BBS – Second Impression

When I started birding I often heard from people who have birded much longer than me about the impact modern farming has had on birds. But I didn’t really understand until I ran my two rural BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) routes.

The loss of both suitable habitat for grassland/pasture birds and hedgerows has had to be great. Running my routes I would often end up in the middle of fields and barely hear or see a bird in my 3 minute stops.

But what would it have been like in 1966 when the BBS started?

Hedgerow, BBS
Though not this quaint, I remember many farms in the 1960’s with lanes like the one in this photo. Hedge and trees on both sides. Not many left now. Attribution: Row17 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I can try to tell you. In 1966 I lived in a small semi-rural town outside Peoria, IL. Many weekends I would go to my grandfather’s farm 50 miles north of Peoria miles from any city.  There was a long lane up to his house with hedgerows on either side. My uncles still had cattle so there was pasture land.  The farm was broken into 40 or 80 acre plots surrounded by hedgerows. I wasn’t into birds but I remember numerous birds and animals around the farm. And every farm was similar to his.

I took my daughter by the farm 10 years ago. (The family sold to larger farmers in the 1980’s) All the hedgerows were gone. No one in the area was raising cattle, thus no pastures. It looked like my rural BBS routes. No birds or animals. Just row to row corn and beans. Deserted.

Lifeless to what I remember 50 years ago.

In my next post I’ll share some results to show the decline and also some gains in birds on my two BBS routes.

Breeding Bird Survey – First Impression

I ran my first BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) last Sunday. And I came away with mixed feelings. Mainly positive but still something seemed off.

First, here is a description of a BBS from the Breeding Bird Survey webpage. “Each survey route is 24.5 miles long with stops at 0.5-mile intervals. At each stop, a 3-minute point count is conducted. During the count, every bird seen within a 0.25-mile radius or heard is recorded. Surveys start one-half hour before local sunrise and take about 5 hours to complete. Over 4100 survey routes are located across the continental U.S. and Canada.”

The Shelbyville Route I ran Sunday is mostly rural agriculture land with some stops along rivers in East-Central Indiana.

Where I have been…
And where I’m headed. Maybe there’s a river at the tree line?

What seemed off.

Except for Christmas Counts or the Big May Day Count we basically go birding where, when, and how long we want. Even on those counts we are assigned large territories with the option of when and where to go within those territories.

But Sunday I had a map that told me exactly where and when and how long I could bird a spot.

Not bad, just different from the usual routine.

There were stops along some of the rivers I wished I could have stayed longer. There where more than one rural stop where I was looking at the egg timer count down because I couldn’t see or hear any more Horned Larks or Red-winged Blackbirds. And you can only keep scanning a clear blue horizon for raptors for so long.

031 Breeding Bird Survey View
You’d be amazed how many Horned Larks there are if you’d stop and listen.
029 BBS
Only 3 distant Turkey Vultures on the day and 2 perched Red-tailed Hawks. Not much else in the air on the warm summer morning.

So did I enjoy myself? Of course I did!

I got to bird a new area. I found 60 species in a territory which usually has counts in the 40’s or 50’s. I added some new species to the route.

Most importantly I added data to the 4100 other BBS routes that can and is used by conservationists for making critical decisions.

A Quest My Good Man

I think I have been very good not using Monty Python references in this blog. If you are even a small fan of Monty Python you know you can reference anything to their skits. Today though I say the heck with it. I’m on a Common Nighthawk Quest.

That’s right my good man. A quest for Common Nighthawks.

OK. No more Monty Python in case you don’t get the reference.

CONI 090111 Common Nighthawk
On a country road in Illinois I came across a small flock of Common Nighthawks foraging. They would fly from field to field over road. LaSalle County IL 9/1/11

After whiffing on the EASTERN WHIP-POOR-WILLS I got thinking about Common Nighthawks. I don’t have a “go to” location in Johnson County for nighthawks and that bothers me.

I have participated in 3 IAS Summer Counts and have only seen 1 nighthawk on those counts. This seems strange because the little town we lived in Illinois had three locations.

