Surveying Birds at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve

The freeways might be less crowded at sunrise, but our restoration sites aren’t.

Early morning and late evening are typically the busiest times of day for bird activity. That’s why I’ve been heading out to Eden Landing Ecological Reserve (ELER) at dawn once a week since starting to work with Save The Bay’s restoration team. Save The Bay volunteers and staff have planted thousands of plants in an effort to give native plants the advantage in colonizing this newly reclaimed land. Now it’s time to take a preliminary look at how this habitat is being used—specifically, how birds are using the sites in which Save The Bay has begun work, compared with unrestored sites.

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Bird surveys involve observing a certain area for a specified amount of time. Count the birds in this area, observe behavior, note interactions with habitat and other organisms, and take down some details about weather conditions. Translation: soak in the beauty of Eden for 20 un-interruptible minutes at a time. While I marvel in the artistic contrast of dark water-worn mud channels against bright dawn-lit clouds and creeping tidewater, the egrets and sandpipers read the landscape in a concentrated search for food.  With hundreds of shorebirds calling all around me plus the occasional curious jackrabbit, focusing on just the survey area can be a challenge! But my immediate reward might come in the form of catching a Song Sparrow sneaking around with a large beakful of invertebrates, a couple of gulls bullying an American Avocet at the edge of the water, or a House Finch pair pulling silky nesting material from a seeding thistle. I surveyed birds at 4 sites at ELER: 2 sites in which restoration planting is well underway, one future site now just bare ground, and one overrun with invasive plants. All of my survey sites were located in the transition zone, the ground between the highest tide line and the upland, where Save The Bay does restoration work.

There is a lot more to learn, many more questions to ask, but a look at the results of this preliminary study is exciting. I definitely notice more bird activity in the vegetated sites. Songs sparrows pop in and out of the marsh gumplant volunteers planted in the ground two years ago. White-crowned Sparrows line up along the fence bordering the restoration site. A Yellowlegs might wander along between water and vegetation looking for breakfast. Zipping above the plants, Barn Swallows and a lone Black Phoebe catch insects mid-air. In fact, I saw an average of 5-6 birds per survey in the vegetated sites but only 1.5 birds per survey in the un-vegetated site.

Bare soil, by contrast, is less hospitable for many transition zone species.  Song Sparrows, for example, need shrubs and grasses in which to build their nests, and the seeds and fruits of plants comprise a large part of their diet. The transition zone is also an important refuge for small mammals and birds during storms and the highest tides. The site I surveyed without vegetation only turned up 7 species during 6 surveys, most of them aerial foragers who flew over the site.

Species diversity appears to be greater on both of the restored sites compared to the area with mostly invasive plants and the un-vegetated area. I saw total of 11-12 different species of birds in the locations where restoration work has begun, compared with only 5-7 species in the unrestored sites.

Peaceful mornings monitoring birds are interspersed with busy volunteer workdays in my schedule at Save The Bay. As the community comes together to improve tidal marsh transition zone habitat for species like Song Sparrows, it’s exciting to be able to share with them my findings from bird surveys: Yes, your work is making a difference.

If you enjoy bird-watching and are able to identify local birds, you can contribute your findings to inform research! Visit ebird.org to learn more.