This morning (June 19) my alarm clock sounded at 4 a.m., just as it did for the last 20 years on the single mid-June day that I chose to conduct my Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) route in Fulton County. Light in the east was barely beginning to show when I left the house at 4:20, planning to be in place at the beginning of my route well before the official start time.
Then, at exactly 5 a.m., I began counting birds at the first of 50 stops, each one half-mile apart. For three minutes at each stop I recorded on a sheet of paper all adult birds seen or heard within a quarter mile.
Between stops, I drove like a maniac as fast as I could to the next stop. There is no time to waste on this survey, because all of the stops must be completed by 10 o’clock. That leaves very little time for even small delays.
On the passenger seat next to me was a map and a list of site descriptions. Because this was the 21st time that I have been on this route, I was fairly familiar with the landmarks and the stop locations, but I still needed to pay close attention to where I was heading, as any confusion would cause needless delays. In the early years, conducting the survey was a much more frantic experience when the clock kept ticking as I wasted precious minutes trying to determine whether or not I was actually at the correct stops.
The Breeding Bird Survey is coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. There are 3,533 BBS routes in the United States in all states except Hawaii. Canada has 996 routes. Not all of the routes are sampled, though, probably because there are insufficient numbers of qualified individuals to do the counts or not enough people who have the time. Last year in Illinois, for example, only 85 of 101 routes were sampled.
After completing my route today at 9:16 a.m., the first thing that I did, as in every year, was head for the nearest convenient store in Table Grove for a cup of coffee. My work was not over, though, because sometime in the next several weeks I would have to enter the count data into the BBS database via the Internet.
Surprisingly, entering the data is a very satisfying part of doing the BBS route because I know that my data will be used by ornithologists around the country to analyze trends in bird populations. And natural resource managers will look at the trends as they weigh various factors in making critical management decisions. For now, though, the field work is finished until next year.
(Incidentally, the total bird species count for this route from 1993 to 2013 is 85, with an average of 53 species per year. The number of individual birds counted ranged from a low of 543 in 2013 to a high of 945 in 1994. The BBS web site has all of the data for the entire survey available for viewing and analysis.)
[NOTE: An earlier version of this essay appeared in 2012 at the Pekin Daily Times online.]