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.

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?

The songbirdSOS experts talk about International Migratory Bird Day

On Saturday, May 10 2014 thousands of birders across the globe will be celebrating International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD). We checked in with the experts we interviewed in the film to see what they are doing on this special day.

Robert Rice is the acting director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre, which founded International Migratory Bird Day in 1993 in Washington, DC. The event has grown to involve more than 700 events in North America each year. This year, Robert will be going to the Okanagan Valley’s Meadowlark Festival to give a keynote address at the opening event.

In Northern Alberta Erin Bayne is too busy with his fieldwork deep in the Boreal forest to plan anything out of the ordinary for Migration Day.  This spring field season involves coordinating fourty people with work like setting up recording devices, banding for migration studies, and teaching new students about banding, telemetry and behavioural observations.

Ornithologist Bridget Stutchbury will be spending the day with her husband Gene (also an ornithologist) birding around their farmhouse in northern Pennsylvania. She has been trying to attract her favourite bird, the Purple Martin, to the property for years and usually goes to the Purple Martin Conservation area in Erie, Pennsylvania to get her fix. The species’ natural habitat is tree cavities, which are very scarce, so Bridget built a birdhouse colony in hopes that they will thrive in the area. Bridget spotted a Purple Martin on April 6, her earliest sighting yet.

Everyday is Bird Day for Bill Evans. He works on his nocturnal monitoring project every day of the year. Each morning this spring, Bill has been analyzing migration flight calls gathered from six recording stations. Peak migration season is fast approaching, so this is an especially exciting time for his team. On Saturday, Bill will be doing his normal daily routine: crunching bird call data from across the continent to put online on his site OldBird.

Andrew Farnsworth has a busy day of birding in New York City planned for Saturday. The night before, he will be watching weather radar to see how migration is proceeding across the United States. If the skies are clear and the winds are southerly, he will be listening to flight calls in the early morning hours. He will be in New Jersey just after dawn, birding in the DeKorte, Liberty and Secaucus areas, and perhaps to Rumson and Sandy Hook. Later in the afternoon he’ll hit Central Park.

The team at the Aras Bird Banding Station in Turkey has a very busy day planned; they will be banding and releasing birds for an audience of children, students, and members of the public. The district’s director of conservation will also be there. Cagan Sekercioglu, the director of the Aras Conservation would normally be there but he is getting married!

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