Each June, a night owl of a biologist gets up well before dawn to tally birds for the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey. As the assigned observer for two of Oklahoma’s routes, Mark Howery navigates to the respective areas in the dark and is at the starting points, ready to tally every bird he sees or hears in a three-minute period at each of the 50 stops, all before the sun breaks the horizon.
For biologist Mark Howery, getting up early is for the birds.
“I’m not in the habit of going to bed early to get up early. It’s hard to break a decades old habit of staying up late,” Howery said.
But each June, during the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey window, the selfproclaimed night owl shifts his sleep schedule and is at his designated routes well before dawn. “I can be motivated to wake up early for birds.” As the assigned observer for two Oklahoma Breeding Bird Survey routes located near Holdenville and Clayton, Howery navigates to the respective areas in the dark and is at the starting points, ready to tally every bird he sees or hears in a three-minute period at each of the route’s 50 stops, before the sun breaks over the horizon.
Originally developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey and Environment Canada, the Breeding Bird Survey is a long-term, large scale, international monitoring program that began in 1967. More than 4,100 routes have since been established across North America, with 62 routes located in Oklahoma. Once the route is surveyed, observers submit the data to their state’s volunteer coordinator and the analysis begins. The resulting index of bird abundance has been used to estimate trends for more than 420 bird species and their relative abundances at various scales, which can help biologists better manage the populations.
Consistency is Key
To be able to track the status and trends of North America’s bird populations, the Breeding Bird Survey relies on standardization. The same routes are run in the same month every year, according to the same procedures, regardless of which observer runs the route. The observer’s goal is “to expend the same effort in the same way each year to ensure the count numbers reflect real changes in birdlife and not changes in the methods.” Observers must be able to identify all the breeding birds in the area by sight and sound, and new observers must also successfully complete a training program before their data will be used in the survey’s analysis.
Breeding Bird Survey Specifics Where to Survey: Each survey route is approximately 24.5 miles long with 50 stops located at half-mile intervals along the route. Stop descriptions were collected at the creation of the route and the assigned observer leans on both written landmarks and their odometer to locate each stop.
When to Survey: Breeding Bird Surveys are conducted in June, during the height of avian breeding season for most of the United States, with some exceptions. Start times are route-specific but are generally 30 minutes before official sunrise. The route must be completed within five hours of the start time.
How to Survey: At each survey stop, the assigned observer tallies all birds seen within one-quarter mile of the location and all birds heard during a threeminute window. Once the three minutes are completed, the observer quickly moves to the next stop.
In many cases, the survey’s consistency also extends to its observers. Howery has been the assigned observer for the Pushmataha Breeding Bird Survey route since 2005 but joined then state coordinator Bill Carter and experienced birder Mike Dugan on a test run when they first established the route in 1993. And since 37 of the route’s 50 stops are located on the Wildlife Department’s Pushmataha Wildlife Management Area, Howery is also familiar with the extensive habitat management efforts that have taken place since 1982, when the area became a research site studying the effects of prescribed fire on an oak-pine forest.
The Pushmataha Breeding Bird Survey route’s 50 stops have been surveyed in the same way almost every year since 1994. A majority of the stops are located along Pine Tree Circle on the Wildlife Department’s Pushmataha Wildlife Management Area, near Clayton.