Birdwatchers in the Mid-Columbia turned into citizen scientists this spring for a pilot study of songbirds that depend on sagebrush to breed.
They were out early in the mornings with binoculars and global positioning systems, looking and listening for specific species of songbirds in Benton and Franklin counties.
They recorded all the birds they saw, but focused on the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher and Brewer's sparrow, all little birds that rely on sagebrush in the Mid-Columbia, plus two other birds that use similar habitat, the vesper sparrow and the grasshopper sparrow.
The survey was not remotely casual, said Robin Priddy of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.
The local chapter, with state and national Audubon support, teamed up with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Matt Vander Haegen, a senior scientist for the department, set the framework for the study -- protocols, procedures, data collection methods and the sites to survey.
An initial survey of scientific literature found that little work was being done on the targeted species, Priddy said.
"That felt even more compelling. It is local. It is here," she said.
Sagebrush and shrub steppe are dominant in Eastern Washington, but sage land disappears to development every year. Not only is the loss of sage habitat for species that depend on it a concern, but the lack of continuous sage also is a problem for wildlife.
Data collected by the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society could eventually help with Audubon Washington's goals to advance understanding of sagebrush songbird responses to habitat management practices and to identify areas to conserve as the climate changes.
But that was not the point of the survey, Priddy said.
"Where we start is with a survey to see what is there," she said. "We were not trying to prove a point -- just establish a baseline."
With the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Audubon Chapter, 36 volunteers, some coming from across the state, took the training to learn how to conduct the survey in teams and follow Department of Fish and Wildlife protocol.
In the early morning hours of April, May and June they hiked into a designated spot at publicly owned sites and spent exactly 10 minutes counting birds by sight and sound. Then they bird watched on the walk back to their cars.
Spring is breeding season, and the birds are most vocal and territorial then. Because most birds expected to be counted on the survey were singing males, volunteers needed to learn to identify their songs.
"We were all driving around listening to (recorded) bird calls," Priddy said.
The sites, which included spots in Juniper Dunes and on the south slope of Rattlesnake Mountain, randomly were picked for the study. In most cases they were not the sites that longtime birders know to be ideal, and some had less sage than others, said Kevin Black, chairman of the songbird survey committee for the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society.
"Some sites we were surprised because we found the species," Black said.
All three of the target species of songbirds were found, but not at all of the 14 Benton and Franklin sites surveyed, he said. Each site was surveyed three times.
In the two counties, surveyors saw or heard eight sage thrashers, six Brewer's sparrows and four sagebrush sparrows. But they also counted other birds, coming up with 2,382 birds representing 77 species.
The data is being entered into the eBird online database, where it will be available for public use, including by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
This first year was a pilot project intended in part to establish and vet the survey methods. Now plans have been made to survey for at least five more years, with four more Audubon chapters in Eastern Washington planning to participate in 2015.
The species targeted in the study move between British Columbia and northern Mexico and there is interest in eventually expanding to an international survey across the bird's migration path.
The data collected is expected to be used by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to verify the accuracy of its models that predict the distribution of birds dependent on sagebrush.
The information is used in large-scale land-use planning for energy resources, multi-state electrical distribution lines and conservation initiatives.
The survey caught the attention of the National Audubon Society, with President David Yarnold quoting Priddy at the May board meeting and sending out a message about the local chapter's work.
"The community is small, but what we do here does matter," Black said. "We can provide new techniques and new information to the birding world."
-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; email@example.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews