Fewer birds?

I was browsing through my photo archives last week and came across an unprocessed RAW image of an American Avocet and its reflection. I thought it had potential so I went ahead and worked on it.

American AvocetAmerican Avocet

I made this in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on March 3, 2015. It got me thinking – I know, proceed with caution, right?

The last time I was over there, I spent a few minutes talking to someone and he mentioned that there are fewer birds there now than there used to be. I hear comments like that a lot when when I’m out photographing. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen an Avocet but I knew it’d been a while. Maybe there are fewer of them around. When I went back into my archives in Lightroom, it turned out my most recent photo of one is from January of 2021.

I don’t see too many of them, and they’re distinctive enough that I’m sure I’d notice them if they were there. But my data is sparse and can’t really say if these birds are getting less frequent around here. So how can I tell?

I’ve mentioned eBird.org before. It’s managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and collects data on bird sightings from all over the world to “document distribution, abundance, habitat use, and trends”. Maybe if we look there we can see if there are fewer Avocets now at MINWR.

There’s a tremendous amount of data and science resources on eBird. But I couldn’t find specific information on year to year trends. So I looked at the specific page for MINWR bird observations: https://ebird.org/barchart?byr=1900&eyr=2022&bmo=1&emo=12&r=L123565. If you search for American Avocet on that page and click on the little graph symbol next to the name, it opens this page: https://ebird.org/barchart?r=L123565&bmo=1&emo=12&byr=1900&eyr=2022&spp=ameavo

Then you can select different metrics and date ranges. I chose to look at the “Totals” tab, which is the “sum total of all counts from all observations for a species within a specified date range and region”. I picked two date ranges: 2007 – 2014, and 2015 – 2022 to compare and see if I could tell if there are fewer avocets now than when I first started going over to MINWR.

American Avocets: Total observations by month at MINWR, 2007 – 2014. Image provided by eBird (www.ebird.org) and created 3/26/22.
American Avocets: Total observations by month at MINWR, 2015 – 2022. Image provided by eBird (www.ebird.org) and created 3/26/22

This seems to say there are about twice as many American Avocets seen at MINWR recently than there used to be. But… it isn’t normalized to account for the increased reporting by more birders as time goes on. So I don’t think these numbers are an accurate representation of the number of Avocets actually there. Is there a way to determine the accurate numbers? Sorry – I couldn’t find one. But I’ll keep looking and let you know.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Your visits, comments, and likes are always very welcome and a big motivator for me. Stay positive, be kind, take care of yourselves and each other. And if you can, make some bird photos now – in case their are fewer opportunities in the future.

©2022, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved

6 thoughts on “Fewer birds?

  1. First, thank your for sharing such a beautiful photograph of a really handsome bird!

    It’s difficult to know if our “feeling” that there are fewer birds are indications of an actual population shift or not. Hard data is usually not available. As you point out, using observations from “citizen scientists” might provide hints but is subject to so many variables as to be useful only as incidental information.

    Even though I am a somewhat active birder, when I go to a locale which I frequent often, I am still only observing a “snapshot” of a moment in time. I may have a “feeling” there are more or less of a species this year, but that’s all it is, a feeling.

    According to observations from the breeding areas of the American Avocet (west-central North America), the population is stable to increasing since 1966. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) tracks threatened species and maintains a “red list” of those most in danger. They currently rate the American Avocet as a species of “Low Concern”.


    The key for the Avocet’s continued population health is habitat. Not only maintaining sufficient wetlands for breeding and wintering, but also controlling the pollution of such areas. Strides have been made in the latter problem.

    As long as birds have wings, we puny humans won’t be able to control where they may be when we head out to count them or try to get a stunning image such as yours!

    For me, I’ll continue to be ecstatic when I can simply lay eyes on one as it probes the shallow waters of Merritt Island Refuge just after sunrise on some early spring morning.

    1. Thank you Wally for a very thoughtful comment.

      I’m a much less active birder than you are, so I don’t really trust my own opinions about bird numbers. But it does seem nearly universal among people I talk to that there seem to be fewer. That’s why I wanted to see if I could discover any basis for those beliefs. I’ll have to keep searching.

      And I strongly agree with you that any day out in nature seeing what she chooses to show us, is a great day.


  2. That really is a beautiful bird and a wonderful photo! I like to look at photos sometimes just to see why they are so appealing to me. It can be different things….like the pose or the background. And I like searching online for data too. I keep a hiking journal and write down our sightings so it’s interesting to go back and see what we saw at this time of year last year or the year before. I missed seeing a Blue Grosbeak this month. But we are going out tomorrow, maybe I’ll see one. I can always hope! Enjoy your evening! Diane

    1. Thank you Diane for such a nice comment. That photo is interesting to me because for some reason I passed over it when I first took it. Fortunately I saved the file and I really like how it turned out.

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