Sparrow Survey: Assessing Environmentally Friendly Land Use

It’s been some years since I worked full-time for any kind of field research project. My current job as a biology teacher doesn’t offer quite as many opportunities to “do science” outside the classroom, but I still find ways to get my fix. Ecology-focused field trips and school projects allow me to share the importance of the natural world with my students. I’m also a big believer in the merits of citizen science efforts. My fondness for data collection and review drove my progression from casual to compulsive use of eBird, and I eagerly count down to Christmas Bird Count season as the holidays approach each year. The style of birding associated with CBCs and similar survey efforts appeals to me strongly. Thoroughly combing through an area to document birds is an engaging, rewarding endeavor with real scientific value. These avian scavenger hunts provide a detailed snapshot of species diversity, overall numbers, and the presence of rarities or seasonal anomalies. Repeated counts help researchers to refine their understanding of how conditions change over time. I’m always willing to get out there and lend a hand, or an eye, to data collection birding efforts.

I was recently invited by fellow Long Island birder Stephane Perreault to assist with a special survey opportunity. Stephane works for the Seatuck Environnmental Association, a non-profit organization that has worked alongside the Greentree Foundation for the past 10 years to help monitor the success of their environmentally friendly land use initiative. The foundation owns a private estate on Long Island which has been regularly surveyed by Seatuck for several years now. Much of the property was originally dominated by sprawling, manicured lawns: veritable wastelands in terms of ecology and biodiversity. The rolling green hillsides are interspersed with fragmented woodlands, but the lawns themselves are massive monocultures of little value to wildlife. The folks in charge of the foundation sought to improve the health of the environment on the property by transforming some of that empty green space into native grassland plots full of seed-bearing perennials and pollinator plants. This remarkable forethought has turned the estate into a precious pocket of habitat free of the common human disturbances that plague so many natural areas in New York. Unsurprisingly, Stephane’s regular survey data reveal that a wide variety of birds congregate on the property at high densities during migration. When I received an offer to join this year’s mid-October stock-take, I was all too honored to accept.

A brisk northwest wind was blowing when I pulled up to the gates of the private property before dawn on Sunday. The cold front had first arrived in our region on Friday night, carrying with it countless migrants that were eager to move after being stalled by unfavorable weather conditions during the previous week. Stephane and I were excited to see what birds were awaiting discovery at the estate. We hoped to record high counts of individuals and a wide range of diversity for his report on the ecological health of the property. As light began to return to the landscape, we made our way to our first survey block and started tallying. It was readily apparent, even at daybreak, that we were in for an especially birdy day. Flocks of woodpeckers, finches, and jays were observed in flight over the property at first light, and there were scores of sparrows scattered throughout the grassland plots. I hardly knew which way to look; every tree and shrub seemed to be alive with activity. Undaunted by the challenge of documenting this bounty of birds, we pressed on with our binoculars at the ready. The next 12 hours were a mind-blowing, non-stop blitz of exceptional fall migration birding.

In October, sparrows are one of the main focus taxa for Seatuck’s survey efforts. As seed-eaters that require habitats with dense, protective cover during migration, they are prime candidates for assessing the environmental impact of the grassland restoration project. October is the peak season for their migration in coastal New York, with multiple species moving through the region en masse. Song and White-throated Sparrows are superabundant in any vaguely suitable natural space at this time of year, and the estate is no exception. However, the property specialty is the incredible numbers of southbound Swamp Sparrows. After carefully counting the individuals in more than 15 separate grassland plots over the course of the day, Stephane and I arrived at a sum of 214 individuals. According to eBird, this total represents a new high count for New York state. As if the density of birds wasn’t impressive enough, the variety of species using the native grass habitat is equally striking. Including Dark-eyed Junco and Eastern Towhee, we tracked down more than 850 individuals of 11 different sparrow species between dawn and dusk. Field and Savannah Sparrows were found hanging out in pairs or small groups, and we discovered lone White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows at several different locations. Chipping Sparrows were fairly common, often flushing from the edge of the grassland plots and flying up together into the trees when we approached. In one such small flock, we detected a paler, buffier individual giving a shorter, higher flight call note: a Clay-colored Sparrow. This species is a scarce but annual vagrant found on Long Island each fall, and it was a welcome addition to an already fantastic survey report.

The Clay-colored Sparrow wasn’t the only regional rarity encountered during our survey. Blue Grosbeak and Dickcissel were both found along the edges of fields on the property, and a flyover Red-shouldered Hawk was the first ever recorded at the former estate. We spotted a cooperative Orange-crowned Warbler foraging among the native grasses in a walled garden, a slightly early arrival for this locally uncommon visitor. Several more species tripped the eBird filter due to their late date of occurrence, namely American Redstart, Chimney Swift, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Scarlet Tanager. Stephane highly prizes data for high counts, late or early migrants, and unexpected vagrants, because this information allows him to craft a more complete picture of the Greentree Foundation property’s value as a natural area. Receiving frequent feedback and updates from Stephane helps to reinforce that the land managers made the right choice in developing their property to benefit wildlife. I’m certain that the birds appreciate their ecologically responsible decisions!

There were plenty of other encounters that made for memorable birding moments throughout the day. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo rushed past us to perch on an unobstructed limb at the forest’s edge, lingering and posing for several minutes before continuing on. This season’s intriguing irruption of woodland species continued, with good numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers present on site. Stephane’s hopes for a 4-wren day became a reality when we checked off House, Carolina, Winter, and Marsh Wren before the sun went down. While walking through the woods after sunset, we heard a duetting pair of Great Horned Owls. 4 additional individuals graced us with their presence before we returned to the cars, including a low, shadowy flyby and an unseen owl screeching in response to the hoots of its conspecifics. Perhaps the most unique bird we spotted was a partially leucistic Swamp Sparrow, standing out even among its hundreds of relatives due to its extraordinary, piebald appearance. All in all, it was a simply fantastic day: fall birding at its best. Compared, for example, with a typical solo outing at a well-trafficked coastal birding site, our tag-team survey of this protected private property measured up admirably. Knowing that the results of the count have direct scientific benefit makes the whole experience that much more rewarding!

If your appetite for intensive, survey-driven birding has been whetted, you’re in luck! Christmas Bird Count season will be here before you know it. Participating in a CBC is a great way to contribute to the birding community on both a local and national scale. It doesn’t hurt to start practicing for the big day now. Scouring your patch and trying to see the big picture of avian diversity and density in your region is always a worthwhile pursuit. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: birding intentionally and thoroughly will make you a better birder. If you need more incentive, don’t forget that late fall is one of the best seasons to find truly gobsmacking rarities. No matter what you see, one seldom regrets a crisp autumn morning spent surrounded by nature.

Special thanks to Stephane and all the folks at both the Seatuck Environmental Association and the Greentree Foundation who made this experience possible. It was an awesome day full of awesome data! The Greentree Foundation property is a really special place, and I hope that the environmentally friendly land use initiative continues to pay off for the estate and the wildlife alike! To wrap things up, here’s a few words from the “sponsor” of this post, Stephane himself:
“The Greentree Foundation and the Seatuck Environmental Association believe that there would be a significant scientific value for birders to go out and do their own survey of other grassland restoration project on Long Island.  Reporting their findings in eBird would allow their contributions to be seen by all.  One of the findings of the bird surveys at the Greentree Foundation is that the lack of success with breeding grassland species has been mitigated by spectacular use of the fields during the fall migration.  The Greentree Foundation property is strictly closed to the public, but public places in the area such as Kissena Park, Alley Pond Park, Hempstead Plains, Stillwell Park, Caumsett State Park, the Upland Farm Sanctuary, and many others parks that harbor grassland projects are ready to be explored and surveyed.  Each location may have their own bird specialty, and there is much to learn about how land management practices at these locations benefit birds. The great Hempstead Plains have sadly shrunk to a few acres.  What exists now is a corridor of fragmented grassland areas that together constitute one of the most interesting conservation initiatives on Long Islands.  One of their greatest benefits may be best appreciated now during the fall bird migration, and you can help to empirically and scientifically prove it.”