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2 Posts from March 2011

The status of North American birds: a field guide to web resources

Birding and bird biology have truly embraced the internet age.  The huge amount of information generated by amateur birders and professional ornithologists has spawned a plethora of websites devoted to birds.  Many sites offer help in bird identification, but that is not my focus here (though I will say as an aside that perhaps the best site for honing your identification skills on the birds of North America (Canada, the USA and Mexico) is Dendroica—check it out!).  Where I spend most of my time, both for business and pleasure, is on some of the myriad sites that provide information on the distribution and status of birds.  After an increasing number of requests (well, a friend of mine asked me about this last week), I offer this short guide to those websites and the information they provide on the distribution, populations and trends of North American birds. This list, presented in no particular order, is restricted to programs that span the continent; there are many other programs that run at more regional scales.

While not devoted to the status of birds (though it does highlight species of conservation concern in its checklists), Avibase is a great place to start any query into the birds of the world.  The brainchild of Denis Lepage of Bird Studies Canada, Avibase is the go-to site for information on checklists, taxonomy and nomenclature—and much more.  Do you want a checklist to the birds of Senegal using the taxonomy of Clements’ 5th edition?  Trying to figure out the taxonomic mess formerly known as the Yellow Wagtail?  Want to know what family the Cuckoo Roller is in, or the Finnish name for the American Robin? Or just need a printable field checklist for your spring break holiday in Arizona? Avibase is where you want to go.  Avibase also has a huge compendium of links to bird websites around the world and a search tool for trip reports.  It is simply an indispensable resource for the serious birder.  And, in case you’re wondering, the Cuckoo Roller is in the Leptosomidae, and the Finns call the American Robin punarintarastas.

NatureServe Explorer
This website is a goldmine of information about the conservation status of bird species (and almost every other species of plant or animal!) in every province and state in North America (and throughout Latin America through InfoNatura).  It also has range maps and short reports on the conservation biology of many species.

Partners in Flight
Partners in Flight is “a cooperative effort involving partnerships among federal, state and local government agencies, philanthropic foundations, professional organizations, conservation groups, industry, the academic community, and private individuals”  whose aim is to coordinate bird conservation throughout Canada, the United States and Mexico.  As part of its mandate, Partners in Flight has produced a large database that ranks bird species for monitoring and conservation activities.  Among other things, this database includes population estimates of each species in each state or province.  These population estimates are largely based on data from the Breeding Bird Survey, and while they generally have wide confidence limits they do provide an idea of how many individual birds are out there (e.g. Dark-eyed Junco: 260,000,000!).  Partners in Flight also developed the concept of Bird Conservation Regions, areas of North America that share similar bird faunas and conservation concerns.  Pete Blancher of Environment Canada and Bird Studies Canada has developed an interesting series of maps for Partners in Flight showing the links between provinces and states and where their breeding birds spend the winter.

Status of Birds in Canada
A new program developed by Environment Canada, this site aims to provide a clear idea of the status of each bird species in Canada.  Information on the site includes population trends, conservation and management issues, which surveys best monitor the species, and the confidence level in population trends generated by those surveys.  About 100 species are feature on the site right now and more will be added over the next few months.

This is the future of birding and the digital world—a site where birders submit their sightings data and the public can visualize those data in a remarkable number of ways— bargraph checklists of provinces, states, counties and birding hotspots; maps at all scales; frequency graphs; abundance graphs; tables; rarity alerts and much more.  eBird recently went global, so you can enter or view data from anywhere on earth—and the database now contains over 4 million checklists listing 9022 species from 223 countries.  There is so much more to eBird that I can’t do it justice here—suffice to say it can be seriously addictive, both in terms of uploading data and trolling through the maps and graphs.  eBird has many regional portals for different countries and states, but all the data is stored and analyzed centrally; for instance if you enter data through the eBird Canada portal, your information will be visible on the primary eBird website and vice versa.

Breeding Bird Survey
This is one of the primary sources of data on the status of North American birds.  The BBS was started in 1966 by Chandler Robbins of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in response to growing concerns about population declines in North American songbirds.  It has grown into a remarkable effort of 4100 volunteers who survey the continent each summer.  The population trends generated from this huge database are available through the USGS website and the Environment Canada website (trends for Canadian populations can differ slightly between the two sites because of differences in methodology).  You can also view range maps generated by the data, including maps that show increasing or decreasing populations.  If you are interested in doing your own analyses, you can even download the raw data.

Christmas Bird Count
The grandfather of all broadscale bird surveys, the Christmas Bird Count has data on the distribution and numbers of birds across North America back to the year 1900.  You can explore this data by count or by species.  The data has proved valuable for generating long-term population trends, as well as analyses that demonstrate shifts in species’ ranges due to climate change.

Project FeederWatch
Project FeederWatch was started in 1976 by the Long Point Bird Observatory (now Bird Studies Canada).  First called the Ontario Bird Feeder Survey, it was renamed Project FeederWatch when it expanded across the continent in 1987.  It is now jointly run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada and in partnership with the National Audubon Society and Nature Canada.  It has participants (10,000 each year, 16,000 overall) in every state and province in the United States and Canada and generates about 5 million bird records annually.  Participants monitor their backyard bird populations regularly from November through early April each year.  You can explore the data through tables and maps (many of the animated through time, either within years or between years).  The data can be used to calculate population trends, investigate the irruptions of finches and other species, and document range expansions or contractions.  It has also been used to effectively track the spread of bird diseases, such as the mycoplasmal conjunctivitis that swept through eastern House Finch populations in the 1990s.

Great Backyard Bird Count
This program is designed as a simple survey that a wide range of participants can easily participate in.  It is run jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society; Bird Studies Canada is the Canadian partner.  Participants are asked to report the numbers and species of birds they see on any day in a set 4-day period in February.  Over 90,000 checklists are now submitted each year.  It was originally restricted to backyards, but participants were so enthusiastic about the survey that the rules were relaxed and now allow reports from any site in North America.  You can explore the data through online tools similar to those used in Project FeederWatch, including the animated annual maps--here's a link to the animated map showing the spread of the Eurasian Collared-Dove across North America. There is also an array of online educational materials to help participants identify common birds.

Migration monitoring
In conjunction with programs that count birds on the breeding grounds (such as the Breeding Bird Survey) or on the wintering grounds (such as the Christmas Bird Count), there are programs that count birds as they fly north in spring and south in fall.  The grandfather of these programs in North America is the Long Point Bird Observatory on the north shore of Lake Erie in Ontario.  LPBO began monitoring birds in 1960, and after it was demonstrated that the data could indeed be used to generate meaningful population trends the model was expanded across the continent.  The Canadian Migration Monitoring Network now has more than 25 full members across Canada (and one in the northern USA), most of which have been operating for more than 10 years.  While it is very labour-intensive (generally involving daily censuses and standardized mist-netting for at least two months every year), migration monitoring offers some advantages over other surveys.  It can effectively monitor populations that nest in remote northern forests that are impossible to survey on a broad scale in summer, as well as populations that winter in Central and South America where there are few winter surveys underway.  Fall migration monitoring also offers data on age ratios in birds (since a portion of the birds surveyed are extracted from nets and can be closely examined before release) and thus provides a quick index of breeding success for each species that year.  And because most of these birds are banded, the program contributes data to the calculation of survivorship of songbirds.  You can read a 10-year summary report of the results here.

Breeding Bird Atlases
Many states and provinces (and even some counties) have Breeding Bird Atlas projects which, although they are regional in scope by definition, can provide remarkably detailed and important data on bird distribution and abundance across the continent when looked at together.  These atlas projects are listed on the North American Ornithological Atlas Committee (NORAC) website.  Breeding Bird Atlases endeavour to provide a snap-shot, usually over  a 5-year span, of the distribution and abundance of breeding birds in the region.  The standard atlas generally divides up the area into small squares, then asks participants to go into as many squares as possible and inventory the species there, gathering evidence of breeding from as many species as possible.  Once an atlas has been completed in a state or province, the project can be rerun at some time in the future (usually 20 years) to generate comparative data for trend analyses.  Most earlier atlases were published only as books but more and more atlases (even those in still in the data-gathering phase) now have data displayed online as well.  A good example of an online atlas is that from Ontario.  Here are the websites of some atlases in progress, if you’re looking for an exciting place to go for your summer holidays:  British Columbia, Manitoba, Ohio, Québec, South Dakota.

Raw Data
If you are a real raw data junkie, you can download data from most of these programs online.  There are varying levels of permission needed, but a lot of data (e.g. eBird) is freely available at the click of a link.  The Avian Knowledge Network is the primary online source for data from across the Western Hemishpere; for Canadian data you can also go to the NatureCounts website. 

Legal Status
For information on the legal status of species of conservation concern, go to the following sites:  

Canada Species At Risk Act

United States Endangered Species Act

A new year in the Okanagan

If we could have regional New Years Days, I would vote for March 1st here in the Okanagan Valley.  January 1st is definitely too much of a midwinter day to even think of new beginnings, and Chinese New Year is usually a little early for that true feeling of rebirth around here.  But by the end of February, the snow that fell in January is usually gone for good, the sun is warm on your back, the first wildflowers are blooming and most importantly, the birds are celebrating a new year in all sorts of ways.


Sagebrush buttercups announce springtime in the Okanagan

The first migrants usually show up in late February.  Small flocks of pintail rest on meltwater pools in pastures, Western Meadowlarks sing once again from the sagebrush and Say’s Phoebes sally for midges along the banks of the Okanagan River.  The phoebes are joined by the first of the swallows—usually Violet-green but sometimes Tree Swallows as well. The resident birds that have toughed it out over winter begin to sing again—a few robins tuning up in the morning, a Song Sparrow singing from a rose thicket. 

I realized yesterday that I’d been writing this blog for almost exactly a year now, so I checked back to see what I’d said in my first post.  I talked about hearing the first meadowlark on the last day of February and seeing an early Turkey Vulture on March 7.  This year things are a bit later, it being a La Niña year.  [As I typed the last sentence, Russell tapped on the window to tell me he’d just heard the first meadowlark of the year—I ran out but the late afternoon soundscape was drowned out by a flock of singing robins, a horde of trilling Bohemian Waxwings and a cacophony of excited quail.  Tomorrow morning I’ll listen again.]

Early March is also owl time.  The Great Horned Owls, admittedly, started hooting full tilt back in January (they’d probably vote for a January 1st New Years, come to think of it) and are all on eggs by now.  The commonest owl here, the Northern Saw-whet Owl, is in full voice these long spring nights, the males’ monotonous whistles echoing through the trees.  This is also when the local Western Screech-Owl pairs start chatting to each other again. 

With this in mind, I led an owling event a couple of nights ago to Gillies Creek, part of the Skaha Bluffs property bought by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, The Land Conservancy of BC and the province of British Columbia.  I was worried that we’d be overwhelmed by participants, but a wave of spring flu and a forecast for cold rain or snow showers kept a few folks at home and we had a manageable crowd of about 50 enthusiastic and warmly dressed souls show up at the gate.  As darkness fell, a pair of Great Horned Owls started calling back and forth from the south side of the creek, the sexes easily identified by the pitch and length of the calls.  Females have higher pitched calls and tend to go on a bit, with 5 to 7 hoots in their calls, while males are lower-pitched and keep the call shorter—usually 4 hoots.


Western Screech-Owl

We hiked up the road a ways before I started to whistle like a screech-owl to see if we could get a response from the local pair.  The Great Horneds were still loudly calling though, and perhaps the screech-owls were a little worried about responding.  I tried again farther up with no luck, so switched to the monotonous whistle of the saw-whet.  A male quickly answered, then flew into the ponderosa right above our heads to call back, then moved off into the birches, meowing in curious defiance.  We started back down the hill and I tried one last time for the screech-owls and got a quick response—a short bark followed by the hollow whistles in an accelerating cadence—the “bouncing ball” call.  It was the male (again, identified by the low pitch of his calls); he came in for a close look, then flew back to the centre of his territory and was quiet again.  We left him in peace and resumed crunching down the icy road to the cars.

Yesterday was such glorious day—sunny, warm and calm—that I couldn’t resist going for a bicycle ride to Vaseux Lake.  I felt I’d surely see something new for the year—a killdeer, a phoebe, or maybe a swallow or two.  For once, Skaha Lake was like glass as I headed south, the highlight being a pair of Trumpeter Swans feeding close to shore in the morning sun.  A little further on, I spotted a pair of Killdeer huddled silently in a field of corn stubble, looking tired after their flight from the south.  At Okanagan Falls I was sidelined for a short while with a flat tire, but I fortified myself with coffee, put a new tube in the tire and continued south down the Okanagan River.  The dippers were chattering and chasing at the dam, but I couldn’t see any signs of new nest building on the structure, though one of the dippers sat on one of the sluice gates.

There were no goldeneyes at all below the dam, surprising since the flock of Barrow’s Goldeneyes that winter there is one of the most reliable features of birding in the south Okanagan.  As I continued south, I quickly found them along with hordes of Mallards and Bufflehead on the smooth water below the next drop structure.  All the ducks were feeding in the same way, scooping some obviously abundant but tiny food items from the water surface.  It was a big hatch of midges, the adults emerging from their pupae and popping to the surface of the river, where the lucky ones flew off to join throngs of their friends in an early spring mating dance and the unlucky ones became duck food.  I reasoned that surely there must be a phoebe around here, or a flock of swallows, to take advantage of this abundance.  Even I, though not exactly well adapted to flycatching, was having no trouble scooping up quantities of flies in my teeth.  But no phoebes or swallows were to be seen.

In the evening, Russell and I covered my route for the BC-Yukon Nocturnal Owl Survey, listening at 20 points along the White Lake Road.  We heard two saw-whets and three Great Horned Owls, as well as a lot of Canada Geese honking overhead.  I’m not sure what the geese were doing or where they were going, but they were excited about something.  It’s a new year, after all.