Behind the Scenes: Bird Surveys

Jan 26, 2012
Have you ever wondered why birders go out and count birds? Volunteer Eva Eagle gives us a deeper look into the process of surveying birds on Land Trust Preserves.


Have you ever wondered why birders go out and count birds?  Bird surveys give us lots of useful information.  They can tell us what species of birds are present on Land Trust Preserves, the number of species typically found (diversity), population numbers over time (are they rising, falling, or staying the same?) and if there are new species showing up during or after major changes, such as the restoration project along Whychus Creek through Camp Polk Meadow Preserve. Over time, this data gives us a historical perspective of the species of birds inhabiting an area, their population numbers, and can even provide clues as to the overall the health of an ecosystem. 

We are extremely fortunate to have dedicated volunteers who survey Land Trust Community Preserves and have for 10 years!  Eva Eagle is one of our stellar volunteers who compiles the survey results and provides that information to our land stewards.   Here, she gives us a deeper look into the process of surveying birds on Land Trust Preserves.

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It is the time of year when I put together the bird surveys for the past 12 months; Surveys that will provide information to help us understand the impact of the Whychus Creek restoration project at Camp Polk Meadow on bird populations.  This survey project is nearly ten years old, and the past five years have been quite intensive. 

As I sit here at my computer processing the observations for 2011, I have received 65 Camp Polk Meadow surveys with a few more still to come in.  I also have 22 surveys for birds at Indian Ford Meadow, conducted under the same protocol.  Having surveys from both Camp Polk Meadow and Indian Ford Meadow Preserve, helps us to compare changes at Camp Polk Meadow to a neighboring property without restoration activity to find out what the birds would be doing without the restoration project.  In other words, Indian Ford Meadow Preserve is our study control.

A flock of wild turkeys at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve.  Photo: Land Trust.
A flock of wild turkeys at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve. Photo: Land Trust.
A flock of wild turkeys at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve. Photo: Land Trust.

The many surveys I am processing were conducted by a small group of hardy volunteers, some of whom went out dozens of times.  They went out to count birds in every month of the year, in temperatures ranging from 10 to 80 degrees.   A few hardy souls went at dusk or later.  Most visits were done in good weather, but a few were done during a snowfall and several in the rain.  One survey was done in the smoke from the Shadow Lake Fire!  Volunteers braved snow cover of up to a foot to make their rounds.  Sometimes 15 minutes was all they had to spend, but at the Hindman Springs area of Camp Polk Meadow Preserve, that is a rich quarter hour. On the other hand, some surveys took the entire day and the most typical survey took 2-3 hours.  Some short surveys produced only a couple of species in poor conditions, but other surveys found over 40 species.  The total birds seen ranged from 9 to 422. 

Hindman Springs.  Photo: Kris Kristovitch
Hindman Springs. Photo: Kris Kristovitch
Hindman Springs. Photo: Kris Kristovitch

Experienced birders won't be surprised to hear that the area surveyed most often was Hindman Springs with more than 90% of visits.  The entry ponderosa grove was visited about 80% of the time, and the Upper Meadow 80% or 90%.  The presence of a significant channel in the meadow has impacted the visit rates, with the lower areas getting fewer visits this year than due to limited accessibility.  Still, even the least visited areas got over 30 surveys this year, down from around 40 in 2010.  Our volunteers are tough!

Although the true value of surveying birds is clearly more about recording the number and variety of 'ordinary birds,' it is always fun to add species to the bird list.  Sure enough, in the past two years we have seen quite a few species that have not been seen at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve before, including Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Prairie Falcon, Eurasian Collared Dove, Green-tailed Towhee, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Black Phoebe.   The total number of species on the Camp Polk Meadow bird list is now up to 150, while the Indian Ford list is up to 109. 

If you are an experienced birder and you would like to volunteer, contact Eva to find out more about the bird survey program at Land Trust community preserves.