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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Biologists in Alabama Study Up for Bird Survey

Posting signs
Service biologist Matt Laschet and Kelly Reetz with Alabama Gulf State Park post educational bird signs on the beach. Credit: Dianne Ingram/USFWS

The Alabama Gulf Coast has always been an attractive destination for tourists and migratory birds alike, so the Service’s Alabama Ecological Services Field Office takes part in the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS).  Although they are still compiling and analyzing the 2014 data, biologists learned a lot from last year’s survey.

In 2013, biologists conducted surveys on five 24.5-mile routes in Baldwin and Mobile counties with survey points every half-mile. More than 100 survey routes may eventually be completed annually in Alabama.

All birds seen and heard are counted and identified to species level during a 3-minute stop at each location. In addition to counting birds, the number of cars passing survey points is also recorded, as well as weather conditions.

A participant has to be well-versed in the identification of bird songs and calls.  “To participate in bird surveys, we need to be capable of identifying more than 150 species of breeding birds by sight and sound,” says biologist Dianne Ingram, the office’s lead on migratory birds.

As you can imagine, recognizing a mixture of bird songs is no easy task.  There are training tools in place to help out, bird books, CDs and birding software.  However, becoming proficient at identifying birds simply by their calls and songs requires a lot of time studying, experience and maybe a special knack. 

“You need to be able to both hear the songs or calls and identify the specific bird,” says Jeff Gleason, an avian ecologist in the office.   Biologists also must ensure they do not introduce bias or unfair numbers into the survey.

In 2013, biologists with the Service’s Alabama Ecological Services Field Office counted 3,261 birds representing a total of 100 species. In addition, they encountered 1,488 vehicles. The route around Dauphin Island had the greatest abundance and diversity of birds compared to the other routes.

Biologists are also focusing on beach nesting birds.  Least terns are considered late spring and summer nesters on Alabama beaches, as are American oystercatchers, and Wilson’s and snowy plovers –all species of conservation concern along the Gulf of Mexico coast. 

“One of our priority actions is to expand systematic, repeatable beach-nesting bird surveys into Alabama,” says Ingram.  “Our hope is to tie into other states’ surveys to create a Gulf Coast-wide beach-nesting bird monitoring network.”

Ultimately, biologists and researchers will use this information to target conservation efforts, potentially affording birds and their habitats with additional protection, which are impacted primarily by development and sea-level rise. 

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