After Five Years, the Sagebrush Songbird Survey Ends on a High Note

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The clouds had just cleared when the caravan pulled off the Vantage Highway in Eastern Washington. As the survey team stepped out, backpacks loaded and binoculars primed, a Sage Thrasher’s jumbled song rose up from the distant shrub-speckled hills.

It was the first Saturday of April and the final season of Audubon Washington’s Sagebrush Songbird Survey. Twenty trainees spent the afternoon learning to comb the spicy-smelling thickets for serenading thrashers and sparrows. Some jammed the flares of their pants into their socks to keep the ticks out; others, skeptical that the rain had cleared up, layered on waterproof jackets.

We split into four groups. One volunteer pulled out her handheld GPS and punched in the coordinates for our target patch of vegetation. The goal was to walk to the designated spot, while surveying for birds along the way. Michael Hayes, a retired fisheries biologist, volunteered to take notes on species and field conditions. The rest of us, a mix of fledgling and experienced birders, trailed behind, keeping our eyes and ears open for the secrets of the sagebrush.

The shrub-steppe ecosystem that we were training in is only found in western North America, where it once covered close to 150 million acres from Canada to New Mexico. But agriculture and urban development have cut into the sprawling landscape—Washington alone has lost 50 percent of its native shrub-steppe over the past century—imperiling iconic residents like the Greater Sage-Grouse. Less-studied species (at least 750 in total) could disappear more quietly if habitat loss and degradation continues.

“This study isn’t about endangered birds,” says Christie Norman, program director for Audubon Washington. “It’s about birds we hope are common and can keep common.”

A small stand of sagebrush lines the wheat fields in front of Mount Adams. Row crop agriculture further fragments the once vast ecosystem. Photo: Dave Showalter

To get a better handle on the habitat’s health and which fractured areas still host breeding songbirds, Norman and her colleagues began a census with their sights (and ears) set on three representative species: the Sagebrush Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, and Brewer’s Sparrow. Over the past five years, nearly 300 community scientists logged the passerines’ presence in 385 locations, including swathes of shrub-steppe on wind farms and ranch lands across the Columbia Plateau.

Tracking the birds’ presence, however, didn’t prove easy. The volunteers were taught to identify the songs of all three species—and were encouraged to keep practicing on their own time. “No guessing,” Norman warned the attendees at the April training.

The surveyors also had to contend with wildfires, which are becoming more frequent and intense as temperatures rise across the West. In summer, dry grasses and oils from sagebrush plants provide prime tinders. The flames and smoke pose a threat to the ecosystem's denizens, along with the peoples who are out tracking them. Volunteers have had to call up local fire departments to put infernos out; in one case, they watched a blaze grow 10 times in size over the course of 12 hours. The charred aftermath isn’t too ideal for songbirds. “We have gone out and picked sites, and they were burned before we could get there,” Norman says.

Scroll or tap through to learn more about the Sagebrush Songbird Survey volunteers (story continues below):

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Christi Norman, Audubon Washington program director

Surveys: 37

Hours: >7,400

Miles driven: >10,000

Why the survey matters to them:
“The Sagebrush Songbird Survey is a model for collaboration producing credible science at scale, embraced by agencies and respected by rural communities as honest and compelling. Our Washington chapters work together as a unit on a landscape scale. I am humbled and inspired by the passion of these dedicated birders during the past five years as they learned new technical skills, organized across chapter lines, and shared their joyful moments in the field.” Photo: Dave Showalter

Curtis Mahon, Spokane Audubon Society

Surveys: 21

Hours: >72

Miles driven: >480

Why the survey matters to them: “I love these surveys as they give me a great opportunity to visit amazing habitat and see birds that I don’t get to see very often. They have given me a great appreciation for the shrub-steppe. Through doing these surveys I hope to help others learn more about the sagebrush so that we can better maintain it for future generations.” Photo: Dave Showalter

Charley Wilkinson, Audubon Washington

Surveys: 2

Hours: >8

Miles driven: >520

Why the survey matters to them: “Anyone who has stood in a field with chest-high sagebrush knows what Audubon and our surveyors know: This is a special place that needs care and protection. This survey and all the many volunteers who participate are shaping the future of conservation in this region for birds and people. I’m lucky to have surveyed incredible sites where we can still hear the Brewer’s Sparrow’s trill or the Sage Thrasher’s melody and feel inspired to do my part to keep these birds on the land.” Photo: Dave Showalter

