Shelbyville-Milroy BBS 2017 Thoughts

Shelbyville Breeding Bird Survey 2017As I did last year, I thought I’d give some general impressions on the Shelbyville and Milroy Breeding Bird Surveys I run in Indiana. Both routes are similar along their 24.5 mile distance comprising mainly farmland with interspersed wood lots. Milroy’s does have a little more pasture land though. Shelbyville’s route was completed on 6/11 and Milroy on 6/17. And like last year these are not scientific results but my impressions from the runs. I’ll share thoughts from the Colorado BBS’s I ran in early June at a later date but wanted to write-up Indiana’s while they’re still fresh in my mind. So without further ado Shelbyville-Milroy BBS 2017 thoughts.

A typical view of both runs. Farmland with a spattering of tree lots.

The weather was similar on both runs compared to last year. Shelbyville’s seemed somewhat muggier, quieter. Birds didn’t “seem” to be calling as much. But that’s subjective.

Both runs took 4.5 hours which is the listed average. Funny how much quicker they go when you know the stops. Unlike Colorado which took all morning.

As I wrote last year the grassland bird numbers – Northern Bobwhite, Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark – were less than the initial runs in the 1960-80’s. No surprise there. Where there were hay fields, those species were present. I even saw Bobolink at one field.

Dickcissel numbers were higher but that might be a two-year anomaly. I need to run the routes a few more years to see if that holds.

It appeared forest birds had increased. Species like Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Wood Thrush. There aren’t many woods on the runs but every wood lot had birds calling from them. But are there more wood lots than 40-50 years ago? That’s something I should see if I can find out.

Another observation was the reduction in European Starling, House Sparrow, and Rock Pigeon. My thought is the reduction in small farms and the associated grain elevators that go with them. The farm houses are still present but the farms are gone. The few remaining farms on the route did have those species present.

Very few farms any longer have grain silos.

Birds that like corn fields were less than the runs in the 60-80’s. Red-winged Blackbird, Common Crackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird numbers are all down. Farming practices and GMO Corn? But Horned Lark numbers are up. Do they know how to breed and succeed in that environment?

Shelbyville-Milroy BBS 2017 Thoughts
Horned Larks were the only species present at several stops. What was it like 50 years ago with hedge rows and pastures?

Both runs show a large increase in Turkey Vultures. I wasn’t into birding 50 years ago but I was outside constantly. I don’t remember Turkey Vultures as a kid. Sounds like a blog post topic!

And finally Chipping Sparrows were at every farm-house stop. Something that doesn’t show in the numbers from the earlier runs.

There are a couple of other trends I see developing but I’ll address those after I run the routes a few more years.

So no surprises here. Grassland/farm birds are declining and ones that adapt to humans are maintaining or even increasing. Birds that can survive on small disjointed wood lots are holding their own, ones that need vast woods aren’t.

Extinct Species Visitation

A couple of weeks ago we took a family trip to Washington DC. This was something we had attempted the last few years but had to cancel one time for a hurricane. This trip wasn’t much better weather wise with temperatures the first day in the 20’s and 40-50mph winds. This made for low wind chills and few people walking on the National Mall. And I really didn’t expect to come up with a story about birds on a family trip to Washington DC. But I did. The problem is it’s on an extinct species visitation.*

On the National History Building’s first floor is an exhibit of birds seen in the Washington DC area. The birds are stuffed and mounted with a brief description of each species.

Like my nemesis the Golden Eagle.

But what caught my eye were the species no longer seen in the area. Or anywhere for that fact.

Because they’re Extinct Species

Just imagine if there were still Carolina Parakeets flying around our area?

Unless I visit another natural history museum this will probably be my only chance to ever see these species. Stuffed and behind glass. Not out in the wild.

Or the huge flocks of the Passenger Pigeon?
Or on a visit to New England encountering the Heath Hen?

And where are we headed with other species? Will they be in this or a similar museum in 150 years? I’m afraid there will be many more than the six that have gone extent since the European settlers arrived.

Another part of the museum had other extinct species, not only ones from the Washington area. Like this Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Extinct Species Visitation
And another Carolina Parakeet. It’s larger than I expected.

