“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Christi Norman laughed to herself as she paddled across an eastern Washington lake to reach a potential birding site. On an early scouting mission for the Sagebrush Songbird Survey, Christi had turned a potential dead-end into a creative adventure. “The road in looked like you could never drive on it, but then I saw a lake, so I thought, ‘hey, maybe we could canoe across it instead and climb up the hill to look for birds, so that’s what we did,’” laughs the Audubon Washington program director. “Of course, later on we met with the local land trust which has an easement and would have let us go through their property, so we canoed all that way for nothing, but it was worth the adventure.”
It’s all in a day’s work on the Sagebrush Songbird Survey, which just completed its fifth year. Spanning one million acres of sagebrush steppe habitat areas in the Columbia Plateau, the survey will help inform conversations for everything from land management and recreation decisions to conservation protection issues. Each of the 75 designated habitat sites for 2018 is visited three times a year in April, May and June by a team of trained volunteers, and the data is then vetted for accuracy and stored with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Now that the 2018 season is complete, the team is already setting its sights on next year, which will focus on private land (previous surveys have focused on public lands), working closely with landowners. “We really appreciate the private landowners’ cooperation so far, and I’m impressed with their passion and care they take of their habitat,” says Christi.
The dedicated team of 100+ volunteers have, Christi says, been vital to the survey’s success and may even allow them to finish the survey earlier than the 2020 anticipated date. “This year, we had 23 new people in Puget Sound who dedicated themselves to driving all the way across the state to help, and because of those efforts, we may be able to finish a year early,” says Christi, who will use that final year to compile results and make informed recommendations on data use. “I have such admiration for not only their skill-sets and their willingness to drive long hours on rural roads to reach these remote areas,” she says of the volunteers, who attend classroom and field training on GPS tracking and identifying bird songs. But to hear her talk about the area, it’s easy to see why the volunteers are so dedicated to their task: They are richly rewarded as soon as they enter the sagebrush. “Eastern Washington has such a dramatic landscape. There’s nothing like being out there in the early-morning, with the orange light and the sagebrush just singing with birds, it’s like being in a private garden,” she says.
Besides her obvious admiration for the survey volunteers, Christi also credits the collaborative efforts between Audubon Washington and the local chapters for making things run so smoothly. “I’m really proud that Audubon is taking this on,” she says. “Chapters usually have their own territories, but with this survey we’re doing everything as a whole, developing processes together, and we’re all benefiting from it.”