Bird’s eye view

Ken Voget, bird bander for the Great Basin Bird Observatory, prepares to release a male western tanager at McCarran Ranch Preserve.

Ken Voget, bird bander for the Great Basin Bird Observatory, prepares to release a male western tanager at McCarran Ranch Preserve.

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This May, the Great Basin Bird Observatory, a Reno-based non-profit organization, celebrates 20 years of studying the region’s birds. For season after season, year after year, GBBO employees and volunteers have traversed our state’s basins and ranges, banded countless birds—well, actually, they’ve counted—and filled many a datasheet with observations of the daily happenings of the avian world. So, what have they learned during two decades of studying Nevada’s birds? And, why study the birds at all?

Mapping the territory

GBBO was founded in 1997 for the sole purpose of completing a statewide inventory of Nevada’s breeding birds. Breeding bird studies collect information about the timing and location of bird nesting activities—information that allows biologists to track trends in bird populations over time and identify key habitats that are important to the continued survival of each species. Although nesting activities of birds in certain regions of the state had been monitored since 1968 as part of a nationwide study called the North American Breeding Bird Survey, other regions hadn’t been studied at all. And from a conservation perspective, you can’t protect or manage habitat for a species unless you know it is there. To remedy the situation, GBBO’s founders gathered support for a breeding bird atlas project, which would map and describe the geographic distribution of all of Nevada’s breeding birds.

The project was a major effort, said Elisabeth Ammon, executive director of GBBO, who has been with the organization since 2002. More than 400 people contributed, visiting 796 locations around the state in search of breeding birds. The fieldwork alone took four years. The final product—a hefty 581-page book called Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Nevada—was published in 2007.

“The significance of that atlas is that nobody had ever documented all of the breeding birds of Nevada,” Ammon said. “Actually, a lot of times people didn’t really know exactly where they were breeding, which is a real problem if you want to manage them. There was a lot of uncertainty.”

In the atlas, GBBO officially confirmed more than 240 species of birds nesting within the boundaries of our state. New discoveries included the gilded flicker and rufous-crowned sparrow. Breeding ranges for species such as the black-billed magpie and the gray vireo were found to be very different than had previously been assumed, and breeding activity by species such as the spotted owl and pileated woodpecker, previously believed to nest in the state, could not be confirmed.

GBBO’s founders originally planned to create the atlas and then dissolve the organization. But, upon completion of the project, members recognized the need to continue the monitoring efforts over time—to learn which species were increasing in numbers, which were in decline, and why.

Deciphering the data

“Birds are usually used as kind of the easiest-to-measure and pretty accurate index of how well the whole wildlife community is doing,” said Ammon on a recent morning at the Nature Conservancy’s McCarran Ranch Preserve. “There are some exceptions to that—some wildlife has to be measured directly. But birds are really good indicator organisms for how well things are going along. So if there’s a whole set of birds missing, there’s usually a reason for that.”

Nearby, Ken Voget, GBBO’s official bander of birds, sat in the shade of an RV—his home during the spring migration season—and pulled a tiny, brown house wren out of a small mesh bag. He took some measurements, placed a small, numbered metal band on one of the bird’s legs, weighed it and released it. It flew off toward the Truckee River.

By affixing bands to the legs of birds, researchers who later recapture the birds can learn things about life spans and migration patterns. They can also learn about the quality of the environment where the bird is captured.

“If we band a bird, and they come back every year, we use that as a measure of reliability of food resources, which is a good measure of habitat conditions,” Ammon said.

GBBO has been banding birds along the Truckee River since 1998, and at McCarran Ranch since 2003. The preserve was the site of a large-scale habitat restoration project during 2006-2007, and GBBO’s bird banding data has been useful in assessing which species have returned to the area in the time since the restoration occurred.

The yellow warbler, for example, was historically fairly common along the Truckee River, said Ammon, but had largely disappeared from the McCarran Ranch area by the 1970s, when environmental conditions along the Truckee River were at a low point. In the time since the restoration project, she has seen these birds return.

“[Yellow warblers] are now breeding at the Ranch,” Ammon said. “That has all to do with the revegetation effort that was going on, and the wetlands and the riparian shrubs that are now recovering. A habitat that is intact provides all of the resources for a breeding bird. And that sort of loops it back to the idea of birds being indicators of intact ecosystems or habitats. The fact that they’re actually nesting where we expect them to nest is a sign that something is working for them.”

Today, many of GBBO’s projects involve interpreting bird data to make recommendations to land management agencies about maintaining and restoring healthy wildlife habitats. At McCarran Ranch, for example, the mature trees along the river channel have recovered better than the understory layer of shrubs, and the populations of certain bird species that rely on shrub habitat have not yet rebounded.

Tracking the trends

Over the years, GBBO has grown to employ nine year-round staff and a seasonal field crew of up to 40 additional people. They work throughout the Great Basin and portions of the Mojave Desert, providing information on birds and habitats to land management agencies and other partner organizations. They've also developed statewide bird monitoring programs and conservation plans.

In recent years, they’ve observed a rapid drop in populations of pinyon jays in the state’s pinyon-juniper woodlands and are investigating the reason for the decline. They’re studying the secretive elf owl along the Lower Colorado River and monitoring bird mortality around the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project outside of Tonopah.

Looking to the future, climate change is a big concern, said Ammon, especially for species that use snowmelt-driven habitats along rivers and streams, or species like the gray-crowned rosy-finch and black rosy-finch that rely on alpine habitats that will disappear as climate warms. In southern Nevada, there's now evidence of certain species extending their ranges farther north. Typical Mojave Desert-dwelling birds are showing up in Great Basin habitats.

For detecting trends in bird populations over time, long-term datasets are key—and that is something it can be hard to find funding for, said Ammon. GBBO’s breeding bird atlas was an important first step.

“When there’s a budget cut, it’s usually one of those budget items that gets thrown out, because they feel like if we don’t have the answer in two years then they don’t want to spend their money on it,” said Ammon. “Which is a natural reaction, but if we had said that [20] years ago, we would still be sitting here wondering which birds we should actually pay attention to, and which are so common that we don’t need to pay attention to them.”