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.