Today’s post comes from Habitat Management Technician Justin Johnson of Pinery Provincial Park. Justin has a master’s degree. in biology with a specialization in bird acoustics.
Bird watchers are an interesting breed of people. Sometimes everything they do seems to subvert society’s norms.
Sleeping in? Rather not. Too much coffee? There is no such thing. $4500 binoculars? Yes I saw it.
The bread and butter of bird watchers is local natural spaces and their trails. They can be very particular about which paths they walk. Experienced birders often only use trails they perceive as “for birds,” neglecting those that lie outside their sacred path.
But how do we do it? In fact Do you know which trails are the most “birdy”?
The Pinery “Picnic Table”
If you were to ask a birder what the best birding trail is in Pinery Provincial Park, they would say something like “I checked eBird and it’s the Riverside Trail.”
However, you should be careful when assuming that. Riverside Trail may be the Pinery “picnic table,” a reference to a legendary picnic table in Patagonia, Arizona.
The Patagonian picnic table effect posits that as a place becomes associated with rare bird species, more people are attracted to that place. In turn, they find even rarer birds.
Although the effect itself has been debunked, it’s worth noting that as a place gains notoriety as a “birdhouse,” inevitably more people will visit and see more birds.
Such is the case of Riverside Trail. Its impressive eBird checklist may be inflated by the large number of birders who travel through it.
The point is to define “birder” impartially.
I decided to make this my search. Here, I present data collected with limited bias that suggests that perhaps we really didn’t know which trail is the most birded in Pinery after all.
Tracking special species
Unlocking the secrets of Pinery’s birdiest trail is part of a much larger project here in the park.
The Friends of Pinery Park Habitat Management Program is dedicated to creating and maintaining habitats for at-risk species.
Part of this initiative requires defining the park’s range of species. Doing this is not an easy task. A single observer could never hope to adequately cover the entire park during the summer months.
However, the use of acoustic surveillance allows just that.
Implementation of autonomous recording units (ARU)
The SongMeter Mini from Wildlife Acoustics allows me to hear all the birds in the park in a very efficient way. Also called a self-contained recording unit (ARU), the SongMeter is essentially a rugged programmable microphone that can record bird sounds, 24/7, if you choose.
I have a total of eight ARUs at my disposal and have been deploying them throughout Pinery this summer. These ARUs are left in one location for a week, record bird sounds, and then moved to another location.
Between moves, I can pull acoustic data from the ARU and identify birds by ear.
As unbiased as bird watching can be
No monitoring program is free from bias.
In this case, acoustic monitoring does not work well (or really does not work at all) for non-vocal species.
Hawks, herons and many ducks are largely silent and will not be detected by an ARU.
This test also removes immigrants from the equation. Our Habitat Management Program focuses on understanding the birds that breed in the park, so ARUs were implemented after most migratory birds left the area.
Basically, what we are comparing are vocal breeding birds only.
Although it may seem unfair, it must be taken into account that during most of the year the trails are not occupied by migrants.
The number of migratory species found on a given trail is likely related to the number of breeding species. Good trails often improve during migration! This limits the effect that added migrants have on any trail’s birding.
To determine the trail with the most birds in the park, I first calculated the centroid, or the coordinates of the center of each trail.
I determined which three ARU implementations were closest to this and combined the bird list from each to create a trail list.
I used a combination of three metrics to measure the number of birds on a trail:
- total number of species
- number of unique species for each trail
- total number of bird species at risk
I chose these metrics based on how I imagine birders would define avifauna.
Combined, they present the most efficient way to fill out a list with some rare and unusual species. Birders who want to avoid “dipping in,” or missing a species entirely, would benefit from knowing where rare species are found.
The trails with the most birds
Without further ado… here are the most bird-friendly trails in Pinery!
Number of species:
Species at risk: a three-way TIE for the first!
The road less traveled
The Carolinian Trail has reached the top!
Listing first in two of three metrics, it should be considered the most birded trail in Pinery.
Heritage Trail finishes in second place, taking first place in unique species and second in the other two.
Riverside Trail comes in third, as it is third in number of species and tied for first in species at risk, but it is not on the list of trails that host unique species.
Taken from eBird, these are the current values at the time of writing for “effort” for my top-ranked trails:
1st Carolinian trail: 13 checklists – 73 species
2nd Heritage Path: 79 checklists: 108 species
3rd riverside trail: 208 checklists – 145 species
Carolina (and even Heritage) may not be getting the birding attention they deserve! Everyone knows Riverside is a wonderful birding trail, but Carolina may be home to species that have been overlooked in the past.
Maybe we haven’t seen these species because no one is a Carolinian bird, but we should!
From the transitional mixed savanna of the trail parking lot to the tulip-dominated Carolinian forest and Carolinian Pond, the diversity of habitat is what makes the Carolinian Trail a unique place for birds.
As part of the Habitat Stewardship Program here at Pinery, it is important that we recognize the value of habitat diversity for at-risk bird species, such as the red-headed woodpecker and eastern ill-willed whippet, which can be found on the Carolinian Trail . .
Eastern whip of ill will. Photo: Terry Crabe
Next time you visit Pinery and look for birds, go to Riverside, but also visit Carolinian and Heritage!
The data shows that there are birding discoveries waiting to be made on the road less traveled.