By Adam Betuel, Director of Conservation
Though the spring migration period has ended, there are still many exciting bird watching opportunities. Even though bird diversity in Atlanta takes a significant dip after the migrants continue north, June is the perfect time to really learn about local birds and to dive into the interesting world of breeding behavior. This month, many of our year-round residents will have fledglings around while returning migrants are just beginning breeding activity. This time of years overflows with speckled eggs, chirping babies, nests of all shapes and sizes, and an auditory flood that will make the most nature-centric of us feel alive.
Many of our members have invested in nest boxes or martin gourds and for years have enjoyed the synchrony of the early summer and the new life that comes with it. Others have periodically observed a robin with a wet piece of grass heading towards a nest or maybe even had a pair of Carolina Wrens use an old bike helmet or watering can to raise a brood. While all of these avian encounters are exciting and illustrate why we feel so connected to nature through birds, there are ways we can add even more to these observations. Like eBird and the Christmas Bird Count, there are community science programs that focus on breeding behavior that educate the bird lover and inform the conservationist.
NestWatch is a Cornell Lab of Ornithology program that is accessible to bird enthusiasts of all levels. Via their website or app, users can learn how to safely monitor a pair of birds during the entirety of the nesting process while also providing data to researchers. NestWatch also provides you with information on how to find a nest that is not in a box, species specific details, how to attract a species to your space, and all the intricacies of the chick rearing process. Once you are familiar with the data entry process, this program will allow you to keep records of your nest box or tree cavity year after year and see how the birds in your yard are have fared over time. It truly is a fun and easy way to connect with the birds of your patch while gaining a better understanding of bird behavior.
Requiring a bit more skill and limited in the number of participants, the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is a jewel in the community science arena. Like the Christmas Bird Count, the BBS is a long-term dataset dating back to 1966. Famed ornithologist Chandler Robbins started the BBS in hopes of monitoring breeding populations of birds over large geographic areas, specifically in the post-pesticide era. Though the causes of bird declines today may be different or more diverse, the valuable data collected during the BBS can be used by researchers and managers to better understand population changes and determine appropriate responses.
So how does one conduct a BBS? BBS surveys take place during the peak of the breeding season, from late May through June in Georgia. Each survey is done along a predetermined route of 24.5 miles that was randomly chosen years ago to provide a sampling of the habitat of that region. The observer conducting the count stops along their route every half mile, totaling 50 stops, and completes a three-minute stationary point count. All birds seen or heard are recorded as is the number of vehicles that pass by during the survey window. BBS routes start about 30 minutes before sunrise and take roughly five hours to complete. In Georgia, there are over 90 BBS survey routes, and across the U.S.there are more than 4,100 total routes.
During the month of June, I become immersed in breeding biology and both of these community science programs. Before entering the office, I often check the bluebird boxes across the Blue Heron Nature Preserve or search for cup nests along the creek. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks have nested in the same clump of trees near the Emma Wetlands since I first moved to Atlanta, and it always give me warmth and excitement to see them try again. I input all of this data into NestWatch and enjoy comparing the current year to previous years. I am lucky enough to have two BBS routes, and they are one of my favorite things to do each year. One of my routes begins just north of Metter and allows me to enjoy the birds and dusty roads of the Coastal Plain habitat. Mississippi Kites, Common Ground-Doves, Loggerhead Shrikes, and the occasional Prothonotary Warbler bring me joy on that typically warm morning each year. A couple of weeks after completing this route, I sample the bird communities of Walker and Dade County in the extreme northwest corner of our state. Ridges and valleys as well as quaint family farms dot this route, as do the Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Worm-eating Warblers, and Indigo Buntings. These two surveys remind me each year that we have such an amazing diversity in habitats and avian life here in Georgia.
So while the last Cape May and Canada Warblers are making their way north, I encourage you all to not just dream of the fall to come but rather devote yourself to learning more about those nesting chickadees and towhees. Try to find a nest or some newly fledged babies. This isn’t easy but it is a worthy challenge, and you will learn much along the way. When the House Wrens stake claim to your nest box, give them some study and report your findings. Monitor them safely and consciously. Be active with community science, visit parts of the city or state that maybe you haven’t in the past, and enjoy the excitement and energy that flows from this summer season.