• ProjectsMountainsMountain BirdwatchFAQ

    Mountain Birdwatch Frequently Asked Questions

    Have a question that you’d like to see answered? Email Jason Hill

    What is a focal species?

    One with good eyesight? Sorry–couldn’t resist. Focal species are the 10 bird species (Blackpoll Warbler, Winter Wren, Bicknell’s Thrush, etc.) and red squirrel that Mountain Birdwatch observers must be able to identify. During point counts observers must report all individual birds from these 11 focal species on their datasheets. Reporting non-focal species (such as White-breasted Nuthatch and Magnolia Warbler) are completely optional, but entirely welcomed.

    What is a complete checklist?

    If you eBird, then you’ll be familiar with this concept. The concept of a complete checklist predates eBird (by many hundreds of years), but a complete checklist is one that includes all the birds you identified as best you could while birding. In terms of Mountain Birdwatch, a complete checklist during a 5-minute point count would mean that you reported all of the birds (non-focal [e.g., White-breasted Nuthatch] and focal bird species [e.g., Bicknell’s Thrush]) that you were able to identify. More information here.

    Is a complete checklist possible if I can’t identify every bird?

    It happens to all of us: a woodpecker drumming, a far-away call note, or a bird pecks you in the head in the dark and flies off. In those three scenarios, you won’t likely be able to identify those birds to the species level. That’s perfectly OK. As long as you report all of the birds that you were able to identify to species, then it’s a complete checklist, even with those unknown birds.

    Why wouldn’t I always just record a complete checklist?

    Good question (thanks!). The vast majority of Mountain Birdwatch observers record complete checklists on their datasheets for all of their 5-minute point counts. At sampling stations with a ton of bird activity, however, it can be challenging to keep track of all of the individual birds during a 5-minute count. While you always have to keep track of the focal species individuals, if things get too hectic with counting and keeping track of 7 Dark-eyed Juncos (a non-focal species) then stop counting/tracking the juncos so that you can get accurate counts of the focal species.

    What are the time and dates of the survey?

    Tuesdays at 11 pm on public access channel 127. No wait! I was thinking of when Mystery Science Theater 3000 airs. My bad. Ahem. The flexibility of the Mountain Birdwatch surveys can be conducted on any date with fair weather in June–you choose a date that works with your schedule. We encourage observers to try and complete their route(s) in early June–who knows, it may rain for the last two weeks of the month. Early June also corresponds with the seasonal peak in vocal activity of mountain songbirds so you’ll hear and see more birds–yay for you! Observers should begin their first point count at ~45 minutes before local sunrise (not dawn) and ideally finish before 8 am, 10 am at the latest. For most locations, 45-minutes before sunrise equates to approximately 4:20 am, but you can quickly find sunrise times for any date and location using SunCalc.org. Even better, you’ll find the suggested start time for your first point count on your route document. Yes, it will be dark for your first couple of survey stations (so bring a headlamp), but don’t worry–the birds will be singing their hearts out in the total darkness. They’ve waited all year for the breeding season to begin!

    How do I locate the survey stations?

    If you don’t have a dousing rod handy, then your best bet is to scout your route in advance–at least the day before your survey. Each observer receives a route document with detailed driving and hiking instructions, and photos with detailed descriptions and GPS coordinates for each survey station. The route document is like a Lonely Planet guide for your route–everything you want to know! Stations are always located on established trails or logging roads and are usually ~250 m a part, straight line distance. Many observers use a combination of the photos and GPS to find the survey stations for the first time. Using your smartphone’s GPS (via an app like Gaia that renders topo maps offline) is also a great option, and it’s what most of here prefer at Mountain Birdwatch Central. Where permitted, a small metal tree tag is discretely affixed to the back of a tree at each point; these tags are meant to confirm the exact location of each survey station and their location (if present) is mentioned on the route document. Remember, conditions in the mountains change. That snag in the photo for the survey station may now be on the ground, which is why GPS is best.

    Do I need a GPS unit to find my point count stations?

    Are you the type of person who needs a GPS to find your car parked at the airport? Even if you’re not that person, we highly recommend that you first navigate to each point using a GPS and then confirm your location using the pictures and descriptions provided in your route document. However, if you don’t have access to GPS, or a smartphone (all modern smartphones have really good GPS units built in–it’s a federal requirement) it should be possible to locate your survey stations using only the verbal descriptions and pictures. Regardless, you should scout your route in advance and locate each sampling station on the day before your survey.

