Category Archives: Citizen Science

A Birder’s First Christmas Bird Count

This is a guest post by Nick Tepper. A recent graduate from the University of Vermont, Nick is an up-and-coming expert on New England birds, a lifelong naturalist, and is currently fulfilling an AmeriCorps service year with Mass Audubon.

It was 5:30am on a frigid causeway in the middle of Lake Champlain– technically Colchester, VT, but we may as well have been in the Bering Sea given the arctic wind and cold. I remember stepping out of the car at our first site and walking the first steps of a two-mile icy bike path into the freshwater ocean. This was the inauspicious start to my first-ever Christmas Bird Count (CBC), in the winter of 2017. We could barely see, perhaps because the sun had not yet risen, or perhaps because of the 20mph winds that froze our eyelids shut. I spent the next hour or so shivering and trying to figure out what we were doing out there!  Why torture ourselves? Had we no self-respect?

Finally, the sun rose over the trees, and somehow in the –12-degree weather, it was warm. Looking towards the sunrise, we saw birds begin to appear in the dawn. A Snowy Owl was the first species we saw, glowing orange in the early light. What a moment to behold… its yellow eyes opening for seconds at a time to scan the lake for ducks, just as we did with our binoculars. That bird kept us warm all day. We ended up tallying 48 species, and I learned more about birding than I had in all my younger years memorizing plumage patterns, molts, and call notes.

A distant Snowy Owl perched on a block of ice in a watery, frozen marsh. Photo by William Freedberg.

Birding as defined by my first CBC was not a hobby, a job, or a passion— it was a mindset. More importantly, it is a mindset that people could share. If you participate in a CBC, you will inevitably make acquaintances, connections, and very likely some lifelong friends. For me, the best part of the CBC is that you do not need to be a seasoned birder to participate, you need only have an interest in birds and a pair of binoculars.

CBCs, Formerly Known As Christmas Bird Hunts

The Christmas Bird Count, now a grand tradition understood as an all-hands-on-deck census, was borne out of a more grisly 19th-century rite. CBCs were developed by conservation-minded ornithologists as replacements for a tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” Hunters would celebrate the season by taking “sides” after Christmas Day and filling the sky with bullets, with the goal of (quite literally) stacking up as many species as possible.

During the holiday season of 1900, noted ornithologist Frank M. Chapman piloted the idea for a Christmas Bird Census instead of a competitive hunt. On Christmas Day 1900, Chapman and 26 other counters pioneered 25 counts, counting 90 species. The count has since grown. Last year, 76,987 counters completed 2,585 counts internationally, tallying a total of 2,673 species! Even so, the CBC can always use more counters, and the birding community would love to have you along for the jolliest day of the year. 

Join Your Local Bird Count!

While some CBCs have already taken place, there are plenty more in Massachusetts before the year is up. Try getting in on one of the following:

  • The Concord CBC will take place on Sunday, December 30, and includes the towns of Concord,Lincoln, Acton, Maynard, Sudbury, and others.
  •  The Marshfield CBC is scheduled for Sunday, December 30 on the South Shore, and includes Marshfield, Duxbury, Hanover, and Pembroke.
  • The Newburyport CBC will take place next weekend on Sunday, December 23, and includes an abundance of saltmarsh habitats including Salisbury State Reservation, the famed Plum Island, and several towns on the North Shore.

Can You Help Us Find Meadowlarks?

The Eastern Meadowlark is in serious decline in our state and nationwide. To understand what we can do to turn this around, we’re enlisting the help of volunteer birders and citizen scientists. By entering observations on our project webpage, anyone can contribute to conservation efforts for this iconic species.  

Photo by Phil Brown

Meadowlarks disappeared from over 78% of their Massachusetts breeding sites since 1979, according to Mass Audubon’s Breeding Bird Atlas.  This decline is only partially explained by meadowlarks’ habitat requirements.

Conservation scientists know that meadowlarks need a certain kind of grassland habitat— vegetation that’s short, but not too short; fields over 20 acres with no standing trees. These days, however, suitable fields that once rang with meadowlark song are quiet and still.

Agricultural intensification certainly plays a role: 95% of Eastern Meadowlarks nest on private land. Fallow farm fields are harder to come by and pesticide application increases apace; more and more pastures and grassy fields are either overgrazed or developed. But this is only part of the story, and it’s up to us to figure out the rest.

Go Birding—For Science!

All you need to do is visit our Anecdata webpage and select sites where you can help look for meadowlarks.  To view a map of sites, click on “add an observation,” then click “use a hotspot” in the upper left, and then click “map.”  Be sure to sign up for the hotspots you choose on the signup list mentioned in the project description!

To keep our data uniform and reliable, a volunteer should survey a site three times between April 20 and June 15, for any ten-minute period between 5:30AM and 9:30AM.  Not all of our sites may have meadowlarks, and that’s perfectly fine— knowing where they aren’t, and figuring out why, is just important to us as knowing where they are.

These surveys can be great fun. It’s no longer every day that casual observers see the bold pattern and lemon-yellow blaze of a meadowlark standing, flaglike, atop a fencepost. Fewer and fewer people recognize their ringing whistle. There’s always some pride in finding an uncommon bird. But the joy of a meadowlark sighting can also be colored by nostalgia, whether for the historical abundance of grassland birds, or the broader decline of pastoral landscapes.   

The great thing is, we can do something about it.

Eastern Meadowlark Citizen Science Project May 15–June 15

Eastern Meadowlark © Phil Brown

Calling all birders and bird enthusiasts!

We have launched a multi-year citizen science project to study Eastern Meadowlarks. The project aims to collect presence-absence data for Eastern Meadowlarks at randomly selected sites throughout Massachusetts from May 15 to June 15, 2017. Eastern Meadowlarks are in serious decline, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere in North America, and in order to better help this species we need to know more about their status in Massachusetts. The data collected through this project will provide valuable information about this species’ current distribution in the Commonwealth, and will form the basis for a better assessment of meadowlark habitat requirements and future conservation needs.

To get the information we need it is critical that we get help from citizen scientists. There are a lot of potential sites where Eastern Meadowlarks could be nesting, but there are only a few of us! The results of this work will help us develop models for use in evaluating potential sites that have not been visited.

Project data can be easily entered through the Anecdata website on a computer or in the field on a mobile smartphone device. The surveys required are simple and quick (10 minutes!) to do. We’ve provided our citizen scientist volunteers with “hotspots” where we specifically need a volunteer to do a meadowlark survey on three separate dates (with preferably at least 3 days in between each date) during the period of May 15 and June 15. Many of these hotspots will likely not have Eastern Meadowlarks, but knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are not is just as valuable for scientific analysis as knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are.

More information about how to get involved is available on the project website.

Not familiar with Eastern Meadowlarks? Check out our quick guide and listen to their song.

Questions? Contact us at [email protected]

Breeding Bird Surveys going strong on Mass Audubon Sanctuaries

People have been observing and counting birds at Mass Audubon sanctuaries for as long as these properties have existed. In order to provide a focus for these observations and to insure that data are collected in a similar fashion, Mass Audubon initiated a program of breeding bird surveys on our sanctuaries in 2004 and has been carrying out these surveys ever since.  We use standard point count methodology where observers stand in the middle of a 50 meter (forests) or 100 meter (salt marsh, grasslands) radius circle for 10 minutes three times in June and record all the birds they see or hear.  The goal of the program is to track the birds that occur on our sanctuaries during the breeding season, determine the habitat characteristics that support different species of birds, evaluate the impact of any ecological management, and examine long term trends, such as those that might be caused by climate change.  Since 2004 staff and volunteers have logged over 30,000 records of birds in 315 counting circles on 48 sanctuaries. We typically carry out surveys at each sanctuary for three years every ten years, but at a number of sanctuaries, enthusiastic staff and volunteers have made observations every year.

We have recorded 149 species of birds during these breeding bird surveys of which 25 are considered conservation priorities.  Sanctuaries harboring the most of these high priority conservation species are Allens Pond, Wellfleet Bay, and Ipswich River.  Not surprisingly, sanctuaries in central and western Massachusetts, such as Pleasant Valley, Wachusett Meadow, and Rutland Brook and are notable for the number of wood warblers and other species associated with forest interiors that have been recorded in these sanctuaries.  Vegetation data we have collected on our counting circles have shown that many of these wood warblers species have an affinity for forests containing a high percentage of evergreens.

The breeding bird surveys will enable us to track changes in a number of birds that are conservation priorities.  Salt marsh sparrows are considered vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise associated with climate change.  After ten years of monitoring, the numbers of

Saltmarsh Sparrow by John Sill

Saltmarsh Sparrow by John Sill

saltmarsh sparrows seems to be holding its own at Allen’s Pond and Rough Meadows wildlife sanctuaries.  Data from other surveys carried out over a longer time period indicate a steady decline region-wide, so it is important for us to continue these surveys on our sanctuaries.  We are also tracking the responses of bobolinks to ecological management measures that create improved grassland habitats at Daniel Webster and Drumlin Farm.   Neotropical migrants whose numbers are declining nationally, such as wood thrushes are also priorities for our monitoring.  As permanently protected lands, the sanctuaries at Mass Audubon enable us to evaluate changes in the populations of these and other birds over long periods of time and allow us to take actions that will serve to maintain and enhance their populations in the future.

Give a Hoot About Owls


Short-eared Owl, by John Sill.

Halloween is a fitting time for us to shine a spotlight on owls, birds of prey who are well-known for their nocturnal activities and haunting hooting.  There are eight regularly occurring species of owl in Massachusetts and they are found in a variety of habitats, including your residential neighborhood!

Although they are quite common, owls can be very mysterious and little is known about their habitat needs or population dynamics. Unfortunately, data from our State of the Birds monitoring suggests that three species, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl are declining in Massachusetts. These species require urgent conservation action and we need your help to fill knowledge gaps about their populations.

Our Owl Citizen Science project is helping to unravel the mystery of where owls occur; we have had more than 300 reports of areas where owls have been seen or heard. The majority of data have been on the location of breeding owls, and many people have even reported nests. While these data are valuable, we are also interested in information on wintering owl populations. This citizen science project runs year round so give a hoot about owls and report your sightings today!

We were lucky enough to have Barred Owls breed outside the Bird Conservation office at Mass Audubon Headquarters this spring. Photo by Marj Rines.

Saving Our Swifts

Chimney Swift, John Sill.Chimney Swifts are the only swift species that regularly occur in Massachusetts. Their chattering calls and cigar shaped silhouettes are a sure sign that spring has arrived. Unfortunately these enigmatic little birds are experiencing steep population declines. Chimney Swift numbers have dropped dramatically over the last 30 years and research has shown that declines are more prevalent towards the northeast of North America.

Declines are exacerbated by a loss of nesting and roosting sites. The traditional brick chimneys that swifts nest or roost in are deteriorating or being capped by homeowners. Furthermore, the logging of old growth forests reduces natural nest and roost site availability. Protecting these sites may be key to slowing population declines.

To take action, we launched the Chimney Swift Project which aims to map spring and fall roosting sites, as well as summer nests across the northeast. The project is a partnership with the University of Connecticut and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The location of Chimney Swift Sighting reported by citizen scientists in 2015 as part of Mass Audubon's Chimney Swift Project.

Chimney Swift sightings reported by citizen scientists in 2015.

Since it’s initiation in the summer of 2014, more than 100 people have participated in the project. Our citizen scientists have made tremendous efforts reporting 5500 Chimney Swifts at over 150 sites. This year, the maximum number of birds reported at a single chimney was estimated at 300! Breeding takes place from late May through early August and this year participants estimated that 64% of observed swifts were breeding.

Very little is known about the winter roost locations of Chimney Swifts so if you are lucky enough to be heading to South America on a birding trip this winter, any observations you make will have huge conservation value. Keep the sightings coming and expect to see us expand this work next year!

Additional Resources

Learn more about chimney swifts and what do if you’re concerned about a nest in a chimney.

Stellwagen Seabird Show!

Over the past three summers, Bird Conservation staff have been participating in seabird surveys within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This 842-square mile ocean sanctuary is a protected area lying approximately twenty miles off the coast of Massachusetts between Cape Ann and Cape Cod. This incredibly rich region hosts over 575 species of fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and birds.

Humpback Whale, Stellwagen Sanctuary by Shannon Currie.

Humpback Whale, Stellwagen Sanctuary by Shannon Currie.

The sanctuary is an important feeding ground for no fewer than 53 species of summering, wintering, and migratory seabirds and has been designated by Mass Audubon as an Important Bird Area (IBA).

In order to better understand the role and importance of seabirds in the Stellwagen ecosystem, Mass Audubon is partnering with the sanctuary’s S4 Program (Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards) to systematically collect seasonal, temporal, and distributional seabird data.

The S4 program engages citizen scientists to collect baseline seabird data that will be used to compare the status and relative abundance of seabirds in the region over time. These data will help better understand any population changes that may occur within the sanctuary and the possible significance of such changes to the marine ecosystem as a whole.

This summer has proven to be an exceptional season for seabirds within the Stellwagen Sanctuary. Most notably Cory’s, Great, and Manx shearwaters have been present in increased numbers, along with lesser numbers of Sooty Shearwaters and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. Fin and Humback whales were also more numerous than in recent years were. All of these species have been responding to a huge spike in the population of a little pencil-sized baitfish called sand lance. Both seabirds and whales feed very heavily on these fish while they are in Stellwagen waters, so when there is a population explosion in the sand lance population like this summer, the numbers of seabirds and whales increase substantially. Many of the seabirds will start their seasonal migration soon so be sure to try and get out to see them over the next several weeks.

Shearwaters (mostly Great), Stellwagen Sanctuary.

Great Shearwaters, Stellwagen Sanctuary.

Humpback Whale, Stellwagen by Rosemary Mosco

Humpback Whale, Stellwagen  Sanctuary by Rosemary Mosco.






Spring Forward for Citizen Science

The birds are singing and the days are getting longer, meaning it’s time to head outside and lend a hand in one of our Citizen-Science (CitSci) projects. If you enjoy watching birds, we need your help! Your collective observations and sightings are a valuable source of information on birds. Participating is easy and can take as little or as much time as you want.

By John Sill

By John Sill

We offer an array of fun and meaningful CitSci projects. Over the years we have had thousands of participants, registering over 7500 reports. All projects are designed to engage your passion for birds and conservation, and to provide an opportunity to share information with scientists and with each other.

This year, we are conducting a state-wide survey to determine where Cliff Swallows are breeding in the state. Cliff Swallows were once a common species and have been undergoing a long, slow decline in Massachusetts. Identifying breeding sites is the first step in addressing this worrying decline.

We need you to help us map both old and currently active colonies. A highly colonial species, Cliff Swallows build clusters of nests, usually in corners with a wall behind and a ceiling above.

Contributing to this project is simple: if you find a colony or know where an old colony was, you can report it using our online mapping tool. This program is in partnership with Dr. Andrew Vitz, the Massachusetts State Ornithologist at Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Focus on Feeders Migrates to The Great Backyard Bird Count

By John Sill.

By John Sill.

Mass Audubon invites you to join Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s (CLO) Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) this winter.

For many years we ran a winter feeder watch program, Focus on Feeders (FoF), which attracted many observers. But, over time, it became clear that joining forces with the larger, nationwide effort by CLO would make the data more useful – and that is the point of citizen science.

This year we are asking FoF Folks to join CLO’s GBBC (I really wanted to write that sentence!), and to do it for the birds.