The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Breeding Bird Surveys
Ro Wauer, June 6, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

Last week I completed my annual breeding bird survey, one of 140 surveys conducted annually in Texas, and one of 2,444 run throughout the United States each year. Adding the 391 surveys conducted in Canada brings the total to 2,835. My route, known as "Yoakum," number 83-314, produced 718 birds of 55 species this year, with about the same numbers that I recorded in previous years. High species included 129 northern cardinals, 61 black vultures, 48 painted buntings, 44 American crows, 33 tufted titmice, 32 Carolina chickadees, 28 Carolina wrens, and 27 northern mockingbirds.

Some of the less abundant species, however, were somewhat different than usual. Finding eleven wood storks, four white-tailed kites, and two roadrunners were somewhat surprising, as these birds are rarely recorded on the Yoakum survey. The wood storks were of special interest, as these huge black-and-white waders nest in coastal Mexico and wander north into Texas afterwards. Five northern bobwhites were more than usual, good evidence of a good year for bobwhites. But fewer loggerhead shrikes, dickcissels, and lark sparrows suggests poor years for those species. Of course, local weather conditions influence breeding birds to a significant degree. Droughts and greater than normal rainfall seriously affect a bird's nesting potential. That is why it is important when accessing bird populations in any area to examine long-term records rather than those for a single or even several years.

Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) are designed for long-term data-gather. Under the coordination of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and with state coordinators, BBS have been undertaken in some areas for 30 years. Victoria's own Brent Ortego, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is the Texas State coordinator who assigns routes and provides advice as needed. The long-term database produced from the BBS provides researchers and other interested people with the very best understanding of the changes in bird numbers available anywhere. Anyone can query the database at

The surveys are all conducted with the same protocol. Each must begin at 6am, about the time when songbirds are most active. Each route is 25 miles in length, with stops every half-mile, resulting in 50 stops. Each stop is three minutes in duration, during which time the counter records on a tally sheet every bird detected visually or audibly. Oftentimes the first few stops are so full of morning songs that it can be difficult to sort through them all, and by the time the last 20 or so stops are made birdsong is usually only a shadow of what it was at the start of the route. I have found that visual observations, especially early in the mornings, are less important than the audible clues. But as the day begins to warm up and the vultures and hawks begin to fly, visual observations become important as well.

My Yoakum route runs from the junction of Kaiser-Adams Roads and SH 3010, just south of Yoakum, westward toward Cuero, Lockhart Cemetery Road across SH 183, past the prison onto SH 766, and branching northwest onto a county road toward Cheapside. I mention my route because a number of people pass me standing on the roadside, trying to ignore them, while watching and listening for what birds can be detected during each three-minute period. Occasionally someone will stop and ask if I need assistance, or some folks just stop to visit. I do appreciate those who stop to ask if I need help. Most folks, when they discover that I am doing a "breeding bird survey" in their neighborhood, just look at me as if they are uncertain about my intentions. Most understand and go on, leaving me to enjoy the morning and what birds the day may provide. BBSs are fun and most worthwhile!


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