ProjectsMountainsMountain BirdwatchFAQ

Mountain Birdwatch Frequently Asked Questions

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

What are the time and dates of the survey?

The flexibility of the survey timing means that almost anyone can participate. 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 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. Yes, it will be dark for your first couple of survey stations (so bring a light), but don’t worry–the birds will be singing their hearts out. They’ve waited all year for the breeding season to begin!

How do I locate the survey stations?

By scouting your route in advance–at least the day before your survey. Each observer receives a route document with detailed hiking driving and hiking instructions, and photos with detailed descriptions and GPS coordinates for each survey station. Stations are ~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. 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.

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

Since it is essential that MBW surveys are conducted at the exact same locations each year, we highly recommend that you navigate to each point using a GPS and confirm your location using the pictures and descriptions provided. However, if you don’t have access to GPS, or a smartphone (all modern smartphones have GPS units built in) it should be possible to locate your survey stations using only the verbal descriptions and pictures. Regardless, you should scout your route in May (ideally) and locate each sampling station before the count day.

In what weather conditions should the survey be conducted?

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?

In rare circumstances, yes. If the weather deteriorates then immediately suspend the survey and retreat to safety. Less commonly, a loud group of hikers might stop to (try and) 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 the birds, then you can suspend the count. Give the birds a few minutes to return to normal after they’ve moved on. Discard the partial data from your first attempt of that 5-minute count, make a note in the comments, and restart the 5-minute period. You would follow the same procedure if it suddenly started raining hard during a count.

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–NO LATER THAN JUNE 21–it’s likely that someone else can scramble and survey your route for you. If you were able to collect some data (e.g., before you got rained out) that’s still great–go ahead and submit it.

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. These 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?

No–please survey each route in the order indicated on the route information sheet that the Mountain Birdwatch coordinator sent to you in April. The locations of routes, and the direction of travel for each route, were randomly determined.

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. The majority of Mountain Birdwatchers camp overnight on the eve of the survey, somewhere along their route. Going to sleep to the sound of the evening chorus 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. You’d only do this, of course, if you had 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. 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 MBW focal species?

Yes! Check out the narrated audio tracks on our training materials page. Also, Dendroica is a website aimed at citizen 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, which is why we strongly encourage you to practice the point count protocol and estimate distances to singing birds in May. 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. 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?

Can I wipe my muddy boots on your carpet? The answer to both questions is ‘absolutely not’.

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. You only record a bird during a five-minute count if you actually heard or saw it during that 5-minute period. Don’t worry. No one detects every single bird that’s present during their counts. That’s precisely why we have you conduct four 5-minute counts, so that we can statistically account for the birds that you don’t detect.

Can I bring along a friend?

Yes, but no enemies, robots or androids please. Hmm, if you’re contemplating a sci-fi short film about Mountain Birdwatch then please contact the current coordinator (I keep a stack of head shots 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, or 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 to mail in your original datasheets (after you’ve made a photocopy of them) to:

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

How do I contact the Mountain Birdwatch coordinator?

Email Jason Hill or call him at: 802-649-1431 Ext.212. 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 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 citizen 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.