  1. The old Kmart plaza built-in the 1960’s.
  2. The High School that is 80 years old.
  3. Over some old buildings in the small downtown

What do these three locations have in common? Old, GRAVEL, flat roofs. The kind nighthawks LIKE to nest.

And what does my new, urban environment have? Lots of new, RUBBER, flat roofs. The kind nighthawks DON’T LIKE.

It’s no wonder Common Nighthawks are on the decline. Not enough to be on a watch list but enough to be concerned. One thought is the change from the flat, gravel roofs to the rubber roofs.

CONI'S 090111 A Quest
I wish I would have had the new camera for this encounter. LaSalle County IL 9/1/11

I will now to turn my quest to the “older” section of Greenwood versus the newer area I usually bird. There are some old strip malls and an old Kmart that might proof fruitful. I’ll also check the two small towns that have limited downtown areas but might have gravel roofs.

So for fun, one more Monty Python reference.

Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?

Sir Lancelot: To seek the Holy Grail Common Nighthawk.

I’m sure I’ll let you know if I succeed in my quest. My good man.

BBS – Sign Up Now

Recently on IN-Bird Amy Kearns requested volunteers for the open routes of the Indiana Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). I have always wanted to run one but the time of year usually conflicted with family vacations. Plus I thought we were going to move again and in these positions I think you need longevity. Since we are here for now I signed up for a couple.

I knew running these routes was a good thing since they are used to monitor bird trends. But there was one thing that pushed me over the top to sign up.

Remember last winter when I started blogging about endangered species, here and abroad? On the IUCN’s Red List I noticed something under the endanger species for Indiana.

The IUCN uses the results of the BBS to monitor trends.

RHWO IUCN Breeding Bird Survey
This is the trend justification to place the Red-headed Woodpecker in the Near-Threatened category for the IUCN Red List. Note the two surveys used – Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Counts.


The same justification is used for putting the Chimney Swift in the IUCN Red List Near-Threatened category. Only the BBS is used since Chimney Swifts aren’t around in winter.

Along with Christmas Bird Counts I noticed the IUCN uses BBS for justification. That is why I was glad to see one of my routes started in the inaugural year of 1966 and the other in 1983. It will be great to compare my results to surveys taking exactly 50 years ago.

I have talked to people who think BBS are a waste of time and effort. Can someone tell me how else we are going to monitor birds over the long haul? eBird and its equivalent in other countries will make a difference someday, but it has only been around for 10 years.

For now we need to continue on with BBS, Christmas Bird Counts, and May Big Days which Cornell (eBird) has also started to promote heavily.

Why not sign up for a BBS?

Besides the Rusty, Another Endangered Species to Check

I’m sure you’ve recently seen postings about the annual Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz. The Blitz encourages people to count Rusty Blackbirds which are in severe decline nationwide. Even a recording of zero is okay as it shows that people are looking and not just missing them. I plan to go out several times this spring, starting this weekend, and look for Rusty Blackbirds in the appropriate habitat.

But I encourage you to look for a another migrating species this spring. If you remember back in December I posted about endangered species in Indiana. On the IUCN list of VULNERABLE SPECIES were three species. One was the Rusty Blackbird.  Another is a summer resident, the Cerulean Warbler, which I’ll discuss later this spring.

And the one that is migrating through right now is the Horned Grebe. I encourage you to get out and actively look for Horned Grebes just as much as Rusty Blackbirds because it’s also in a state of severe decline.

HOGR LL 052612
I found this very late Horned Grebe when I lived in Illinois. Most May reports are from early May and all the later ones are along Lake Michigan. And it was a nice, hot day – here are my eBird comments – 93F, winds – S at 15-20, partly cloudy. I also had a Franklin’s Gull that day. LaSalle Lake – 5/26/12

I’m not sure why the Horned Grebe doesn’t get the same attention as the Rusty Blackbird. Maybe because it migrates through much of the Eastern US as opposed to wintering here as the Rusty Blackbird does. But worldwide the Horned Grebe is in severe decline.

Rusty Blackbird

Horned Grebe
As seen on these range maps from xeno-canto ( the Rusty blackbird winters in a much larger portion of the Eastern United States. But also note the Horned Grebe is a global and not just hemispherical species.

I also think the Horned Grebe gets less attention in North America than the Rusty Blackbird because it’s a global species has opposed to the Rusty Blackbird being a North American species. Rusty Blackbirds winter in southern swamp hardwood forests and then migrates north to the Arctic tundra.Rusty Blackbird A

Horned Grebe A
From IUNC webpage information on the Rusty Blackbird and Horned Grebe and the justification for Vulnerable status.

If you plan on going out looking for Horned Grebes, which I hope you will, here are some hints.

  1. They like the large, deep water lakes. In my area that means large dammed reservoirs or the smaller man-made gravel pits or interstate borrow ponds. I have also seen them to a lesser extent on wide waters of rivers, but more often on the deep lakes and ponds.
This dark photo shows a Horned Grebe between summer and winter plumage. Lowe’s Pond Franklin, IN 3/29/14

2.  If you’re going to get an accurate count, take time to sit and wait. Horned Grebes have a tendency to dive for a length of time and come up in a different part of the lake. So for an accurate count I usually sit and wait.

If I hadn’t sat and watched for a while I would have missed several birds on the day. These 4 were part of 18 seen at Driftwood SWA on the afternoon. 3/28/15

And once you have a count be sure to enter in eBird. Because eventually the Horned Grebe will pop up on someone’s radar and they will make more birders in North America aware it is an endangered species. And any data you enter in eBird will be used to show their decline and hopeful recovery over the years.

Endangered Species Lists – Local to Global

Over the last few posts I’ve covered some topics related to our locally threatened species. I referenced H. David Bohlen’s study of the birds of Sangamon County IL for 40 years and then compared his results to a list of local birds over 30 years. But what species do “major” organizations think are our troubled birds?

If you are like me you can probably name most of the species on your local endangered list. But I was, and I think you will be too, surprised by a couple of species on the lists.

First let me say that there are many different organizations listing birds in decline. If you Google “endangered bird species” you will come up with many organizations with several lists. Many more groups than I thought. And each has its own classification and birds.

But I chose to use one global list, one national list, and one local list from organizations that I see referenced often.  Plus I also included the past report of the US State of the Birds Report.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species- commonly known as the Red List

The State of the Birds Report 2014 – United States of America

USFWS (United States Fish and Wildlife Service) Endangered Species

Indiana Department of Natural Resources Endangered Species

Each organization uses different criteria to put a species on their list. For example the IUCN has a complex system to put a species on one of their nine Red List categories. That policy is stated in their 38 page file entitled “IUCN RED LIST CATEGORIES AND CRITERIA“.  The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a shorter two page document entitled “Listing Species as Threatened or Endangered”. The State of the Birds has a paragraph on their “Watch List“. And the Indiana DNR includes their own and the USFWS criteria on their “Endangered and Special Concern Species” page. I’ll leave it to the reader to review each group’s criteria.

But keep in mind that each organization’s criteria is based on the scale they reference. From global to local.  And the result is that this change in criteria means that each list will have different species. Which gives the surprising results that I stated earlier.

First we’ll look at the Indiana DNR list which also includes the USFWS ratings in parenthesis. If you have been birding for any length of time in the Midwest and have talked to people birding for years, none of the species on the list should come as a surprise.

Indiana DNR and USFWS List

State Endangered                  Special Concern

Trumpeter Swan                               Ruffed Grouse
American Bittern                               Great Egret
Least Bittern                                      Mississippi Kite
Black-crowned Night-Heron           Bald Eagle
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron         Sharp-shinned Hawk
Osprey                                                Red-shouldered Hawk
Northern Harrier                              Broad-winged Hawk
Black Rail                                            Sandhill Crane
King Rail                                             American Golden-Plover
Virginia Rail                                       Solitary Sandpiper
Common Gallinule                            Greater Yellowlegs
Whooping Crane (FE)                       Ruddy Turnstone
Piping Plover (FE)                            Rufa Red Knot (FT)
Upland Sandpiper                             Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Least Tern (FE)                                Short-billed Dowitcher
Black Tern                                        Wilson’s Phalarope
Barn Owl                                           Common Nighthawk
Short-eared Owl                              Eastern Whip-poor-will
Loggerhead Shrike                          Peregrine Falcon
Sedge Wren                                      Black-and-white Warbler
Marsh Wren                                     Worm-eating Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler                 Hooded Warbler
Kirtland’s Warbler (FE)                 Western Meadowlark
Cerulean Warbler
Henslow’s Sparrow
Yellow-headed Blackbird



State of Birds 2014 List – Indiana Species


American Golden-Plover                    Black Rail
American Woodcock                            Piping Plover (Great Lakes)
Black-billed Cuckoo                             Red Knot (N. Am. pop)
Canada Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Connecticut Warbler
Eastern Whip-poor-will
Golden-winged Warbler
Kentucky Warbler
King Rail
Lesser Yellowlegs
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Pectoral Sandpiper
Prairie Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler
Red-headed Woodpecker
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Wood Thrush

And now for the IUCN’s Red List for Indiana. Remember that “Assessments on the IUCN Red List are of extinction risk at the global scale”, not just our local level. Which lead to some surprises for me.

IUCN Red List for Indiana

Near Threatened                             Vulnerable

Henslow’s Sparrow                        Cerulean Warbler
Semipalmated Sandpiper             Rusty Blackbird
Buff-breasted Sandpiper              Horned Grebe
Chimney Swift
Northern Bobwhite
Wood Thrush
Red-headed Woodpecker
Golden-winged Warbler
Bell’s Vireo

Chimney Swift? Wood Thrush? Horned Grebe? Semipalmated Sandpiper?

Who would have initially thought these local or locally migrating birds would have been on the IUCN’s Red List?

But on second thought the migrating Semipalmated Sandpiper really isn’t a surprise since other sandpipers are under pressure. But the other three? We see them at the appointed time of year and usually in good numbers. Are they really threatened?

And that is the advantage of having a global organization look at endangered species. 

It’s just like my earlier post about Turtle Doves. Where field biologists are currently seeing roosts of 35,000 Turtle Doves on their winter grounds just a few years ago there were roosts of 100,000’s. If I really think about it, similar things are probably happening to the Chimney Swift, Wood Thrush, and Horned Grebe.

Which made those species being on the list a surprise. And those surprises will lead into the next blog on endangered species.

Observations on Local Species Loss Over 30 Years

Recently I presented H. David Bohlen’s A Study of the Birds of Sangamon County, Illinois 1970–2010.  In it he reviews his 40 year survey of birds of the Springfield, IL area.  If you haven’t read it please go back and read the sections I recommend.

In it he notes species that have disappeared over the last 40 years. By looking at data from my local area I can draw some of the same conclusions.

I reached out to Ken Brock and he was kind enough to supply me with 5300 sightings from Atterbury FWA  for the last 40 years. The list included Boyd Gill’s list of species seen at Atterbury FWA in the 1980’s. For those of you that don’t know Ken, check out this link.

Following is an excerpt from page xxx from Bohlen’s CONCLUSION noting disappearing species during his 40 year study in Sangamon County.

“It is greatly lamented that the following interesting and unique species seemingly disappeared or were extirpated as breeders as well as migrants (in many cases). Most had low populations even at the beginning of the study. They include the following species:

Pied-billed Grebe
Least Bittern
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
King Rail
Virginia Rail
Common Moorhen
Upland Sandpiper
Black-billed Cuckoo
Brown Creeper
Bewick’s Wren
Loggerhead Shrike
Cerulean Warbler
Western Meadowlark

Many of the above species need marsh habitat or have other special requirements (Species Status Change List, Appendix D). Some populations could recover because there are still migrants in Illinois, though most are rare. There seemed to be no plans for recovery at least in this County.”

Loggerhead Shrike is one of declining species in both Illinois and Indiana. As far as I know the only reliable spot to see one in Northern Illinois was Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Photo taken there 5/30/2009

In Appendix D he notes the 111 species in decline but I thought I’d just compare the 15 species noted above to the Atterbury list from the 1980’s to my observations from the last three years of birding Atterbury pretty intensively.

Atterbury FWA
Pied-billed Grebe
seen but no summer records
seen but no summer records
Least Bittern
9 records
no sightings
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
2 records
no sightings
King Rail
10 records
no sightings
Virginia Rail
17 records
no sightings
seen but no summer records
seen but no summer records
Common Moorhen
10 records
no sightings
Upland Sandpiper
40 records
no sightings
Black-billed Cuckoo
16 records
2 in 3 years
6 records
no sightings
Brown Creeper
5 records
3 records
Bewick’s Wren
no sightings
no sightings
Loggerhead Shrike
3 records – early 80’s
no sightings
Cerulean Warbler
18 records
9 records
Western Meadowlark
no sightings
no sightings – but doesn’t come this far east

By observing the table you can see the same loss as Bohlen observed in Sangamon County. Of the 13 species sighted in the 1980’s I have only seen 5 of those species.

Bohlen also notes and describes losing some key habitat in Sangamon County.  I can note similar loss in Johnson County/Atterbury.

My guess is that the marsh at Atterbury was once vibrant.  It is now mainly thick vegetation and is basically overgrown and dead.

I’m told Atterbury used to contain many areas of grasslands.  Those grasslands are now farmed. Here is the only link I found to explain why they are now farmed.

The loss of those two habitats – marsh and grasslands – would account for the loss of most of the species noted above.

Can the lost species come back?  Bohlen thinks not in Sangamon County and I would agree in this part of Indiana.  But that’s a discussion for another post.

So next, what local species are on the various wildlife federations endangered lists?

More Local Habitat Loss

Previously I reviewed H. David Bohlen’s A Study of the Birds of Sangamon County, Illinois 1970–2010. In it he shares his conclusions on monitoring birds in Springfield IL over the last 40 years.

One of his main points is the loss of habitat in Sangamon County over the last 40 years.  As noted before I have only lived in the Indianapolis area for a couple of years but can see the same effects that Bohlen noted.  It isn’t too hard to see all the housing and businesses that were built before things slowed down in 2008. The loss of habitat over the last 50 years has had to be great.

Even more recently I learned that another of my better birding areas was going to be developed into a retail area. As you know I like to bird close to home. And the best local spot for grassland birds is the undeveloped SE corner of Interstate 65 and County Line Rd. in Greenwood.

Not much to look at in winter but in summer it is a pretty good grassland area. It still has plenty of sparrows even in winter. I-65 & County Line Rd. – Johnson County – 11/22/15
There are often raptors sitting in the tree line to the south. I-65 & County Line Rd. – Johnson County – 11/22/15

It has been left dormant for years and several grassland species can be found there – good numbers of Savanna Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark for example.  And the other expected sparrows – Song, White-throated, and White-crowned in season.  Dickcissels frequent the area in summer along with Killdeer which are always running around.  On every visit I see raptors hunting the area. And I even saw a Rough-legged Hawk last winter.

Mike told me that the area was scheduled to be developed into a shopping area back in the 2000’s but was called off with the economic slowdown several years ago. Now it seems it is going to happen.

So what will happen to the meadowlarks and sparrows? There is a smaller area a mile south that has similar habitat but it already houses those species and probably can’t sustain more numbers. Hopefully the birds from this area will disperse and breed elsewhere. But the odds are they will live out their lives without finding suitable habitat and not breed.

Which means loss of more birds.

Review: A Study of the Birds of Sangamon County, Illinois 1970–2010

Previously I discussed the decision of the IUNC of moving the Turtle Dove from vulnerable to extinction in the mid-term and how it got me thinking about which of our Midwest birds might be endangered.

And when it comes to reading on-line articles I hardly ever read an article in its entirety.  I skim.  And I think that’s what most people do.

But I have read the first 30 pages of H. David Bohlen’s A Study of the Birds of Sangamon County, Illinois 1970–2010 at least 3 times in the last year and haven’t skimmed it once. That’s how good it is.

Study - Sangamon County

Most of the information I have about the status of birds in the Midwest comes from his study. There is also a second part with photos to support the first – “A Study of the Birds of Sangamon County, Illinois 1970–2010 Part 2“.

It summarizes his surveying the Greater Springfield, IL area for 40 years. If you study his charts you’ll see that for many years he was in the field over 350 days, 7 hours a day. He sums up his work in pages i-xxxv and then goes into the individual species accounts.

It’s an intriguing read that sums up what I think we all know is going on with birds in the Midwest. He lists species that are declining or gone and ones that have increased, in some cases dramatically, over the last 40 years.

While reading the article remember this really isn’t just about Sangamon County IL but any Midwest county that has grown over the last 50 years. I have only lived in Indiana for 3 years but I see the same results in the Greater Indianapolis area. Maybe not the exact species but close.

In particular read his METHODS starting on page xix and SPECIES ACCOUNTS starting on page xxv.

But most importantly read his CONCLUSIONS starting on page xxix. I know I haven’t read everything on conservation but his conclusions, especially the POSTSCRIPT, is the best summation of the current situation in the Midwest.

The Postscript describes the slow decrease of birds towards end of his study, the destruction of habitat, and the importance of preserves.

There is nothing I can add to his report.  He sums up the situation succinctly, if not somewhat depressingly.

I’ll come back to his study’s results when I discuss Indiana’s endangered species.


“What if there were 100,000’s?”

This has been bothering me for sometime.

I go out and watch birds. I record my results in eBird. I participate in Christmas Bird Counts and Big May Day Counts. I helped plant trees at an Audubon site back in Illinois one spring. I’ve donated money to conservation organizations. All in the hopes that in someway it will be beneficial to birds.

But I don’t feel it is enough. There has got to be more.

What can I do to help birds and their constant pressures from man? How can I really help?

The media has covered the success stories on the recovery of certain species and their removal from endangered lists. But the stories are usually about the poster children of the birdworld. The Bald Eagles or Peregrine Falcons. Great success stories both. But what about the other 10,000 species?

If you have followed this blog you know I switched jobs earlier this year. And with that came travel. One of the things I do to pass the time is to listen to birding podcasts. I have listened to a couple of US birding podcasts and they were interesting.

Then I found the U.K. based Talking Naturally.  As the tagline says “it is a fortnightly podcast discussing birds, wildlife, conservation and whatever else interests us and we think will interest you.” Even though the topics it discusses are UK-based I didn’t have any problem relating to the birds or topics.

Then the November 6 issue aired and the recent reclassification by the IUCN of the TURTLE DOVE from Vulnerable to Extinction in the medium-term was discussed. According to the website the Turtle Dove “has declined by 90% in the UK since the 1970’s, with the species going into free-fall in the past decade, with numbers falling by a further 77%. Is it too late to save a beloved summer visitor? Of course not.”

Turtle Dove
European Turtle Dove – Wikipedia – Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 – Uploaded by Yuvalr –  4 June 2010

There was one line in the podcast that stood out. Around minute 13:30 the host Charlie Moores and Jamie Wyver of the RSPB were discussing field biologist’s observations of Turtle Doves on their winter range in Senegal.  The biologists had found a roosting site of 35,000 Turtle Doves, which both agreed was a good number. But Jamie had a couple of points about that number. One, it is still twice as many Turtle Doves than are now found in the UK. And two,

“What if that one roost had hosted 100,000’s like they have historically?”

He then made the analogy to the Passenger Pigeon. And that really made me sit up and think.

With some minor ups and downs we see the same local birds in basically the same numbers from year to year.  But do we really know if one of our local species numbers is in free-fall?

I figured “someone” out there is keeping track so I was going to find out and see what I can do to help.

And so I’m going to start blogging about my journey into what I found out about our local endangered species.  And hopefully at the end I’ll know how I can help.

Next: No better place to start than with H. David Bohlen’s A Study of the Birds of Sangamon County, Illinois 1970–2010.