A Day in the Life of a Bird Counter


Diane VanLandingham owns ranchland near LaJunta, Colorado, and has permitted bird counters with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies onto her land to survey bird species and count their populations. She’s an enthusiastic participant in a new bird-counting program that provides higher quality data on bird populations and records information on the plants making up a local habitat. Jeff Birek is a bird counter and team manager with the Conservancy. He talks about the work of documenting bird populations.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

[bird song]

How many different types of birds do you hear?  And can you identify them? This is a recording of what a bird-counter hears when out in the field, gathering data on bird species and their populations. We’re hearing the songs of the Lazuli Bunting, Yellow-breasted Chat, Black-capped Chickadee,  House Finch, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, recorded near the north fork of the Gunnison River in Colorado.

Diane VanLandingham owns ranchland south of LaJunta, with different habitat and birds than you just heard. “The land is grassland — grazing, basically, for cattle. It’s shortgrass prairie land. It’s kind of fragile grassland.”

Bird counters from Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory — now known as Bird Conservancy of the Rockies — they’ve gathered data on bird numbers and species on Diane’s land.

“We have Mourning Doves, Mockingbirds, Barn Swallows, Hawks, Quail, Barn Owls, Great Horned Owls on occasion, Loggerhead Shrikes, Meadowlarks, Lark Buntings and Orioles… of course, I saw the Roadrunner a few weeks ago. King birds were chasing the Roadrunner down the driveway the last time I saw him.”

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies is always enlisting private landowners to help by allowing bird counters onto their land to count birds. Jeff Birek is a bird counter.

“Most of the detecting of birds that we do is done by ear, so we’re doing it aurally instead of visually. We guesstimate somewhere around 80 to 90 percent of our detections are by sound.”

Birek is an outreach specialist with the Bird Conservancy. He organizes technicians who go out and count birds. The counters have a GPS device to locate exact points, but otherwise it’s pretty low tech. First, the technician notes the plants, grasses and shrubs that make up the local habitat. Then the technician counts birds for six minutes. They record the count.

[Bird song]

“Most of the time you can keep up. You’re kind of just racing and writing along as quick as possible and listening. You get better at it as you practice, so we spend a lot of time at our training in April and May to get really good at that.”

[Bird song]

Bird counting is done in spring and early summer. That’s when males are advertising for mates, and couples are defending territory, and they’re singing up a storm. This is work Birek loves to do.

“In 2008, in Colorado, I found a Northern Parula up at 12,000 feet, which is a weird bird to find way up at 12,000 feet. You learn a ton about everything else as well, I mean I’ve learned a lot about wildflowers, mushrooms and all sorts of other things in nature — insects. It’s been a great experience, and a great way for me to take my love of birds and make it into something and feel like I’m part of something bigger and better.”

LaJunta grassland owner Diane VanLandingham talks about why bird surveys are important.

“I think it’s very important because it maintains the balance of the environment. As long as that kind of thing is important, it’s also important to track their population. So I think it’s a very useful program.”

Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures. Thanks to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, in Ithaca New York, for featured bird songs.

Original broadcast: September 2015

Posted: July 24, 2016
Topics: Grassland Birds