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

Almost 300 community scientists collected valuable data about the health of this hallowed habitat and its residents.

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 Christi Norman, program director for Audubon Washington. “It’s about birds we hope are common and can keep common.”

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):

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.

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.