A side note. Of the hundreds of people at the museum, only a few were looking at the birds. Most visitors were at the dinosaurs and elephants and other “exciting” exhibits. These held people’s attention, not inactive, stuffed birds

But my wife pointed out even though my daughter, niece, and nephew don’t spend time in nature, all the parks and museums they visited when young have given them an awareness of nature. And that they should be concerned. Hopefully it will affect all the urban school children running around the museum each day.

* – where I come from in Illinois a visitation is the viewing before a funeral. Hence, extinct species visitation.

Douglas Pass – The Real Reason

The real reason for the December trip to the Grand Junction area of Colorado was to check out my June BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) routes. As I have previously posted the BBS routes are the main source to determine bird distribution in the U.S. and is one of the main factors if a bird is on or off an endangered list.

Besides the two BBS routes I run in Indiana I will now run two in western Colorado north of Grand Junction. Before I volunteered I wanted to make sure the area habitat was not strictly scrub. From the previous surveys I was sure they weren’t but I wanted to confirm. Thus the real reason for the trip.

Real Reason
Both Baxter Pass and Douglas Pass routes are similar. Their 24.5-mile route both start in scrub land and go over mountain passes (the squiggly part of the route lines). I-80 is the white line and the gray line down the left is the Utah border. Taken from the BBS web page.

I ended up at Highline Lake SP around noon and headed to the nearby starting point of the nearer Douglas Pass route. I wasn’t going to bird the route as much travel it to get a general feel of the landscape.

The early morning view from Loma. The BBS route starts 12 miles north of town and winds up and over Douglas Pass, the snow-covered mountain due north.
The route starts in scrub land which was void of birds except the occasional Common Raven.
After a few miles the route starts paralleling East Salt Creek that had numerous Cottonwoods. I’m assuming along the creek is where most of the birds will be in June. This is the view looking back south towards Loma.
The view looking south from Douglas Pass. The road up consists of several switchbacks which will make it interesting where I pull off in June since I couldn’t with the snow on the ground.
The view north from the pass. When I left the Grand Valley it was 40F. It was 15F and strong winds here. Brrr…
Why are there always Common Ravens where there aren’t any other birds? I circled one of the three flying over the pass.
Now I don’t think this Black-billed Magpie brought down this deer but it was sure acting like it.
These two got into a nice argument over the deer before being joined by several other magpies. I bet they fed on this for a week. Or until the state got it off the road.
A final view as I headed down the pass.

The route was what I hoped it would be – scrub to creek side to mountain. I don’t think I’ll have any problem seeing/hearing the norm of 60+ species for this count.

Bring on June!

Western Colorado Again

I have been thinking of a birding trip ever since we got back from London. The options are endless if you go with a birding tour. But as I have previously stated I like to bird one smaller area more intensely and find my own birds. Tours basically keep moving around needing to add to the “list” and they have guides to point out birds. So tours are out for now.

After eliminating a tour company and thinking where I want to bird I realized travel for travel’s sake isn’t me.

I would like my travels to somehow help birds for the long-term.

And I mean more than financially aiding them as tours do by giving back to the local economy.

I thought about going somewhere warm to help on a CBC. Maybe Panama or Costa Rica. But that wouldn’t be fair to the people running the count since I would be a burden due to my lack of local knowledge.

Then maybe helping on CBC in a new U.S. location. New Mexico had several dates which worked and there are direct flights from Indy to Albuquerque. I could fly out on a Saturday, be back late week, and still help on the Johnson County CBC. But then I started having mixed feelings about CBC’s.

Since I like to bird local I started thinking how I could use that concept and help out birds. I’m not into seeing a bird one time and moving on. By repeated birding of the same area I could “learn” the local birds. And provide variety.

As shown on the map in the intro of The Sibley Guide to Birds there are three main birding areas in the U.S. I think by birding locally in those three areas I can see 400+ species annually. And learn those birds to boot. The areas would be Indiana for Eastern species, Western Colorado for Interior West species, and Southern California on my annual work trip to cover Pacific and Southwestern species.

The three yellow rectangles are the areas I plan on birding annually. From The Sibley Guide to Birds.

I have birded Western CO, specifically the Grand Junction area, and enjoyed it. I have previously stated my positive thoughts on the North American Breeding Bird Survey (NA BBS). A quick look on the Birding Bird Survey page and I saw two BBS routes open in the Grand Junction area. By running those routes I could take a trip each June, do the BBS routes, and still get in personal birding. Plus help on the main U.S. birding survey.

Western Colorado
As seen from the NA BBS open routes page there are two routes open in Western Colorado.

I don’t know if the Colorado/U.S. BBS coordinators will sign me up since I’m from out-of-state but the least I can do is try.

Now the last piece of the puzzle is to tie down something in the tropics that would help monitor our Midwest endangered species on their winter grounds. Still haven’t figured that out yet.

And if I feel I’m missing something by only birding certain areas I’ll have family vacations to places far and wide to see more “exotic” species.

So it was back to Western Colorado last week to check out the potential BBS routes north of Grand Junction. Plus get in local winter birding.

Which all lead to good birding stories which I’ll be sharing over the next few weeks.

The Christmas (Count) Myth

I’ve written a few posts I felt showed the negative side of birding and served no useful purpose. So they are still sitting out in cyberspace in draft form. I have debated posting this one because we all feel Christmas Bird Counts are good for Citizen Science. After two weeks of researching Birding Surveys on the internet I’m not sure anymore but I’ll post this anyway and let you decide.

This might be unholy but it’s sort of a myth Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) are great Citizen Science projects because it’s difficult to use them for scientific data – see page 10 of this link. Or the bottom of page 7 on this article.  And the same is true for eBird and the Big May Day. It’s true CBC are used as a source for long-term trends but the primary source is the NA Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). What’s the difference?

The BBS use a systematic approach and the CBC doesn’t.

I’m not a scientist but common sense tells me birders doing CBC’s and recording data in eBird don’t use a scientific approach each time. So how can the data be validated?

Think about it. CBC, Big May Day, or regular birding recorded in eBird are a result of people birding where they’ll find birds. With the limited time on those counts (eBird isn’t different because most people have limited time to bird) people go to birding Hotspots. There are no set routes or time limits, just people covering an area and reporting. And many of those people are only birding one time per year.

On your last CBC did you check the local mall for birds? No, you went to the local Hotspot since CBC and Big May Days are in essence Birding Big Days.

On the other hand, remember when I reported running BBS routes last summer how regimented they were and at times boring? Well that’s the point. To get a good representation of the total landscape, they measure the whole area, not just where people want to bird.

The BBS uses a systematic approach where you survey the same place each year for the same length of time on approximately the same date. And they cover the whole landscape, not just birding Hotspots. Research uses those repeatable counts to determine trends in bird distribution which hopefully lead to conservation efforts.

indiana-bbs-cbc-routes christmas (count) myth
Not my best cut and paste but it should demonstrate the BBS routes on the left covers most of Indiana whereas the CBC circles on the right are centered on cities and other birding Hotspots.

Not to say activities like CBC, eBird, and Big Days can’t be used for generalized long term trends. If you see a certain number of a species for a few years and twenty years later they are gone, that will show a problem.

About the only way to make CBC usable is to have set routes at set times making sure more advanced birders are teamed with beginners. But that probably means fewer birds would be seen. Which goes against the great thing about CBC’s, getting new people into birding.

I guess you can’t have it both ways.

I’m not saying not to participate in CBC since they are still useful for general long-term trends. But I like to know how things I participate in are being used.

So I’m signing up for more BBS routes and other surveys that I see being used for long-term conservation efforts. And I’ll still have fun on CBC’s!

Blackbirds and GMO Corn

As I mentioned in my last post I was surprised to see Red-winged Blackbirds last Sunday. That was because I have noticed the lack of blackbirds in Late-August and Early-September. Not just Red-winged Blackbirds but also Brown-headed Cowbirds and Common Grackles.

rwbl-1 Blackbirds
Not a bird to usually catch my attention but this was my first Red-winged Blackbird of the fall. Franklin Township Community Park 9/18/16


From eBird the seasonal distribution of Red-winged Blackbird in Indiana. Note the big drop off in August.

So where do Blackbirds Go in Late Summer?

As I have previously mentioned I try to pick and choose what I read about birding so I don’t spend my life on the internet. H. David Bohlen reports around the 5th of each month his sightings from Sangamon County Illinois on the Illinois Listserv. One of the things I noticed is his report of “inexplicably low numbers of Blackbirds” and wonders if it is sterile or GMO corn.

