Breeding Bird Survey is a Rich Ritual

Indigo Bunting by Dan Pancamo on Flickr
Indigo Bunting

I can think of no better way to welcome summer than by counting birds. Their bright songs and feathers speak eloquently of light and vitality. Every year the North American Breeding Bird Survey delivers small splendours for my eyes and ears. I have participated since 2000, always within a few days of June 21. It is my way of celebrating the solstice.

The BBS involves cooperation between the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Service, Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service and thousands of skilled volunteers across the continent. I am one of them. I am supposed to start a half hour before sunrise (4:54 a.m. where I am) and follow the same route every year. I drive a 40-km stretch of road, stop at exactly the same 50 spots each year, get out of the car and tally all the birds I can hear or see in three minutes. The early start time is essential because birds are most active around sunrise. The run takes about five hours. I must be able to recognize every species I am likely to observe. Since my route traverses mature deciduous forest, much of my work is done by ear.

Learning all those songs and calls, and refreshing my knowledge each spring, has been the most challenging and rewarding part of the job. It is delightful to walk through a song-filled woods and know what you are hearing. Other bird-lovers are eager for me to share this knowledge.

I was fortunate to inherit a route close to my family’s cottage near Algonquin Provincial Park. So every June I must be sure to set aside a few days to travel there and perform the survey. It is one of my favourite days of the year.

Mourning warbler by Richard Orr on Flickr
Mourning warbler

This year I did the survey on June 24. The conditions were ideal: a still, clear morning with hardly any wind. Because we have had such a warm, dry spring, I had no black flies to contend with and only a few mosquitoes and deer flies.

The total species count of 61 broke the old record (in 2009) of 59. Two common birds I had not previously recorded on the route appeared: tree swallow and brown creeper. At one point I heard what sounded like a yellow-billed cuckoo, but the site lies outside its recorded range. The bird was probably a black-billed cuckoo, which naturalist Chris Earley tells me is known to exchange calls with its cousin. I observed 16 warbler species.

Every year the survey delivers one or two special treats, rewards for my labour. This year the prizes were extremely close views of two splendid birds normally seen at a distance. The male indigo bunting usually appears as a small, dark bird singing at the top of a tree. This year I startled a pair which evidently had a nest near the ground by the roadside. They came out to scold me and I saw the male at close range in excellent light to show off his splendid plumage, an unforgettable sight. At another stop a male mourning warbler approached and scolded me with a green caterpillar in his beak. This was the first time I had seen one along the route instead of hearing it away in the woods.

The Breeding Bird Survey requests volunteers conduct the same route for as many years as possible. Consistent data is most useful in gauging population dynamics. This job is a delight and privilege. I hope to continue marking the change of seasons this way for a long time.

Photo of indigo bunting courtesy of Dan Pancamo. Photo of mourning warbler courtesy of Richard Orr.

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