Surveying the Birds of the Dakotas

The early bird gets the worm, and in this case, the early technician

At 5:45 AM on a ranch in Southeastern North Dakota, as the sun begins to creep up over the hills and illuminate the ponds around me in a bright orange light, a nearby Chestnut-collared Longspur pops into the air. He spends a few seconds flying through the air as he sings, before moving back into the grass. Further off the sparrows, wrens, sandpipers, ducks, herons, and blackbirds can be heard as they take their spots among the dawn chorus. This survey will last until the late morning and is filled with much of the same: a wide assemblage of grassland and marsh birds against the striking scenery I hike through this morning. This is just one survey of three I complete on this ranch – and just one of a greater number I complete this field season.

My name is Lauren Hatch. I am Audubon Dakota’s Technician for the 2022 field season. A large part of my job consists of the bird surveys I described above – but also includes vegetation and pollinator surveys. These surveys all give Audubon Dakota, as well as the people whose land these surveys are conducted on, valuable information about population trends for the wildlife in this region and the effect our work can have on said trends. It also functions as a way for landowners to gain insight on the birds that inhabit and thrive off their land.

Bird surveys start early, half-an-hour before sunrise. This is because, for the most part, birds are most active at dawn. Thus, starting early ensures that we will be recording a large amount of the birds that are present on that piece of land. Before the survey starts, we take an inventory of the plant composition of the area where we are surveying. The degree of detail depends on the survey method used, some call for general information, some call for more detail. Weather and time-of-day is also recorded. Then, we can start looking for birds.

Much of my time this summer was spent using a point-based surveying method called IMBCR: Integrating Monitoring of Bird Conservation Regions. It is a method constructed by the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, a non-profit based out of Fort Collins, Colorado, and is used by a variety of NGOs, state, and federal agencies. We conduct IMBCR surveys on our properties enrolled in the Audubon Conservation Ranching Initiative. An IMBCR survey consists of points laid out in a 16-point grid. Once we arrive at the point, which is found using GPS, we spend six minutes recording every bird that we see and hear. If a bird can be identified as male or female, or if we spot a juvenile, that is jotted down. We also take note if we see a group of birds. If we see or heard something that we can’t identify or can only be identified down to a group of birds (ex: you heard a duck call but can’t ID it down to species), we still make note of that bird, but label it as an unknown. By doing so, we ensure that every bird we detect on our survey is counted, even if we can’t be certain of the species. Once those six minutes go by, we can move onto the next point. This goes on until every point is marked off. If the survey goes longer than five hours after sunrise we stop  since bird activity decreases too much after that point. One survey, or 16-point grid, is completed a day and, in my experience, you rarely get close to that five-hour mark.

A different survey method is used for properties enrolled in the Prairie Management Toolbox Program. Toolbox properties are surveyed using transects. We walk the transect and record the birds detected along to that line. These are better for smaller plots of land and are a little more flexible, as we determine beforehand where the transect will be, ensuring that we don’t run in to any problems with part of the transect being inaccessible. The number of transects on each property varies by size, and multiple toolbox surveys can be completed in a day if time allows.

This field season had many highlights. Spending a morning listening to Baird’s sparrows sing in Western North Dakota. Camping next to a lake with Trumpeter Swans in Northwest Nebraska, and waking up to the songs of American Bitterns, Wilson’s Snipes, Marsh Wrens, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Walking to a point and finding that it was in the middle of a Chestnut-collared Longspur larking spot, and getting to spend some time watching a group of male longspurs compete for attention. Getting my first Sprague’s Pipit, East of Bismarck at one of our toolbox survey locations. Finally hearing a LeConte’s Sparrow, only for it to be during a pollinator survey. Many mornings spent getting harassed by Willets, Marbled Godwits, or Long-billed Curlews, all of which are more than a little intimidating when they decide to dive-bomb you. Getting to spend my time with such a wide variety of grassland birds made the very early mornings something that I truly looked forward to.

These surveys are set up throughout the Dakotas, which means that I got the opportunity to spend much of my summer exploring parts of the region that I’ve never been to before. Though my family is from South Dakota, I am not, and grew up in Colorado. I have many childhood memories exploring South Dakota: biking parts of the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills, spending time with family on the Missouri in Pierre, and exploring many parts of Grant and Roberts County, where part of my family is from. However, I hadn’t spent much time in North Dakota, making this opportunity a real treat for me. Trekking quite literally end-to-end, from Beach to Fargo, has given me time to explore much of what North Dakota has to offer.

Above all, this summer has reinvigorated my love and passion for the grasslands: whether it be grassland birds, pollinators, plants, landscapes, or the people who manage these lands. The time I’ve been allowed to chat with and listen to ranchers speak about their experiences in sustainable management has been infinitely valuable to me and are conversations that I will take with me.

Lauren Hatch, Audubon Dakota Technician

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