    In what weather conditions should the survey be conducted?

    One thing is clear–if you’re in the middle of a Sharknado you should not attempt your Mountain Birdwatch survey–there’s just too many teeth flying around. Absent Sharknados, use your best judgement, but the route should be surveyed in temperatures above freezing and when rain and wind do not interfere with the intensity or audibility of bird sounds. Occasional drizzle or a brief shower is acceptable, but steady drizzle or prolonged rain is not. A light wind is acceptable, but a breeze blowing strong enough so that small trees sway (>20 mph) is not. Check out Mountain Forecast for weather on a mountain near your route. If possible, plan to survey your route in the middle of a three day period of good weather. Ideally, that means no rain and winds under 15 km/hr.

    Is it permitted to temporarily suspend a count?

    Yes. If the weather deteriorates then immediately suspend the survey and retreat to safety. Wait for the weather to improve and continue your survey. Less commonly, a loud group of hikers with a “friendly” dog might stop to (try and) bite/talk to you. If they pass quickly, and only disturb the birds and your count for a few seconds, then simply keep counting—no need to suspend your count. This is a good opportunity for your companion to run interference for you and approach the hikers before they get to you and ask them to move quickly and quietly through. Use your judgement, if the loud group stops for a water break and disrupts your or the birds, then you can suspend the count. Give the birds a few minutes to return to normal after the hikers have moved on. If you have to suspend the survey temporarily, then redo the the 5-minute point count that was interrupted.

    What if I can’t complete my survey within the time frame?

    Life sometimes interferes with the best-laid plans; weekends become over-scheduled or a week of rain prevents a mountain ascent! If you find that you can’t complete your survey route, please email the Mountain Birdwatch coordinator as soon as possible–we may be able to have our interns survey your route. Otherwise, it’s likely that the route just won’t be counted that year. If you manage to go out and collect some data (e.g., before you got rained out) that’s still great–reach out to Jason and we can almost certainly still use those data.

    My route seems to be too low to support Bicknell’s Thrush. Why is that?

    Mountain Birdwatch monitors 10 montane bird species–you know, Bicknell’s Thrush and those other nine species. Can’t a Blackpoll Warbler get a break around here? Geez! These 10 bird species have a range of habitat requirements, and no sampling station will contain the habitat needed for all 10 species. The climate and forest community in the mountains is changing, and you’ll be surprised at some of the places these species show up. To monitor these populations effectively, especially in response to climate change, we must survey habitat where these species are and are not currently found.

    Can I start my survey at point 6 rather than at point 1?

    Can you use two coupons on the same item at the grocery store? Not usually. So please survey each route in the order indicated on the route information sheet. The locations of routes, and the direction of travel for each route, were randomly determined when the route was created. In the last couple of years, however, there have been new camping rules imposed on the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. We are fully supportive of these new rules, but they may mean hiking for miles in the dark to reach your first sampling station. If that’s the case for your route, then reach out to Jason and we’ll figure something out. [Also, please see the next question.]

    How am I going to get to my route at such an early hour?

    Until those Star Trek transporter things become commonplace, you’ll have to hoof it. [Just to be 100% clear, please do not bring any hoofed animals with you]. The majority of Mountain Birdwatchers camp overnight on the eve of the survey, somewhere along or near their route. Going to sleep to the sound of the evening chorus of birds is an incredible experience. If you have a short and easy hike in, you might consider getting up REALLY early (2 am?) and driving to the trailhead and hiking in on the morning of the survey. Quite a few folks actually prefer this, even when there’s good camping spots right near the first sampling station on the route. You’d only want to hike in during the dark, of course, if you have already scouted and located your sampling stations at an earlier date–it is extremely difficult to locate your sampling stations for the first time in the dark. Don’t try to do that, and don’t try and pet wolverines. Whichever approach you choose, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time and observe local camping regulations. As always, practice Leave No Trace.

    Do you have suggestions to help me learn to identify the Mountain Birdwatch focal species?

    Yes! Check out the narrated audio tracks on our training materials page. Also, Dendroica is a website aimed at citizen and community scientists who want to improve their bird identification skills. There’s also some great apps like I Know Bird Songs that let you set up a playlist of species to learn. Also, hike into your route on the day before your planned survey. Locate the sampling stations on your route and conduct a few practice point counts at each sampling station so you get to know the space. You could even pace out the distance to obvious landmarks or ecotones.

    How can I estimate the distance to a singing bird that I can’t see?

    Is this like the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” No. Phew, but it takes practice [one-handed clapping and estimating distance to birds], which is why we strongly encourage you to practice the point count protocol and estimate distances to singing birds. When practicing, use a laser range finder or pace out the distances to singing birds. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you improve your distance estimation to singing birds with just 1 hour of practice. For real. Remember, you don’t have to be up in the mountains to practice your point counts and practice distance estimation. Try it in your backyard or at a local park.

    Can I “phish” or use bird calls or recordings during my point counts? Or after the survey to draw out a bird that I couldn’t see/identify during the survey?

    Can I wipe my muddy boots on your living room carpet? The answer to all of these questions is ‘absolutely not’, not under any circumstances. It’s just easier for everyone, and better for the dataset, if there’s no playback used at all. Even well-intentioned playback.

    Can I record my point counts and use the recording to identify ‘mystery’ birds later?

    We like your enthusiasm, and good intentions, but the short answer is “No thank you,” for a bunch of reasons. But first and foremost, we want you to walk into the mountains with a high level of ability to identify the 11 Mountain Birdwatch focal species. Knowing that you could use recordings might easily influence you to spend less time mastering the calls and songs of the focal species.

    What if I hear a bird call 1 second before the first 5-minute count at a station, but then I don’t detect it during the next 20 minutes? I know it’s there—can I count it somewhere?

    No, and you also probably need to cut back your caffeine intake and read fewer spy novels. The fate of the world is not affected by whether or not that bird shows up in the dataset, so just relax. You only record a bird during a five-minute count if you actually heard or saw it during that 5-minute period. Period. Don’t worry–it’s not realistic to think that you’ll detect every single bird species within 100 m of you during 20 minutes of counting, especially for those species that occur at low densities.

    Can I bring along a friend?

    Yes, but no enemies, frenemies or androids please. Hmm, if you’re contemplating a sci-fi short film about Mountain Birdwatch then please contact the current coordinator (I keep my almost-completed film script on my desk for just that purpose). For safety reasons, we encourage you to bring someone along, and so you can also share your passion and train someone else to survey an MBW route. Pay it forward. However, only the primary observer can detect and count birds, without any assistance from your companion. The consistent use of a single, trained observer increases the reliability of monitoring results. Like you, to avoid disturbing the birds during your count, your companion should not be walking around during the surveys. Your helper can record data for you (some folks like that) or they can manage the stopwatch, but they can’t help you detect birds.

    Can I bring along my dog?

    Is your dog trained to count birds? It is important that you are quiet during the survey so you don’t disturb the birds. It is best to leave the dog at home or ask a friend to come with you and care for your dog on a different part of the trail while you conduct the survey. Probably best to leave your companion fish at home though.

    How do I submit my data?

    We ask you to submit your data online and then scan and email your datasheets to Jason () or mail in your original datasheets directly to:

    Jason Hill
    Mountain Birdwatch
    Vermont Center for Ecostudies
    PO Box 420
    Norwich, VT 05055

    Where can I view Mountain Birdwatch data?

    To empower folks to explore Mountain Birdwatch data with ecological questions in mind we’ve polished up this shiny app. If that leaves you feeling cheated out of some quality time with spreadsheets and coding, by all means download the raw data.

    How do I contact the Mountain Birdwatch coordinator?

    Email Jason Hill. Alternatively, write your question on the bottom of a birch bark canoe and send the whole thing to me at the above address. Don’t forget the paddles and pfds, please.

    What else can I do to help Mountain Birdwatch?

    1.  If you finish your route(s) and have time and energy to spare–you can certainly tackle another route–we always have routes that unexpectedly don’t get surveyed.
    2. Just as importantly–spread the word about Mountain Birdwatch. Most of our community scientists were personally referred to us by existing MBW observers.
    3. Contact the MBW coordinator–you could help update photos and trail descriptions for current routes, or help establish new sampling locations.