From what I can gather from the internet it’s not that blackbirds don’t eat the GMO corn but there are none of the normal “weeds” for them to eat. If I understand correctly the GMO corn has been modified to withstand the use of pesticides. When farmers use pesticides it doesn’t effect the corn. But the “weeds” have not been modified so it will kill them. Leaving nothing for the blackbirds (and birds in general) to eat.

Probably Molting

Having said that the Red-winged Blackbirds are probably just molting during this time. As Arthur Cleveland Bent states in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds “early in August, all the redwings seem to disappear, during the molting period, and are not much in evidence until the middle of September or later”.

So molting is probably what the blackbirds are doing in August and September and not directly effected in August by GMO corn.

But I can’t think in the long run GMO corn will have an effect on blackbird population as their main food are weed seeds and insects.

It will be interesting to watch the population trends of the Red-winged Blackbird as it is usually the most numerous species on our spring counts. Hopefully over time we won’t see their numbers drop but I’m not hopeful.

Why Bird Surveys Need to be Annual

The Thought

After running the two BBS (Breeding Bird Surveys) through East-Central Indiana and analyzing the data, I had the thought WHY are bird surveys done on an annual basis? Trends in the Midwest do change but on a slower basis. And with the trouble of getting volunteers to run bird surveys why not run them for 4 or 5 years, take a 4 or 5 year break, and then repeat? That would catch the developing trends over 40-50 years and require fewer volunteers.

The Why

Then I listened to the June 6 Talking Naturally episode on BAER’S POCHARD – a Critically Endangered East Asian Duck where Charlie discusses the dramatic decline over the last 5 years of the Baer’s Pochard. The IUNC lists the Baer’s as Critically Endangered and states “It winters mainly in eastern and southern mainland China, India, Bangladesh (maximum winter total of 17 individuals in the last five years, down from 1,000–2,000 individuals [Chowdhury et al. 2012]).”

Let me state that again:

maximum winter total of 17 individuals in the last five years, down from 1,000–2,000 “.

Listening to the podcast there were 1000 recorded at two sites in 2010 and less than 300 in 2014 when there was an organized search.

Baer’s Pochard By Dick Daniels ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Now it was discussed the Baer’s Pochard could have wintered elsewhere for the winter but even in under surveyed China someone would have reported them. So it’s one species that definitely needs tracked annually.

But a large decrease can’t happen in the Midwest, can it?

Then I woke up and remembered the West Nile Virus and AMERICAN CROWS. If we hadn’t been tracking them on an annual basis the steep decline at the turn of the century might have not been noticed.

The composite index for the American Crow for all BBS routes in the United States. North American Breeding Bird Survey Results and Analysis 1966-2013

Let’s say the survey was run every 5 years like I was thinking. From 1995 to 2000, a 5 year break, and again from 2005-2010. The impact of the West Nile Virus would have been missed. When the survey resumed in 2005 the numbers of crows would have been half. It would have probably been noticed but would there have been the data to help track the problem?

So yes, my thought was wrong. We definitely need to take annual bird surveys.

AMCR Bird Surveys
Luckily the American Crow survived and are now almost back to previous numbers.

Luckily the numbers of American Crows didn’t drop to the point a captive breeding program was needed like the Baer’s Pochard. But if the downward trend continued the data was there to guide conservationists to take action.

BBS Results – 5 Thoughts

Having completed and compiled the data on my first two BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) Routes I have come up with a few observations.  Not scientific or statistically proved. Just what seems to fit the BBS results.

But first to set the background a map of the approximate locations of the two BBS routes.

BBS Routes BBS Results

As you can see the routes are through rural agriculture land in east-central Indiana.


  1. The BBS Results seem to point to the total number of birds and species haven’t changed, just the mix.

    I really can’t see any difference in the total number of birds seen on either route. But some species have increased and others decreased, basically leaving a net zero sum.

    I was one short of the max number of species on both routes. That is probably due to the fact I have better hearing which helps on this type of count.

  2. Modern farming and the loss of livestock raising has led to less grassland birds than 50 years ago

    No surprise here. The impact from modern farming methods and lack of livestock raising has greatly impacted species like Northern Bobwhite, Savannah Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Grassland Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark. And the loss of hedgerows greatly decreased Great Crested Flycatchers and Northern Flickers.

  3. On the flip side modern farming has led to an increase in some species

    Certain species such as Killdeer, Horned Lark, and Common Grackle seem to prosper in fields with no hedgerows.

  4. The increase in new, rural houses with large sprawling yards have made an impact.

    Home ownership might be good for the economy but large rural houses with spiraling yards probably aren’t good for birds. Besides taking away from habitat, almost every new house had Chipping Sparrows and House Finches in their Bradford Pear Trees. The Chipping Sparrows  were barely represented and the House Finches weren’t even present on the surveys 50 years ago.  I have already made my thoughts on this topic here.

  5. Not sure why but the number of Wood Thrushes has increased the last few years on both counts.

    What woods that are left are small patches of woods, not hedgerows.  It seemed like there was a Wood Thrush in every small woods on each route. Maybe Wood Thrushes are a more adaptive species and make do with what is here? And this is surprising since Wood Thrush are on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened.

So there are my observations from running the routes. My main take away is that as the landscape changes and evolves some species will adapt and survive, sometimes in increasing numbers, and others will decrease and potentially disappear.

Milroy BBS Results

BBS Logo
Official Logo of the BBS

This post will take the same format as the one I did last week on the Shelbyville BBS Results. I’ll take a look at the first four years the Milroy BBS was run (1966-1969) and compare the numbers to the last four years the survey was completed (2010-2013). From that look I’ll make some unscientific conclusions on species gain or loss.

Following are species from the Milroy BBS that had either large increases or decreases between the two-time periods. For those of you not familiar with this part of the world, the Milroy BBS route is through typical Midwest agriculture area.

031Milroy BBS
The basic habitat of both the Shelbyville and Milroy BBS routes – rural agriculture land. There are a few pockets of woods on each one.

Milroy BBS Decreases


Milroy BBS Increases


As with the Shelbyville BBS none of the decreases were to be unexpected. Especially the grassland species.  I’m guessing the loss of cattle farming and the subsequent loss of pasture and grass fields lead to the decreases. What was unexpected was the number has dropped to ZERO on the Great Crested Flycatcher, Vesper Sparrow, and Grasshopper Sparrow. And only an average of one per year on the Northern Flicker. I’m guessing the loss of hedgerows has led to the flycatcher and woodpecker demise.

On the increase side it’s basically the same species as the ones which increased on the Shelbyville BBS.  The real surprise was the increase of Killdeer, Chipping Sparrows, and House Finches from almost ZERO to being rather common. The other species had good numbers back in the 1960’s and have just increased by factors of 2-4.

If you’re interested the complete results of the Milroy BBS they’re at the following USGS webpage.

In one of the next posts I’ll make observations concerning the two BBS routes.

Shelbyville BBS Results

BBS Logo Shelbyville BBS
Official Logo of the BBS

First of all this is not a scientific analysis. This is simply looking at the counts from the first four years the Shelbyville BBS was run (1983-1986) versus the last four years (2011-2014). I didn’t include my data because I want to discuss it at a later date. And I know there are many variables. Things like the weather and the differences in the people who previously did the route. So I’m only looking at discrepancies which jump out at me.

Following are species from the Shelbyville BBS that had either large increases or decrease between the two-time periods.

Shelbyville BBS Decrease 


Shelbyville BBS Increase


None of the decreases were unexpected. Maybe the decrease in Rock Pigeons. My guess is the lower pigeon numbers have something to do with the lack of cattle barns. The big open kind that have cattle below and hay above. Current barns are enclosed compared to the open type used previously. No way for the pigeons to get in to nest.

The loss of the big hedgerows maybe led to the large decreases in the cuckoo and flicker. The blackbird and meadowlark from loss of pasture land.  The rest of the grassland birds had low numbers at the start of the survey 40 years ago.

The biggest surprise was the dramatic increase in Chipping Sparrows. I’m guessing it has something to do with the increase in new houses with well-manicured lawns and Bradford Pear Trees. Those houses and lawns were not there 40 years ago.

The other surprise was the increase In Killdeer. They were everywhere when I ran the route. Different farm practices make nesting better?

The Wood Thrush was almost non-existent in the early years and seemed to be present in almost every large wooded stop. The other increases were to be expected.

If your interested the complete results are at the USGS webpage.

Next post I’ll review the results from the Milroy BBS.