Bird Survey Methods

Mississippi River Twin Cities IBA Protocol Booklet

Pre-Survey Preparation

Re-familiarize yourself with birds that commonly migrate through and breed along the Twin Cities area of the Mississippi River. Practice estimating 50-meter distances for the fixed radius point counts.


In most cases, survey points in each site have been visited to verify their location and accessibility and their GPS coordinates recorded. However, it is recommended that each surveyor/team visit their site before data collection begins to find parking, locate each point, and identify an optimal route around the site that minimizes travel time.

Site Access

In the event that a point becomes inaccessible, please re-locate a new point as close as possible to the original point. Note the new location on the site map and record the point ID number, GPS coordinates, and any other details about the new location on the map and data sheets.

Equipment Checklist

Equipment to be provided by Audubon:

  • Site maps with points marked
  • Datasheets
  • Clipboard
  • GPS unit (you can either use your own or borrow one from Audubon)

Equipment to be provided by volunteers:

  • Binoculars
  • Pencils or fine-point Sharpie® marker (won’t bleed in the rain)
  • Watch or timer
  • Your favorite field guide
  • Water, sunscreen, snacks, etc.
  • If desired, a buddy, fellow birder, or helpful hand

When to Survey Sites


Point counts will be performed 6 times (once per week) during migration (mid-April to the end of May) and at least 2 times (separated by at least 1 ½ weeks) during the breeding season (early June-early July).

Time of Day

Begin sampling at your first point as close to sunrise as possible (as early as 30min before sunrise). Point counts should not continue beyond 4 hours after sunrise. If all points in the site cannot be completed in this time frame, finish the remaining points another morning and make note of this on the datasheet with a brief explanation (ex. "Started raining before points A, B, and C were surveyed"). It is important that each site’s surveys be completed within as short a time as possible, as data will be collected on a weekly basis during migration.


Occasional short rain showers or bouts of light drizzle are acceptable, but point counts should not be conducted in fog, steady rain or drizzle. Likewise, avoid counting in conditions where the wind exceeds 12-15 mph (enough breeze to raise dust and loose paper and move small tree branches).

Counting Birds

Survey Route

In order to avoid a "time of day" effect, alternate starting points for the route. For example, if you are working through points on a loop, walk clockwise one day and counter-clockwise through the points the next visit.

50 meter Fixed-Radius Point Count Methodology (5 minute duration)

  1. Navigate to each point using a hand-held GPS unit (see Appendix B).
  2. While working in teams is encouraged, there should be only one primary observer per site. Having another team member recording the data (as dictated by the observer) is very helpful and can allow the observer to focus solely on identifying birds.
  3. Wait for about a minute before beginning the 5-minute count period. This allows the observer to catch their breath, get oriented, record site conditions, and prepare the data sheets. Try to identify landmarks that are 50 meters from you.
  4. What to Count?
    • Count all land birds seen or heard during a 5-minute period. Do not count waterfowl, wading birds, or other water/shore birds
    • Count all birds that flushed from the habitat upon the observer’s approach to the point.
    • Count birds that enter (and remain in) the habitat during the 5-minute period.
    • Do not count flyovers (birds merely passing through).
    • Count birds that are foraging aerially (flycatchers, etc.)
  5. On the datasheet, identify birds using their 4 letter AOU Alpha Codes. If unsure of the identity of a bird, make notes on back of the data sheet with comments describing its song, appearance, and where you saw it—it is ok to go back and verify a suspected ID later if you feel confident you can. If you can partially identify the bird, identify it as specifically as you can. (ex. "unknown sparrow"). Otherwise, note it as UNKN.
  6. Denote birds seen or heard within 50 meters and those heard outside the 50-meter band. Record these distances as the horizontal distance from the observer to the bird.
  7. Don’t use any method of attracting or coaxing birds into view (i.e. no "pishing").

Temporary Noise or Interruptions

If a temporary noise (airplane overhead) or interruption (curious park patron) disrupts your count at a given point, pause the clock until the interruption has passed and then resume counting for the remainder of the period. The total count time for birds at every point (not including interruptions) should be 5 minutes.

Filling Out the Data Form

Complete a new data sheet for each visit to the site. On particularly busy mornings, more than one sheet may be needed. If no birds are observed at a given point, fill out the point information and note "No Birds Observed" on the data sheet.

Field Descriptions on Forms

  • Site: Name of the park or area being surveyed
  • Date: Use mm/dd/yyyy format
  • Site Start Time: Start time of first point count on the site. Use hh:mm format.
  • Site Stop Time: End time of last point count on the site. Use hh:mm format.
  • Temperature: Record the temperature in degrees (either Fahrenheit or Celsius) for the time at which the first point count was started and again at the end of the day’s survey.  You may need to fill these out after the day’s surveying using or another weather forecasting site.
  • For Sky and Wind entries, use the condition descriptions to assign codes to the site at the start of the first point count and end of the last count. If conditions differ substantially at subsequent points, make note of this in the Comments column of the data sheet.
  • Observer: Person actually searching for and identifying birds
  • Recorder: May be same as observer or another team member
  • Point ID: The full letter and number code for the sampling point
  • Noise Code: Use the Background Noise descriptions to assign a noise rating to each point prior to the point count
  • Time: Record the start time for each point count
  • Species Code: Use the 4 letter AOU Alpha Code for the species seen. If you are unsure of the correct code while in the field, write down an abbreviation you will recognise and enter the correct Alpha code later in the Comments section
  • Tally: Use this space to tally up the number of birds seen during 5 min count
  • Total: Verify the tally using a numeral
  • Comments: Any observations of note for birds, sample point conditions, or interruptions