’re going to have trouble timing their migration to match the changes from one spring to the next. It’s not very good news for some of these songbirds.”

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