Another Breeding Bird Survey in the bag
Last Tuesday I got up at 3:20 a.m. Now, I’m a morning person, but that is a little bit earlier than usual. I had to be in the western hills of Summerland by 4:20 to start my Breeding Bird Survey. I stuck my head outside to check the weather—warm, calm and dark, the stars still twinkling. The forecast had mentioned wind, and that’s not a good thing for a bird survey; I didn’t want to get up to the starting point and have to abandon the whole exercise because I couldn’t hear anything. But this looked good, so I put the coffee on and got dressed.
I wasn’t alone in my early rising. Each year, all across Canada and the United States, over 4000 birders get up really early one morning in June and do their Breeding Bird Survey. Some have been doing it since the late 1960s when the survey began; I did my first route in 1973. The survey design is deceptively simple. Volunteers—yes, we’re not getting paid for this—drive a 25-mile route, stopping every half-mile to look and listen for 3 minutes. They cover the same route once a year, every year. The database this creates is the best tool bird conservation biologists have to monitor the populations of songbirds in North America.
I got to the start point at 4:15. Five minutes to get the forms ready, put the thermometer on the roof of the car (note to self—don’t drive off with it there!), and assess the sky and wind. The sky was still clear, but the wind had kicked up significantly. The small pines were swaying and I could barely hear the Vesper Sparrows singing. If it kept up like this I’d have to bail out after 10 stops or so and try again another day. The wind was still high at the second stop, but at the third stop (the entrance to the Summerland landfill—where was that Rock Wren that is usually here?) it dropped to negligible levels. A Golden Eagle sailed out of the dawn and landed on a snag at the edge of the landfill–a real surprise. At the strip of cottonwoods and birch along Trout Creek I bagged Veery, Red-eyed Vireo and a Western Flycatcher, but no Lark Sparrow.
The route turns south onto the Shingle Creek road and winds through open ponderosa pine forests and sweeping grasslands. Gray Flycatchers are scattered through the pines and Calliope Hummingbirds provide a bit of spice when they buzz by. Clark’s Nutcrackers call raucously from the hills, and at one lucky spot, a Northern Pygmy-Owl tooted from the forest. The dominant species on this route used to be the Western Meadowlark, but today the grasslands are relatively silent and I only hear 22, about half the normal number for this route. Not surprisingly, Breeding Bird Survey data from across the country suggest this species is only half as abundant as it was in the early 1970s.
At stop 25 I break out the coffee to help me celebrate the halfway point; I’ve been counting birds for two and a quarter hours. The route follows Shatford Creek now, the ponderosa woodlands changing to Douglas-fir forest, and Hammond’s Flycatchers take over from Gray and Dusky Flycatchers. MacGillivray’s Warblers sang from willow-cloaked springs. Then the road takes a sharp right and begins to climb the mountain in a serious way, headed for the Apex ski hill. Species diversity plummets away from the valley bottom, but high elevation specialties make each stop interesting—Townsend’s Warblers wheezing from atop the spruces, Hermit Thrushes giving their ethereal songs from across the valley, an American Three-toed Woodpecker drumming on a snag. The wind usually increases at this point, but today it held off and the weather was fine until the end.
Finally, just before 9 a.m. I reached the ski hill village and turned around at stop 50. I put out the thermometer again (I remembered!) and counted the last birds, a Steller’s Jay and a Hairy Woodpecker. I’d counted 525 individuals of 74 species, about average for this route. If you want to see a full listing of what I’ve seen over the years, click here, then choose Raw Data and route BC-208 (Summerland). I arrived home at 10 a.m., tired but satisfied that I’d provided one small but essential chunk of information biologists can use in managing landscapes for birds and other creatures.