For a hot, muggy June evening, the meeting of the Parry Sound Nature Club on June 20 was quite well attended.
Rick Snider gave us a brief synopsis of the spring bird hike on May 26. This year 16 people participated and a total of 64 species of birds were observed including 12 warbler species. Highlights included seeing a Green Heron at the start of the day and encountering a few bluebirds and cliff swallows. In addition to the bird observations, the group also tallied 12 butterfly species and quite a few dragonflies as well.
Liz Simms updated the group on the status of the Chimney Swifts in town. She has been observing the roosting site at the old general hospital building quite regularly and has seen anywhere from 20 or 30 birds entering the chimney to a high of 115 going in one evening. It was suggested that perhaps there was a large group migrating through the area at that time.
Our guest speaker for this meeting was Rick Miller, a long-time cottager in the area just south of Parry Sound, and a skilled birder who has been collecting data for the Breeding Bird Atlas project for many years. Rick’s personal log of observations of nature shows a sharp decline in turtles, snakes and frogs from the 1940s to the 2010s. Changes are occurring in the environment, but there is very little serious scientific study and evidence of what is happening and why. Monitoring and observing birds is a good way to follow changes over time, and back in 1966, a fellow named Chandler Robbins with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Maryland started the North American Breeding Bird Survey as a large-scale, long-term way to monitor the environment. He was greatly influenced by a book called Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which is still a good and relevant read today.
Robbins realized there was no long-term data on population sizes, changes occurring over time, or even what species are found in which areas. Not only did he want to monitor parks and protected areas, but also wanted to randomly sample throughout the country, and eventually, the continent. He devised a method of random sampling within survey blocks established by latitude and longitude.
The official launch of the project was in 1966, with 600 routes mostly in the eastern states. By the late 1980s, data was already starting to show major declines in neotropical migrant bird species of eastern forests. In 1990, a group called Partners in Flight was established to monitor breeding, wintering and stop over grounds for many of the species in decline. The Breeding Bird Survey has grown tremendously over the years and in 2012, there were more than 3000 routes surveyed extending from Canada, throughout the United States, and into northern Mexico. Part of the value of the survey is that it helps determine the relative abundance of bird species and provides valuable population trend information.
Miller has more than one route that he surveys annually for the Breeding Bird Atlas, but he chose the “Shawanaga Route” in Carling township to discuss some of his findings and observations. This particular route has been monitored for 16 years and the number of species counted has varied, but averages about 55 - 69 species. One exceptional year’s survey yielded a total of 95 species. This route has had two observers. Miller does this route now, but it was previously surveyed by Jean Niskanen. He has done quite a bit of analysis on his own, comparing data obtained on this route over the years, and has noticed quite a few changes over the years as well as differences between his own observations and the previous surveyor. Major influences on the data obtained can include variations in weather on the date of the survey as well as observer skill and ability where more than one person has done the same route. Thus, some of the differences in relative abundance and numbers of species may be due to environmental changes such as decreased habitat availability and actual species decline, but one must analyse the information from the survey carefully so as not to erroneously infer cause and effect based solely on the numerical data.
Miller used a number of common species to illustrate his point, showing how weather on the date of the survey ¬- mainly rain and wind ¬- and even something as subtle as the observer’s hearing sensitivity could influence the kind of data obtained. Discussion followed around the great number of bird species currently known to be in decline such as forest thrushes (Wood Thrush and Hermit Thrush), aerial feeders (swallows, swifts, martins) and grassland birds such as the Bobolink. On a more positive note, however, there are actually a few species that are increasing in number and these include the Canada Goose, Sandhill Crane, Merlin and Trumpeter Swan.
Hopefully, with the help of dedicated and skilled volunteers such as Miller, the Breeding Bird Atlas of North America will continue for many more years, and will provide valuable data that can be used to help expand our understanding of what his happening to our environment, and ultimately even help protect bird species that are being threatened.
The Nature Club will be taking a break over the summer months, so our next meeting is not until September 19. Rick Snider will be leading a “Fern-tastic” hike on September 15 to help participants learn more about ferns found in this area. Time and location for this hike are yet to be determined, but will be announced via email to club members soon, or by contacting Rick at 378-2233.