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Birding Point Counts – Day in the Life of a Wildlife Biologist

To work with wildlife you bend your schedule to fit whatever the critters require. So when you’re working with land birds, that means you get up before dawn, go to your site, and be in place before the birds really get going. The height of bird song, when everything is singing and you can hardly hear yourself think, is called the “Dawn Chorus”  and starts right about sunrise. Some species start singing earlier – American robin, pacific wren, Swainson’s thrush – but to really get the prime diversity you want to be listening at dawn and for an hour or two afterwards.

So I was up before dawn, at one OPRD’s properties in the central Willamette Valley. The property has no facilities other than some old road beds and wildlife trails that wind between agriculture fields, through riparian gallery forest, past a meadow, and terminate at a large pond with an island in the middle. There’s also wetlands, a slough, and two smaller ponds full of carp.

Here is the big pond, with part of the island on the right. The up side to early mornings is that you get to see lovely views like this, a perk of the job.

Big pond at Bower's Rock

Big pond

The gallery forest is alive with birds; right now there are adults singing and calling to each other, hunting down prey, and delivering it to their fledglings that are squealing for food at all hours. Once you start listening to bird calls you’ll start to hear the fledglings. They have this insistent “eee eee eeee!” that is new to the forest in late May and common place by the end of June.

BR forest path

Old road through gallery forest

I set up a point count on this old road access, with full forest on one side and a small pond on the other. A point count is a spot where you stand for 10 minutes, listening and watching and recording all the birds around you. I use fixed-distance point counts so that our data can join Klamath Bird Observatory’s database, and we can calculate density and abundance. With data like that, you can survey a site over multiple years and see how the bird populations are changing. Determining just how many song sparrows are singing all around you can be an intense process when there are 12 other species all calling at the same time!

What is neat at this point station is this old snag:

Snags are so important to wildlife!

Snags are so important to wildlife!

It is home to a group of acorn woodpeckers! The whole time I stood there the woodpeckers were coming and going, feeding their young. Acorn woodpeckers are best known for their clown-like facial feathers and for shoving hundreds of acorns into trees (or utility poles) to feed on over the winter. They are also unique in their flocking. Most woodpeckers are in pairs for the breeding season, raising only their young. But acorn woodpeckers are very social, and multiple females will lay eggs in the same nest cavity, taking turns incubating and feeding. This makes for a very loud group effort!

All in all, I documented 38 bird species after 5 points and walking between them, including a surprise – common poorwill. That is a rare bird for the Willamette Valley, and I doubted myself when I heard it calling. But, there’s not much that sounds like a poorwill, and I checked the call in the field with my Sibley app (woo smart phones). Yep, common poorwill. I’ll be listening for him next time I visit to see if he was resident or a stray.

I also had another uncommon resident – black phoebe! This was the second time I saw this fellow, so he is a resident. I’ve not observed a pair, so he might be an early range expander thanks to climate change. Regardless of why he is there, the little phoebe is living in the Valley this summer!

Bird List on June 12, 2013

  • Green heron
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Osprey (pair with young)
  • California quail
  • Killdeer
  • Mourning dove
  • Eurasian collared-dove
  • Common poorwill
  • Rufous hummingbird
  • Belted kingfisher
  • Acorn woodpecker
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Northern flicker
  • Western wood-peewee
  • Black phoebe
  • Western scrub-jay
  • American crow
  • Tree swallow
  • Barn swallow
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Bushtit
  • Brown creeper
  • Bewick’s wren
  • Pacific wren
  • American robin
  • Swainson’s thrush
  • European starling
  • Cedar waxwing
  • Yellow warbler
  • Common yellothroat
  • Wilson’s warbler
  • Black-headed grosbeak
  • Spotted towhee
  • Song sparrow
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Red-winged blackbird
  • American goldfinch

And after that lovely morning, I get to go back to the office and do some paperwork. Yay!