Howe, students ensure annual bird survey continues to soar

Nicolet National Forest Bird SurveyFor bird enthusiasts like Erin Gnass, there’s something fundamental and inherent about the love of avian life.

“I was the kid that wanted to fly … It didn’t work,” Gnass, a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay graduate student, said with a laugh. But more seriously, she added, “actually holding a bird for the first time in my life just struck me as motivating and moving. I just decided from that day forth that my life was dedicated to birds.”

Gnass this summer is writing her graduate thesis using data from the Nicolet National Forest Bird Survey, an annual census that gathers information from hundreds of sites in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The volunteer-based survey began in 1987 with the efforts of UW-Green Bay Prof. Robert Howe, director of the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity, and other local bird enthusiasts looking to address a basic research need.

Fast forward a quarter-century, and 60 to 100 volunteers still gather each year on the second weekend in June. They split into teams and rise well before dawn to look and listen for the myriad species that call the forest home.

(Click thumbnails to enter slideshow view.)
Nicolet National Forest Bird SurveyNicolet National Forest Bird SurveyNicolet National Forest Bird SurveyNicolet National Forest Bird SurveyNicolet National Forest Bird SurveyNicolet National Forest Bird SurveyNicolet National Forest Bird SurveyNicolet National Forest Bird Survey

“It’s now become a kind of tradition,” said Howe, one of two bird watchers who have made it for every single Nicolet survey. “It’s like opening fishing season for some people.”

Those people include everyone from casual enthusiasts to students and bird song experts. For this year’s survey June 10-12, newbies and veterans alike will travel to more than 150 survey sites in the southern half of the Nicolet portion of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. More than 400 volunteers have participated in the survey since its inception, and Howe expects a good turnout this year, too.

“They do what they like,” he said. “People go bird watching anyway, just for the fun of it. In this case, they’re going bird watching with a purpose — so there’s an attraction, I think, to that.”

During the survey, teams of four to six volunteers each travel to a half-dozen or so sites throughout the designated portion of the forest. They use a standard 10-minute window to document what they see and hear before moving onto the next destination. Because the best time to find and record bird activity is early in the morning, survey volunteers have much of their day Saturday to further explore the forest or take a well-deserved nap. Meals are provided for volunteers and families, and the weekend includes an awards ceremony — prizes include an accolade for best wildlife sighting — as well as a guest speaker.

There’s a definite sense of camaraderie among volunteers, participants say.

“It’s actually a good time to meet up with people that you don’t normally see,” Gnass said. “You know, you’re friends with other birders from different parts of the state — and they all come to one location, which is really excellent.”

And while the birding weekend provides plenty of fun, it’s also the basis for some serious research. Since 1987, the survey has compiled more than 40,000 records of birds at 522 points, most of which have been sampled every other year since 1987 or ’88. Results have contributed to master’s and Ph.D. theses, as well as more than 15 scientific publications. Two years ago, survey organizers and volunteers began using high-quality digital recorders to record and later archive the bird songs they hear in the field.

Gnass took part in her first Nicolet bird survey last year, and she’s looking forward to the 2011 event. She hopes to finish writing her thesis this summer, and her eventual goal is to work for a land-protection agency for birds or wildlife, such as The Nature Conservancy.

Not too bad for the kid who wanted to fly.

For information or to register for the 2011 Nicolet National Forest Bird Survey, visit or contact Robert Howe via e-mail at

You may also like...