By Alexandra ("Alex") Forsythe
For several years I've been responsible for the U.S.G.S. Breeding Bird Survey in Berne. The BBS is conducted across the country in late May through early July - after the migratory birds have passed through and only the breeding birds remain. The intent of the survey is to determine the trends in the bird populations. Are the populations of invasive species like house sparrows growing exponentially? Are the birds breeding further north due to global warming? Are formerly rare birds making a comeback? The data collected by each surveyor is entered into a national database giving us answers to these and other questions by providing a more complete picture of the trends across the country.
Surveyors are experienced birders who can identify birds accurately, not just by sight, but also by ear. Often the birds can only be heard, so knowing the vocalizations of each species is important in order to record thorough results.
Each surveyor has a prescribed route of 25 miles with 50 testing points at about every half mile. The route and testing points are set at the national level, so they unfortunately miss some of the best birding sites like Limberlost. At each testing point, the surveyor has just 3 minutes to record every species and the number of individual birds within a quarter mile of that location, along with the number of cars passing by, the wind speed, cloud cover, and temperature. Testing is supposed to begin at exactly one-half hour before sunrise. There were testing places along my route that were noisy and somewhat dangerous due to traffic, and the people I encountered ranged from curious to suspicious about my presence.
My route (#35020) took me through mostly farmland, although there were some wooded areas, creeks, ponds, and grasslands now and then. There were certain locations where I could always depend on certain birds to be nesting year after year, and there were some surprises now and then. Some of the highlights, especially in the beginning, were Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Chimney Swift, Vesper Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Orchard oriole, Wood Duck, and Dickcissel. As the years went on, however, the trends I noticed on my route were striking and saddening. Some of the bird species could no longer be found. I could relate to the feelings of despair that Gene felt a she watched helplessly while her beloved swamp was destroyed in the name of progress.
When I first conducted the survey, I was delighted to find Bobolinks in a grasslands, Rough-winged Swallows under a lightly-wooded bridge, and bluebirds nesting at a farmhouse. In later years, the grasslands were mowed down and turned into cow pasture and cropland, so the bobolinks were no more. The trees were chopped down to make more farmland so the swallows disappeared. The house with the bluebird nesting boxes changed hands and the new owners had no interest in birds, so house sparrows took over.
The variety of species diminished in such a short span of time due to just a few changes in land use. Watching the effect made me appreciate places like Limberlost all the more. With birds losing ground to "progress", having a reliable habitat like Limberlost becomes critically important to the survival of many species of birds mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and plants.
This year, I'm passing the torch to Terri Gorney - Limberlost historian and modern day Gene. I am hoping that during her tenure, people become more aware of the interconnected nature of the planet; when one species disappears we are all affected. Gene knew this, and the Friends know this. Hopefully someday soon everyone will understand how important it is to preserve habitats so that future generations will be able to enjoy the sight and sounds of Gene's beloved feathered friends.