BRIAN ALLEN: The numbers in birding, what we count and why

By BRIAN ALLEN
Guest Columnist

This spring I did a difficult hike through the desert and up to near the top of Emery Mountain in Big Bend National Park, Texas, with a friend from Traverse City.

I’m getting a little up there in age and my hip is giving me problems from years of running. Both of us knew we needed to do this hike while we still could, or our list of North American birds wouldn’t be as high as it could be. In a canyon at the top of the mountain is a bird, the Colima Warbler, that cannot be seen in any other place in the United States. It’s a bird I’ve dreamed about seeing since I was a teenager and saw it’s picture in the field guide. The Colima Warbler was number 626 for my United States list and number 2,289 for the world.

If you ask most birders what their “life list” is they will probably know it. They might also know what their United States list is and many will know what their state list is (Michigan: 368). I know some birders that are up there in years, retired and have enough money to do some traveling that have seen 4,000, 5,000 and even 8,000 species of birds in the world. The numbers only reflect how much you have traveled and experienced in the world of birding. It’s a big deal to hit numbers like that, you have to go to a lot of places, many difficult or even dangerous to travel through.

I’ve been fortunate to see over 650 species of birds just in Peru in South America. One of the best ones, a Golden-backed Mountain Tanager, is a bird that very few people have ever seen and is on the most wanted list of birders with huge (over 3,000 species) life lists. I didn’t realize it at the time but this tanager was in a dangerous place. The State Department had a warning on travel in the region but there had been no problems there for nearly 10 years. After returning home, I had an email message from a friend that had been on the trip with me to check page 5 of the New York times for an article that “I would find interesting”. The article was titiled “American Birders Last Group to Visit Huanoco Village Before Takeover by Shining Path Guerilla Fighters”. That was us!

Brian Allen is the local organizer of the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. (News Advocate File Photo)

Most birders I know have not had to worry about guerrilla insurgents and are happy to just keep track of the birds at their feeder or in their yard (yard list: 173). There are some birders that even have nighttime audio recorders on their roof, so they can count migrants on their yard lists that they might have missed. I’m not sure that is legit but it doesn’t matter, it is their yard list. There are over 500 people with yard lists on the eBird website for the State of Michigan. The number one list is from Escanaba with 214 species.

You can also keep track of the birds in what we birders call “our patch”. A patch is an area you go birding in most of the time. In the area, there are birders with an Arcadia area patch, a Frankfort area patch and I have one called the Manistee area patch which includes sites like the Manistee State Game area and Manistee National Forest and Freeman pond in northern Mason County, areas where I can go birding in the early morning and still get home in time to have a late breakfast with my wife and do weekend chores. There are 500 people with patch lists in Michigan, and I have been fortunate to see so many species in the Manistee area that I’m ranked second on this list.

These are all what I’d call recreational reasons for lists but there are more important lists that have some utility for conservation. For over 100 years volunteers across the country go out in mid-December for the Christmas Bird Count. All birds within a 15 mile diameter circle are counted come blizzard or sunny day. Information on all counts goes back to the early 1900s and Manistee’s count to the 1970s.

I also volunteer for the U.S. Geological Service Breeding Bird Survey and count all birds and species in a region from Bear Lake to Wellston every spring. The Breeding Bird Survey or BBS has been one of the most important data sets showing the decline of migrant birds from the tropics (such as Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks etc.) from the 1960s until the present.

The eBird website mentioned above (eBird.org), keeps track of all the sightings by registered users in its massive database and this information is used to track bird populations. For example, sites are defined on the world map as “hotspots” and anyone sending in a list for birding these hotspots will have their birds added to the total hotspot list.

One hotspot right in Manistee is the First Street Beach pier, a great spot to watch migrating shorebirds, ducks, loons and gulls. There have been 152 species spotted here from over 700 checklists submitted. You can look at this site online to see where it is located and even look at graphs showing how likely it is to see any one of the 152 species.

Arcadia Marsh is another local hotspot and is one of the top 10 best hotspots in Michigan with 237 species seen. Number one in Michigan is Whitefish Point Bird Observatory on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Penninsula with 336 species due to its great location for migration and the large number of birders who are almost always searching and watching there.

You can keep track of birds and keep bird lists anywhere in the world. We have an exchange student from Brazil that will be here next fall and she is a birder. She is very excited to add “exotic” species from Michigan to her life list. Like her, I hope more of you can join in the quest and get out anywhere from your yard to places far away, and help us keep track of this fascinating world of birds.

Brian Allen has been watching birds and doing bird research for over 40 years. Readers can contact him at manisteebirder@gmail.com for more information or to send questions that could be answered in a column.

Leave a Reply