Off The Porch with Judy and Don Self
Once a year, observers all over North America set aside a morning during the height of nesting season to travel their assigned routes identifying and counting all of the breeding birds that they encounter as part of the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This effort is sponsored by the US Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Environment Canada and is in its 43rd year.
There are over 4400 individual routes in the U.S. and Canada; 92 of them are in Alabama. Each 24.5-mile route consists of 50-stops spaced one-half mile apart. The observer follows the same route each year and spends 3 minutes at each stop looking and listening for any breeding birds that are within ¼ mile of the stop. The data collected provide a measure of how our breeding bird populations are doing.
We’re responsible for the Gastonburg Route and we’ve been surveying it for the last 8 years. It begins in the community of Rehoboth in northwestern Wilcox County (about 3 miles north of Canton Bend on the Alabama River) and travels through Gastonburg to Consul in Marengo County and then up the southern panhandle of Perry County to a point 2 miles south of Uniontown. Our assigned starting time is 5:12 am and we strive to complete the route before 10:00 am when most birds take a break from singing.
It’s a team effort. Don gets out of the car and does the identification chores (looking and listening) while Judy keeps track of the time and records the species and their numbers. We always carry our list of stop descriptions to insure we are at precisely the right place, but, the truth be known, after all these years we could run the route without it.
Over the years we think that a pattern is beginning to emerge. Stop 2 is the “Chuck-will’s-widow stop.” Stop 8 in moist woodlands is the “Acadian Flycatcher stop.” Stop 9 in Gastonburg always produces a variety of birds (10 species this year), but Stop 15 with eastern red cedar on one side and an old clear-cut on the other always produces the most (15 species this year). At the other end of the spectrum is stop 44 in the “bird desert” (no birds this year and only a couple last year). Stop 47 is the “Field Sparrow stop” and Stop 49 is the “Mockingbird stop.”
But, Judy says that birding is all about serendipity. Bird a section of road, then turn around and bird in the opposite direction and the cast of characters always changes! And so it did again this year. The Morning doves, Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, Northern Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice and American Crows were plentiful as always. But the presence of a Broad-winged Hawk who had attracted a mob of about 40 American Crows did help the crow count. And a stray cat looking for a hand-out became a bit of a blessing when it attracted the attention of our only Brown Thrasher.
Last year our big surprise was the male Scarlet Tanager at Stop 42 (on the fringe of the “bird desert”). This year, it was the two first-year Bald Eagles at Stop 14, perched in an old snag in the middle of a recent clear-cut, less than 100 yards from us! Even though these two youngsters lacked the white head and tail of adults, they were still impressive. We hope that they’ll stay in the area and in another 4 years, when they reach maturity, we’ll be able to count them. And, yes we called a temporary halt to the proceedings to enjoy these two magnificent birds.
This citizen science does on occasion offer a few challenges. The perpetual challenge is arising well before sunrise, loading all our gear and stuffing some breakfast in our faces (we usually opt for cheese crackers and diet cola). The other problem that we’ve encountered lately is washed-out bridges and culverts. Two years running, we’ve had a bridge or culvert disappear during the week before our count. This year we dutifully performed our route reconnaissance a week before the date we planned to run the survey. All was fine. But, 3 days of heavy rains leading up to June 6, washed-out the temporary culvert next to the fallen down bridge at Gastonburg and, once again, we were forced to make a mad dash around the chasm. Ah! That Murphy guy never sleeps.
As always, the weather was perfect and it was the typical wonderful morning birding. We saw or heard 53 species of birds and 498 individuals (and 3 white-tailed deer, 2 coyotes, 3 cottontails, an armadillo and both fox and gray squirrels).