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Birders Welcomed Beyond No Trespassing Signs

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Blackburnian Warbler. Photo courtesy of Bridget Butler.

On a late winter Sunday morning, Richard Littauer dropped what he was doing to go searching for a bird. He had received an electronic alert that a local birder spotted an evening grosbeak on McCullough Road in Middlesex. “It hadn’t been seen in this county all winter,” Littauer said of the large-billed, short-tailed finch. “I like seeing as many birds as possible, and I hadn’t seen evening grosbeaks yet.” While out looking for the bird, he fit in a 5-mile run, armed with binoculars, on the snow-covered backroads of Middlesex.

It’s energy and enthusiasm like Littauer’s that Bridget Butler (a.k.a. “the bird diva”) is harnessing in citizen-science project Birder Broker. The project matches birders such as Littauer with landowners to help map what bird species are on privately owned land. The birders and landowners walk the land together during breeding season to identify what birds are there.

Butler sees it as a win-win-win for the birders, the landowners, and everyone interested in birds in Vermont. “What do birders like more than anything?” she asked. “They like getting on property that’s not public and finding new places.” Landowners, in turn, receive new information about what bird species are on their land.

The public learns new information on bird populations, too. Observations from Birder Broker are uploaded to public electronic database eBird, operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There, anyone can see what bird species have been observed where; a useful tool when monitoring the health of bird populations.

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East Montpelier naturalist Nona Estrin said she’s concerned that bird populations will decline as climate change brings more variable weather. “Let’s take a common phoebe,” she said. “If a phoebe pair is raising four young on your porch, and if there’s a solid downpour for four hours one day, well, each nestling needs to be fed every 20 minutes. How are you going to catch the insects to feed to the nestlings?”

Downpours aren’t the only extreme weather events that can knock back bird populations. “Last year in June, during the nesting season, we had an unbearably hot 24-hour period,” Estrin said. “Insects don’t fly around during heat like that. The phoebe is a flycatcher. If something like this happens every four or five years, birds perish, but they build their numbers up again. But if something happens every year, you have declines.”

Butler said declines in bird populations, particularly insect-eating birds such as the phoebe, were reported in a 25-year report on forest birds recently released by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, which hosts the Birder Broker program. “They’re starting to look at how that ties into pesticide use,” she said.

Butler said she hopes the Birder Broker program will educate and inspire landowners to manage their land for the benefit of local birds. “There can’t be a biologist in everybody’s backyard to gather the data we need to make great decisions about our landscape,” she said. “But in Vermont we’re fortunate that there’s tons of people interested in connecting with the land. And through citizen-science partnerships such as Birder Broker, we can engage people in a way they feel is making a difference.”

Last year was the pilot year for Birder Broker, which connected 29 landowners with 26 experienced birders and resulted in 41 checklists uploaded to eBird. This year, Butler hopes to increase the number of landowners and birders in the program, and to encourage everyone participating to walk the land at least three times during breeding season.

While the bird data from the first year were interesting, Butler was fascinated by the social results, too. “There were a lot of folks who developed good relationships,” she said. “Some people hadn’t thought a lot about birds on their property and were really surprised by what they found. One birder-land owner pair did their initial surveys and enjoyed it so much they kept going.”

Littauer is one of the birders in Birder Broker who has gone back repeatedly to the land he started monitoring last year, a maple forest in Cabot. “I got an awesome recording of a broad-winged hawk screaming there,” he said, “and I haven’t gotten that elsewhere.”

While Birder Broker is most oriented toward bird species during mating season, Littauer emphasized how much birders can see and hear in the woods year-round. “Right now, the red-winged blackbirds are coming back; I heard my first one this morning,” he said. “The warblers are coming back, and the woodcocks will start displaying in the bogs again. I’ve already seen spring in the birds that are around.”

Carl Etnier just enrolled his land in Birder Broker and looks forward to learning what species are there this year. Birders and landowners can register at http://val.vtecostudies.org/projects/birder-broker/