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BBSs and BYs

One of the nice things about having other birding commitments when doing a big year (not to be confused with being committed to birding or needing to be committed for birding) is that it gives the big year birder a valid reason to take a break from the big year push. One of my annual birding commitments is that I do annual Breeding Bird Surveys (BBSs) and have for about 10 years. Even though I have never seen a new “year-bird” when doing a BBS survey, even in years when I was not doing a big year, it is always interesting to see what will turn up in a particular year. Other than the birds that are common in the BBS area being surveyed, there is an amazing amount of variation between years on the same route and between routes. There is something fulfilling about tallying birds for a bigger purpose than my own personal pleasure. BBS data has been collected for many years and has proven very useful in helping researchers track population and location trends in various bird species.

Since my last blog post, I have done three Breeding Bird Surveys in South Dakota. Before I get into a discussion of the fun of doing a BBS, I guess I should be sure that the readers of this blog know what I’m talking about. For those of you who have never done one of these surveys, it is important to know that there is a limited date period during which these surveys must be done. For my three surveys, I needed to do them between May 27th and July 7th.

Each survey is to begin ½ hour before dawn, with there being 50 3-minute bird-counting stops on each prescribed route with subsequent stops being spaced apart ½ mile for a total of 25 miles per route. BBS routes cannot just be done unless conditions are right. If it rains more than a short time period or if it is very windy (there’s a little leeway for us prairie folks where the wind rarely seems to stop) another date must be chosen. Since for two of my surveys it was best to do an overnight trip so I could be at the start of the route by ½ hour before dawn, I needed to decide before the last minute on whether to do those surveys. Even the closest route to my home required me to get up at 3:00 so I could make it on time to start the survey. Therefore part of the process is to watch the weather carefully (it helps to have a spouse who is a weather man) and try to fit in the routes when the weather is likely to be okay.

Last year when it became known which routes were available in South Dakota, I chose these three routes carefully so that there were different habitats and a somewhat different selection of likely birds on the routes. The first route that I did this year, the “Owanka” route (routes are named after towns or gatherings of homes or places where there once was a town that are along the route) is east of Rapid City. This is the only South Dakota route that I did last year, right after I moved here in June. The route is quite flat, with cultivated fields and grass or hay fields. There are a few watering holes along the country roads that make up the route. The day that I planned to do the Owanka route (June 19th) it was quite windy in our backyard in the predawn hours when I took out bird seed prior to heading east. Since the route is about 30 miles from my house and winds around here are particularly variable in time and space, I gambled and headed out. Unfortunately, it was even windier when I got there, so after doing a couple of the stops, I quit and went back home. The next morning I got up at 3:00 again and tried again, and this time the weather was fine.

I have posted a summary of the results on the sd-birds listserv and eventually this year’s results will be available in detail on the BBS web site. Suffice it to say that highlights of the Owanka trip for me included singing Lark Buntings everywhere, many Grasshopper Sparrows, two Marbled Godwits chasing each other loudly (were not even on the route checklist) and a Gray Partridge (also not on checklist) (41 species counted on this route). The next day (June 21st) I headed north to the top of the state to pre-run my second route (the “Lodgepole” route) in the afternoon and then do the official survey the next morning. Because this route was completely unfamiliar to me and because the materials that I had received about it had absolutely no description of where the route was or where the stops were but only a blurry hard-to-read multiple page set of road maps, I was a bit concerned that I would not be able to figure out where the route was. Because there are so few roads up there, however, it wasn’t too hard once I was actually on-site, so I pre-ran the route, marking down GPS readings and describing the surroundings each ½ mile of the route where the count was to made the next day. This route is immediately to the west of the Grand River National Grasslands and includes some grasslands and some agricultural areas. I found a motel about 40 miles from the start of the route (as far as I could
figure it there was nothing else any closer).

The morning of that I was to do the Lodgepole route was windy but did not appear to be more windy than was allowable. Birds were abundant, clearly used to the wind. Highlights of this trip were a singing Black-billed Cuckoo, a nice sprinkling of breeding-plumaged Chestnut-collared Longspurs, even more Lark Buntings than on the Owanka route and whistling Upland Sandpipers (34 species).


My third BBS was the Black Fox route in the South Dakota Black Hills, very near to Wyoming. I had pre-run the route a couple of weeks ago and knew it to be a mostly heavily wooded, mountain and hilly area, with spruce forests on the southern portion of the route, gradually morphing into an area with more pines and deciduous saplings. While each BBS route that I have done has its own type of beauty, the Black Fox route probably has the most all-around beautiful scenery.

I drove to the Black Fox campground that is along the Black Fox route and slept in my truck so I would be close to where the route began the next morning five miles south of the campground. I did the Black Fox BBS survey on June 29th. The most amazing thing about the birds seen was the omnipresence of Red Crossbills. I am sure that I undercounted them, because although I could hear them in many of the pines, I could only see them now and then at the very tops or when they flew from tree to tree. There was one area of the route, however, where there was water near the road and they were down on the road and in the water, easily seen. This route was also very “woodpeckery”, with Downy, Hairy, American Three-toed, Northern Flicker and Red-naped Sapsucker. There were also many of each of the kinglets and many Red-breasted Nuthatches (37 species).

My BBS routes are now all done for this year, except for the official reporting of the results on the BBS web site. I am now back to my big year birding, and am sitting in a motel room in Aberdeen, planning to bird north of  there tomorrow before heading back home tomorrow night. Although doing the BBS routes requires early hours, following the rules for when and where to do them is straightforward and for me it is easy to have enough willpower to make myself do the routes. This is very unlike doing a big year, where there are so many decisions to be made on where to look and when to look, and it sometimes is easy to lose motivation and direction. Sometimes I think I need to have a boss telling me to get out and go birding and find those needed birds. Of course most of the time I am so glad that I have chosen to do a big year so I have the “excuse” that I need to go birding to get more birds for my big year. In any case, right now I need to get some sleep (I am writing this the night before I’m planning to post it) so I can go birding bright and early tomorrow.

There’s less than half a year left in this big year!

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Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber started birding at the age of 7. In 2005, she broke the Texas big year record with 522 species, and in 2008, she tallied 723 bird species in the ABA Area. An account of her ABA Big Year, entitled Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year, was published in the spring of 2011. Her second book, Birds in Trouble was published in 2016. While living in North Carolina, Lynn was active in Wake County Audubon and on the board of the Carolina Bird Club. Moving to Texas in 2000, she was active in the Fort Worth Audubon Society, serving as its president for 3 years. She is a life member of the Texas Ornithological Society, and became its president in April 2009. She now lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
Lynn Barber

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