Breeding Bird Census


(This 902nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 6, 2008.)



Eastern Meadowlark Photo by Dominic Sherony


It is 5:00 a.m., pitch dark at a half-hour before dawn. Following instructions provided by the U. S. Geological Survey, my car is stopped south of Hamburg near a culvert on North Boston Road. My passenger, Mike Morgante, is ready to begin his annual June Breeding Bird Survey following a 24.5 mile, 50 stop route.


This is the fourth year I'm serving as Morgante's driver and compiler. Before my hearing declined, I censused the Nashville route near Fredonia myself and I am happy to be able to continue to participate in this supportive role.


This Hamburg count is one of over 4100 such counts taken by birders across North America. First recorded in 1966, the accumulated data provide an important source for study of bird population variation.


Now it is 5:06 and Morgante stands by the car to begin his first three-minute count. "Robin," he calls out and continues, "yellowthroat...chipping sparrow and two red-wings...two song sparrows...another robin and a yellow warbler...three barn swallows...warbling vireo...kingbird." Just as the three minutes times out he adds a mourning dove.


"That's it," he says as he climbs in. We speed off to our next stop a half-mile away where, the directions tell us, we'll be at a "bend in East Eden Road by the 45 mph speed limit sign."


There is still very little light but this early counting takes advantage of what birders call the dawn chorus, the singing that announces the birds' exuberance at the arrival of another day and perhaps their appreciation for making it through another night without serving as an owl's meal.


At the second stop we add phoebe, crow, chickadee, savannah sparrow, cardinal and house finch to our species list. At the third, green heron, ring-billed gull, tufted titmouse, house wren and catbird. At the fourth Morgante sees the first cowbird and at the fifth the first grackle. By the time we have stopped these five times, he has identified 128 individual birds of 23 species. All this before dawn.


Now we run into problems in Hamburg. I have to do some creative driving to address road construction and then, as I celebrate solving this problem, I miss the turn onto Prospect Avenue. We lose about three minutes retracing our route to correct my mistake, not enough to throw off our data. (On the Nashville route I was forced to detour a mile to avoid a closed bridge.)


As so often happens on these surveys, a police car pulls up and the officer asks, "Are you okay?" I respond, "Yes," and point to the orange USGS sign Morgante has taped to our rear window. It announces: "CAUTION FREQUENT STOPS: Bird Count in Progress." The officer smiles, waves and drives on. We'll see him several times later this morning.


We continue to add birds to our species list as daylight arrives and the temperature rises. Among them are common birds like starling and goldfinch but just one each of cormorant, kestrel, hummingbird, peewee, willow flycatcher, tree and rough-winged swallow, wood thrush, hooded warbler, junco, rose-breasted grosbeak and meadowlark. By the time we finish just after 9 a.m. on Aurora Street in Lancaster, Morgante has identified 1053 birds of 56 species.


At home I download for comparison the data for the 39 earlier Hamburg counts from the USGS website. Over the years 109 species have been recorded on this route. Although we've seen just over half that species total, this year's count of individuals and number of species are both well above average.


Simply looking at the list of birds recorded in one year does not tell much. It is this longer-term record that provides important information about the change in status of a number of species.


Some have increased in numbers over the years. Among them: turkey vulture, red-bellied woodpecker, tufted titmouse and cardinal, all birds extending their range northward as the weather moderates.


Others have decreased. Some of the steepest and most worrisome declines are in grassland birds: field, vesper, savannah, grasshopper and Henslow's sparrows and meadowlark.


Like other birders I often comment about how species populations have changed locally. These carefully controlled censuses provide a stronger basis for those informal observations. And when they are summarized nationally, their value is increased exponentially.-- Gerry Rising