Surveying Birds from Mountains to Plains

By July 26, 2013Science

Editor’s note: On a warm summer morning, Communications & Membership Coordinator Teddy Parker-Renga spent a day on the prairie with biologist Erin Youngberg and field technician Denis Perez to survey birds as part of the Mountains to Plains project:

Surveying Birds

Biologist Erin Youngberg surveys birds on a City of Fort Collins property by the Colorado-Wyoming border. Photo by Teddy Parker-Renga.

“I hear a Lark Bunting, singing,” says Erin Youngberg, a biologist with RMBO’s International team. I jot down “LARB,” the four-digit code for Lark Bunting, and “S,” the code for singing, on the data sheet. Erin looks through the rangefinder dangling from her neck and sights the bird. “It’s at 183 meters,” she says. I write down the number on the sheet.

Amid the symphony of songs and flittering of wings on the prairie that morning, Erin continues to locate birds and I dutifully jot down the information on the data sheet.

It’s a little after sunrise, and I’ve joined Erin and field technician Denis Perez as they conduct breeding bird surveys and gather vegetation data on a property owned by the City of Fort Collins close to the Colorado-Wyoming border. The work is part of the Mountains to Plains Region, a joint project between Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and the city to aid conservation and management of grasslands in Colorado.

Grassland Conservation

Grassland bird populations have declined more steeply than any other group of North American birds. Since 2006, RMBO has partnered with the City of Fort Collins to inventory and monitor grassland birds on city-owned properties in Larimer and Weld counties. These properties represent some of the most significant grasslands in northern Colorado and support populations of more than 20 high-priority bird species, including Chestnut-collared Longspur, Prairie Falcon and a suite of sparrows. The project gets its name for the region’s unique habitat, a high-elevation prairie that stretches from mountains to plains.

Burrowing Owl

A Burrowing Owl peers across the prairie at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. Photo by Denis Perez.

In 2013, Erin, Denis and others conducted bird surveys across approximately 4,000 acres of prairie dog towns and 500 acres of saltbush on Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and adjacent city properties. The surveys took place during the breeding bird season, from the end of April to July, and it was a robust season, Erin says. She’s pleased to see the return of Cassin’s Sparrows to the region, which were absent in 2012, and an increase in detections of Mountain Plovers and Burrowing Owls.

“We want to know how populations of these birds are doing,” Erin says. “The presence of these birds indicates a healthy, intact grassland ecosystem.” With the data it collects, RMBO will provide the City of Fort Collins – and others interested in bird conservation in this region – with management recommendations and distribution maps to help ensure populations of grassland birds remain healthy, Erin says.

International Traveler

Just as many birds migrate across borders in the spring, so did field technician Denis Perez. Denis is a resident of Chihuahua City, Mexico, who assisted RMBO with its grassland bird winter survival study this past winter. Denis says she’s enjoyed the chance to see the birds she studied on their wintering grounds in Mexico on their breeding grounds here in Colorado, especially the chicks!

Lark Bunting

Lark Buntings abound at this survey site. Photo by Denis Perez.

Back on the prairie, the temperature starts to rapidly rise and I begin to feel the hot sun beating on my neck. The birds also have become less active, so Erin and Denis call off surveys for the morning. It’s been a productive day, to say the least. Along with a slew of Lark Buntings, Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks, the two surveyors detected a Brewer’s Sparrow, two Say’s Phoebes, three Cassin’s Sparrows, four Sage Thrashers and seven Vesper Sparrows, among other priority species. The highlight for me was viewing a Loggerhead Shrike chase a little brown bird. Fortunately for the “LBB,” it got away.

To view yearly reports from the project, visit the Mountains to Plains Region web page.

A special thank you is owed to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act grant program and the City of Fort Collins for funding this project.

~ Teddy Parker-Renga, Communications & Membership Coordinator