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What’s a Point Count? (Brendan)

Over our past posts we mentioned our employment is watching birds or specifically that we are “point counting”.  However there has been scant attention paid to what a point count actually is.  I suppose for those of you actually following along yet unsure what this means, it might be helpful for me to diminish those uncertainties.

Six agonizing days a week we wake up before dawn, shove and drain various edibles into our gullets and swerve our ways down treacherous forest service roads to the given transect for the day.  This can involve anywhere from a 15 minute drive to a two and a half hour slog to a distant treatment unit.  When your GPS gets it through it’s dense plastic case that you actually want to find your first point of the day and not stumble about in the dawn light – you start counting birds.

Point counting is a general survey technique that demonstrates the diversity and population size of each species of bird in our area.  We walk the transect (read: imaginary line in the forest) and stop at specific points dictated by our GPS (and the previous jackasses who were supposed to make the point easy to find with ample flagging).  At each point our protocol specifies that we count for five minutes and record the exact distance of every bird (within 300 meters) and our first means of noticing them (song, call, visual, etc.).  This is all well and good until you get out there and realize you can’t see every bird to estimate its distance.

So, yes, really we get paid to listen to birds.  But we honestly don’t see all that many birds walking a count.  If you know what a bird is by song or call, that’s the end of it and you don’t chase it down.  I for one have developed quite the profundity at estimating (making up a number) how far a bird is from me.

There are two pieces of a larger project we are working on this season.  One has been going on for around 12 years and the other, which is now in its infancy, has been ushered it into life as with us acting proverbial midwives.  The Plumas point counts are going into a larger management plan of the Plumas and Lassen National Forests (PLAS) with surveys of birds, mammals, and plants going into their decisions.  It generally is trying to give proper information to restore the Sierras into an ecologically sound mosaic of varied age diverse forests, meadows, and shrublands.  Often there is a focus on old growth only, which only supports a handful the native species in the area.  The “Burn Project” started this year and we are setting up all the transects for it.  It is an addition to the overall Plumas forest plan and intends to address how the various fires have affected the landscape and how future fire management can be enacted responsibly.  While the Plumas point counts are fairly straight forward there’s a little more involved in the Burn work.  This is of course work for Point Reyes Bird Observatory who contracts  for the Forest Service.

Our goal as point counters in burns is to sample the species in the three fires in our area:  The Moonlight Burn (2 years old), the Storrie Burn (8 years old), and the Cub Burn (1 year old).  Despite the physical difficulties that burns can present, there are often birds you don’t see anywhere in high numbers like Lazuli Buntings, Lewis’s Woodpeckers, and even the odd Ash-throated Flycatcher. We do shorter point counts however to leave time for a cavity search within 100 meters on either side of our transect seeking out active cavities.  Woodpeckers most often use (and make) these but other birds secondarily use cavities being ill-equipped to excavate themselves and will invade burn areas as well.  Various owls, both Western and Mountain Bluebirds, and Kestrels are birds we expect to find living in burnt areas – often where, I might add, they normally wouldn’t reside.  Burns are FULL of insects for good eats and the decaying wood provides easier excavation.

So there you have it: a brief view of our work this season.  We will also be writing a three part series on our abhorrence and/or enjoyment of surveying these fires.  Each. Due to age, intensity of, and the landscape that the fire engulfed has unique qualities.  Fire ecology is an integral part of the Western North American landscape and I at least feel lucky to have an opportunity to see first hand how some of it works.  Humans are ever struggling to understand and appreciate fires but it’s hard to not vilify something we are just beginning to grasp and which can blindly erase whole swaths of humanity and wilderness.

Filed under: Birds, Field Work, Science, Sierra Nevadas

About the Author

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I am a natural history writer and photographer, obsessed birder, naturalist, and artist. When I'm not learning by reading, drawing, painting, taking photos, or being outside, I am probably asleep.

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