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Forests and Meadows in the Northern Sierra

Bird Survey Marathon

Ryan Burnett

Mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada, where PRBO monitors bird populations, have important ecosystem functions, especially if they are protected and/or restored. Photo by Ryan Burnett.
June 21st, 2010 started out like any other summer morning for me—up at 5:00 AM to do a meadow bird survey here in the Northern Sierra. What I didn’t realize then was that this day of field work was going to last 32 non-stop hours.

I began by surveying Gurnsey Creek, a long-term PRBO study site that supports one of the most productive and diverse meadow bird communities in the region. Mountain meadows are of great value in view of their ecological functions including ground-water storage. Bird populations are strong indicators of ecosystem health, and the data that PRBO gathers at selected sites—and the understanding we gain—are increasingly valued by people planning and carrying out conservation programs.

The day’s first survey went off without a hitch, and I was finished by 10:00 AM.

This gave me time to prepare for a Flammulated Owl survey that night. Montane birds have a short breeding season, and we have a brief period to conduct all our surveys. PRBO biologists Diana Humple and Dennis Jongsomjit, visiting from the Bay Area to help out, were intrigued by the prospect of seeing a Flammulated Owl and came along on the most daunting of our 15 owl transects. The survey was just awful: up and down steep canyons, bush-whacking between points in the dark, and we didn’t see or hear a single owl. Our five-hour survey took us nine hours, and we arrived home at 5:00 AM.

Because of the spring’s inclement weather and late snowpack, I couldn’t spare a single day if I was going to get all the surveys done by July 3rd, as required in our protocol. I willed myself out the door and drove to Child’s Meadow, a new site that I had never surveyed before. It is actually a series of meadows strung along the headwaters of Deer Creek, one of the most important salmon streams in California. The Nature Conservancy had recently purchased the property, and I was here to use my local knowledge and collect data on birds to help develop recommendations for improving the meadow’s ecological health.

"Bird populations are strong indicators of ecosystem health, and the data that PRBO gathers at selected sites—and the understanding we gain—are increasingly valued by people planning and carrying out conservation programs."

I parked the truck; grabbed my binoculars and backpack full of datasheets, laser rangefinder, GPS unit, and drinking water; donned my waterproof pants and Extra-Tuff rubber boots; and began the long walk. The standard survey method involves a four-hour time window, and I was already about an hour behind schedule, with counts to conduct at 22 points—on no sleep the night before. But the chance to explore this beautiful new place, and the sight of a hulking black bear ambling along (oblivious to my presence), lifted my energy better than anything on the Starbucks menu.

The area proved to be surprising, large, and challenging. Findings varied from nothing special, in parts of the meadow that had been overgrazed for a century; to non-native brook trout in the stream (not good news for endangered native amphibians like mountain yellow-legged frogs that once frequented this area); to the unmistakable call of a greater Sandhill Crane not more than 50 meters from one of my survey points.
Willow Flycatcher. Photo by Tom Grey /

I continued upstream, ticking off a 5-minute survey every 250 meters. My ability to run between points was waning (jogging in waterproof pants with rubber boots loaded down with gear across a wet meadow had worn me out), but the day’s biggest excitement was just ahead.

At a spot where standing water and signs of beaver increased, and willows likewise, my thoughts turned to the possibility of a Willow Flycatcher. This California Endangered Species is one of the rarest breeding birds in the Sierra Nevada. Arriving at my next point, I was thrilled to hear unmistakable fitzbew and zeeeep calls—two male Willow Flycatchers in duet atop willows lining the beaver ponds: they were already here!

Entering the next area, which lacked willows and birds due to heavy grazing in the past, I again began running between points and was able to finish the survey at 10:01 AM—one minute past our designated stopping time. I sat on a rock to contemplate the 4-kilometer return hike.
Ryan Burnett.

I started downstream accompanied by an Osprey diving on brook trout in this 6-foot-wide, 3-foot-deep creek (impressive) and eventually found what appeared to be a good spot to cross. I only needed to step down the bank about 18 inches, but before I knew it I was executing a half-gainer into the creek, and 45-degree water was running down my back. I quickly jumped up, climbed the far bank, and checked my backpack to make sure the data I had just collected was not wet. Everything was fine, though my ego was slightly bruised and I was drenched.

The remaining 2-kilometer walk was fairly miserable but uneventful. I made it home by 1:00 PM, just in time to pick my son up from daycare—after one of the longest and most memorable days I have had in the field in quite some time.