A handful of Mountain Bluebirds and Western Meadowlarks are working local fence lines, a Tree Swallow twitters high in the sky, the neighborhood House Finches are singing while the Northern Flickers rattle off calls. We can feel the anticipation growing as the grass greens and the days grow longer. It is Spring again! Soon we will strap on our binoculars and clipboards to survey breeding birds in the pastures, grasslands, and sagebrush steppe of ranches enrolled in the MT Audubon Conservation Ranching (ACR) program.
To date, we’ve enrolled approximately 92,000 acres across nine bird-friendly ranches into the MT ACR program. These ranches partner with Montana Audubon to implement adaptive Habitat Management Plans–plans meant to maintain, create, and enhance bird habitat. This is critical work, due to the fact that grassland birds are imperiled. As value added to the rancher, the Bird-Friendly Certification and seal conveys good land stewardship practices and empowers consumers to purchase meat products that support these practices, often at a higher premium. To measure the efficacy of how grassland bird communities respond to ACR land management, bird monitoring is critical.
We’ve been hard at work mapping ranch boundaries and randomly allocating survey points within these boundaries. After confirming survey dates with ranchers, we will conduct all surveys between mid-May to early July to capture peak avian breeding activity. We are divvying surveys between our expert staff. Montana Audubon surveyors will conduct one survey per day. This entails starting a half-hour before sunrise and surveying until 5 hours past sunrise. Surveyors will attempt to complete 10, 6-minute point-counts for each survey, identifying all birds by sight and sound at each point. This data will help our partner, National Audubon, generate a “Bird Friendliness Index” for each MT ACR ranch.
Avian surveys, in this case “Point-Counts”, take high-level birding skills. A surveyor tries to record each individual avian detection within the minute it occurred, and also record a horizontal distance to each bird, or flock of birds, with the help of a rangefinder. Imagine how difficult this can be on a vast prairie with Horned Larks, Longspurs, Lark Buntings, and Sprague’s Pipits performing flight displays, Long-billed Curlews dive-bombing in territorial aggression, Western Meadowlarks and Vesper Sparrows singing from fence lines, Grasshopper Sparrows buzzing quietly from the tall grass, with Franklin’s, Ring-billed, and California gulls passing overhead, and Swainson’s Hawks and Golden Eagles kettling in the thermals.
It is an incredibly exciting time as we prepare for bird monitoring on ACR Ranches. Time to grease up the boots, check the batteries on our GPS units, and get the legs back into shape for some serious walking. Not to mention the pre-dawn wake-up call!