Kevin Saiki, Seattle Audubon

Surveys: 1

Hours: >3

Miles driven: >220

Why the survey matters to them: “I’m a birder and recreation enthusiast who cares about Washington’s landscapes, and I’m really grateful that there are organizations like Audubon and the dedicated survey volunteers who are working hard to protect these special places in our state. It’s really clear to those us of who live in the rapidly developing Puget Sound that we need to safeguard important habitat before it’s too late. This survey is an important part of that process in the sagebrush sea.” Photo: Dave Showalter

John Rohrback, North Central Washington Audubon Society

Surveys: 36

Hours: >148

Miles driven: >2,100

Why the survey matters to them: “Landscape-level studies and multi-year data sets are the foundation of effective conservation. I’m proud to contribute my drop to the ocean of knowledge we are helping to develop. And you know what? I may not build a nest in a bitterbrush or eat balsamroot seeds, but I live in the shrub-steppe ecosystem, too. It’s nice to know who the neighbors are.” Photo: Dave Showalter

Judy Hallisey, Kittitas Audubon Society

Surveys: 45

Hours: >135

Miles driven: >1,500

Why the survey matters to them: “I find the shrub-steppe communities so beautiful, intriguing, and dynamic. Sadly, they can be easily overlooked in lands with mountains and big rivers; there are many who view shrub steppe as wastelands. But there are so many plants, animals, and birds interwoven in the shrub-steppe. An early morning spent here listening to birds and watching the day awaken is breathtaking. I want others to be able to enjoy such moments in the future. My hope is, through this survey, I can raise awareness and promote value to preserve this landscape.” Photo: Dave Showalter

Ann Brinly, Spokane Audubon Society

Surveys: 60

Hours: > 360

Miles driven: >5,000

Why the survey matters: “It is said knowledge is power. By helping to increase the knowledge of the shrub-step, perhaps we can increase the power of those working to protect our world. I feel I have taken a lot from the Earth. Heating my home, growing my food, sourcing materials for clothing, driving my car—all these everyday activities put such stress on the environment. Perhaps by participating in projects like this one I’m able to give back a small bit. That the project involves birds in a spectacular environment is a bonus for me.” Photo: Dave Showalter

Laurie Ness, Lower Columbia Basin Audubon

Surveys: 14

Hours: >62

Miles driven: >800

Why the survey matters: “I’m excited to help with this project. I really like the idea of getting birders to take ownership, increasing their skills, awareness, and education for a rapidly vanishing ecosystem.” Photo: Dave Showalter

Steve Moore, Kittitas Audubon Society

Surveys: 120

Hours: >2,000

Miles driven: >10,000

Why the survey matters: “I like to study range maps of birds and wonder about the geographies that affect their ranges. The survey, which brings together 100 nature-loving folks with a common scientific objective, creates a detailed map near our homes to help answer questions about the health of the ecosystem and what land factors influence where, exactly, our sage bird species breed. Participation in the survey showed me personally that in our Eastern Washington “backyard” there are still areas of quiet beauty and healthy wildlife—places worth visiting repeatedly.” Photo: Dave Showalter

Norman is hoping the final months of the survey will pass smoothly. After it wraps this summer, the project will have added more than twenty thousand records to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s biodiversity databases, which are used to guide new land-use projects, including wind, hydropower, and solar farms that will help the state meet its plan to convert entirely to renewable energy by 2045. (The final report will be made public on Audubon Washington’s website.) The survey maps could inform where those facilities go and keep the most important patches of shrub-steppe preserved, says Matt Vander Haegan, a research scientist with the department. The data, he notes, will also allow agencies to plan for emerging threats like climate change and wispy, invasive cheatgrass, which fuels wildfires. “Sometimes we call it ‘grassoline,’ ” Norman explains.

The survey has also made a personal impression on many of its participants. Patricia Ortiz, a retired family doctor living in Peshastin, Washington, has been birding since she took her first steps. She joined the project in 2016 to get a different perspective on the avifauna in her state; after looking for birds in mountains and coniferous forests for six or so decades, the open landscape and olive hills of Eastern Washington felt like another world to her. “The longer you stand out there, the more subtleties you see,” she says.

From top: Sagebrush Sparrow; Sage Thrasher. Photos: Dave Showalter

As the trainees ambled slowly through the sagebrush, pointing out flowers in bloom, listening for the birdsong above the din of the wind and the cars, a Mountain Bluebird winged by. It landed on top of a silvery branch, sending a jolt of excitement through the crowd.

Even with the suvey coming to a close, Audubon Washington volunteers are forging on with purpose. “Every time we’ve gone out, I find myself imagining what this country would have been like a couple hundred years ago, when human beings were making very little inroads,” Ortiz says. “It’s really remarkable how these songbird species have been able to survive. But you also find yourself wondering: Are they going to be able to continue to survive?”

This story originally ran in the Summer 2019 issue as “Ending on a High Note.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.

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