Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to bird UM-Dearborn

Sometimes when I report results of my bird surveys (especially when they represent high species diversity or some "good" birds) people write to tell me they visited the UM-Dearborn campus the same day and "didn't see anything." I've even had the occasional email where the author says that they "never see anything" at UM-D! I hope this actually translates to, "I didn't see what/as much as you saw." In any event, here are some tips to increase your chances of seeing lots of good birds at UM-D...many of which apply to any place you bird.

Where I go
I described in a previous post where I bird here in the campus environmental study area. You can see my route(s) on a Google map at EveryTrail. I always walk the 1.5-mile standard route. Sometimes I also walk the trails on the floodplain, go down to the Henry Ford Estate, or walk all the way to the south end of campus. Generally, however, most of the birds are found on the standard route.

Some good spots
Areas in the morning where the sun is hitting the trees are usually the best places to find pockets of migrant birds here. Good spots that are reliable are right along Fair Lane Drive, which divides the campus from the environmental study area, between the Academic Support Center and the old Pony Barn (see this campus map), and another is along the sunny edges of the Hickory Meadow (see this PDF map of the environmental study area). The trail head right behind the Environmental Interpretive Center (EIC on either map) is good, too. A little later, when the sun is up higher, the Lakeside trail can be excellent.

When to bird
I start my surveys right around dawn for two main reasons. First, migrant birds are most active when they first arrive after a night of migration (most songbirds are nocturnal migrants). When they arrive at a site their first order of business is to settle into appropriate habitat and feed. During mid-day many birds rest. I find that this drop-off in activity begins around 11 AM or so here (depending on the time of sunrise), and it can be dramatic.

Secondly, the trails at UM-Dearborn are heavily used by students, school groups, and the public. Often programs begin at 8 or 9 AM. Once a lot of people hit the trails, the birds tend to move off and out of sight (but please remember to stay on the trails, and that no tape recordings are permitted).

For both these reasons, if you are coming here at lunch time, you are at a big disadvantage.

General tips
  • Well over 80% of the birds I record are identified by song or call only. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to know your bird sounds. At UM-Dearborn, as at many urban sites, even folks who are good at birding by ear can face a challenge from all the ambient noise. There is the usual traffic, construction, and campus sounds, and on days with the "right" wind direction, airplanes taking off and landing at Detroit Metro Airport fly directly overhead every four and a half minutes in the early morning hours! I can't begin to tell you how frustrating that is, but in many ways it has improved my listening and concentration skills.
  • Walk very slowly and stop often. On days that don't have too many birds, my 1.5-mile walk takes me 1.5 hours to complete, and twice as long when there are a lot of birds to count. That is considerably slower than the average walking pace of 3 to 3.5 MPH, yet I see people trying to find birds while walking at a normal clip. Birds are much more detectable when you see them moving, without being distracted by your own movement or startling the birds right out of view.
  • Stay quiet. You want to not only be able to hear birds sing or call, but hear them moving in the vegetation. By the way, this is why if you see me out doing a survey I won't strike up a long conversation, or ask you to tag along with me. I'm not trying to be rude, just attempting to count birds under optimum conditions!
  • It's helpful to know your trees and shrubs, since some species are better for foraging birds than others. These tend to be native species, and in spring, oaks are particularly favored. They are often some of the last trees to leaf out, too, so birds are easier to see. The understory at UM-Dearborn is dominated by non-native shrubs. I've found that as these non-native species have spread over the years, spring migrants are easier to find higher in the native canopy. In the fall, these non-native plants provide a lot of fruit, and birds are easier to find in the shrub layer.
Birders in this region are spoiled by the close proximity of two famous locations that concentrate birds: Point Pelee and Magee Marsh/Crane Creek. The geography of each of these areas means that a lot of birds congregate in fairly small areas. This can make for excellent viewing without a huge amount of effort. These places also attract a lot of birders who can point you to the exact spot where you can see Species X or Bird Y. It's not quite the same at UM-Dearborn, and you'll have to work a little harder for your birds. Personally, I enjoy the challenge, and love the thrill of discovering the first spring arrivals or those unexpected rarities on my own. I hope these tips help you to do the same. Don't forget to let me know what you see -- I'm sure it will be something!

No comments: