By Jean Zirnhelt
Special to The SUN
Smokey skies have often been an indication that the Forest Service is conducting prescribed burns in the forests near Pagosa Springs in an effort to prevent catastrophic wildfires that threaten our forests and homes. In addition to fire, mechanical thinning of the brush layer (mastication) and selective harvest of trees are preventative treatments employed to our forests. These measures led members of the Weminuche Audubon Society to investigate the question of how these wildland fuel-reduction treatments affect bird populations.
With input from the San Juan Forest Health Partnership, the U.S. Forest Service and Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), and with the support of Audubon Rockies, Weminuche Audubon board members Herb Grover and Keith Bruno designed a citizen science project to involve Audubon chapter members in a Bird Community Monitoring Project in three areas of the San Juan National Forest.
In preparation for the study, Anthony Culpepper of MSI gave a presentation at the March chapter meeting in which he provided an overview of local forests and treatment methods being employed. In May, local teacher Chris Couch helped us improve our “birding by ear” skills.
Our study compared bird populations in three areas of the forest. The site on Turkey Springs had been subjected to both recent prescribed fire and mastication. In fact, the site was burned immediately before the study commenced. The site on Fawn Gulch had been masticated in 2017, and the site on Jackson Mountain had not been thinned or burned in the recent past.
Volunteers in the study worked in pairs to document bird species heard or seen in six minutes at each of 15 predetermined points in the study area. Each team committed to visiting their assigned survey loops for four visits during June and the first part of July. Twenty volunteers contributed more than 400 hours to the study, which additionally surveyed forest structure differences. Fifty-four different bird species and over 900 birds were recorded.
We found singing birds, nesting birds, flying birds and hiding birds. A detailed report of the study findings can be downloaded from our website, www.weminucheaudubon.org. Find out which birds were common to all sites and which were unique.
The Weminuche Audubon chapter is excited to participate in the study again this June. In preparation, we’ll be practicing how to identify birds by their song. Because we were unable to meet in April, Grover created an informative video to recap this citizen science project which may be viewed on YouTube at https://youtu.be/mfBiFN0gR6A. The chapter is indebted to Grover for the extraordinary work that he has put into this project.
We are inviting all local birders to participate in this fun study and will be assigning teams in May. Please contact the chapter at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to volunteer.