The Lake Ontario Migratory Songbird Study: A Case Study of the Challenges and Rewards of Using Volunteers in Ornithological Research

Kris Agard West1,2

ABSTRACTA two-year spring migration research project conducted by The Nature Conservancy and the New York Natural Heritage Program is presented as a model for involving volunteers in basic research. The study area spanned roughly 375 miles of Lake Ontario shoreline. The success of the project depended on more than 200 volunteers to manage information, provide logistical field support, collect data, and provide access to study sites on private land. Practices used to recruit, train, and manage volunteers are presented. Information on successful practices, as assessed by the volunteers, are shared. Volunteer recruitment, training, and administration requires substantial coordination and support. However, the time and financial resources invested in volunteer management is rewarded by the high volume of data collected and the long-term benefits of increased participation in bird conservation by birders and non-birders alike.


The Lake Ontario Migratory Songbird Study was a two-year research effort, encompassing New York's Lake Ontario shoreline, conducted jointly by the Central and Western New York Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (CWNY TNC) and the New York Natural Heritage Program. The goals of the study were to document whether migrant landbirds concentrate in habitat close to Lake Ontario during spring migration. Modeling the study protocol after Mabey et al. (1993), volunteers conducted 10-minute point counts twice weekly from mid-April through mid-June in 1993 and 1994 at 239 study sites. The outcomes of the study are currently being used by CWNY TNC and several other groups to conserve important shoreline stopover habitat.

The project was funded through corporate contracts, foundation grants, and gifts from bird clubs. The budget covered project-related expenses for three years including salary for a project coordinator, volunteer training materials and supplies, contract fees for professional services, travel, and field equipment. As a result, volunteers were not asked to contribute financially to the project.


Volunteer involvement

The project depended on more than 200 volunteers for scientific peer review, mapping services, access to study sites, data collection, logistical field support, and administrative assistance. Scientists from TNC, Natural Heritage Program, Cornell University, SUNY Albany, and SUNY Oswego provided peer review of study protocol. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Habitat Inventory Unit donated aerial photo interpretation and mapping services. Public land managers facilitated access to public property by waiving park entry fees and allowing access to restricted areas. Several people provided logistical field support and administrative assistance. More than 150 private landowners provided access to their property for use as study sites. Nearly 80 volunteer bird watchers contributed 726 person-days conducting 4,826 10-minute point counts. The remainder of this paper will focus on the administrative measures taken to involve private landowners and amateur bird watchers in the study.

Private landowner involvement

As a result of a random site selection process, nearly two-thirds of the study sites were located on private property. We identified private landowners through tax records, then asked for permission to establish study sites on their properties. We contacted landowners by mail, and due to tight deadlines, followed up with phone contact. We received permission from about 50% of landowners contacted. Those contacted by phone were more likely to grant permission. The few landowners who explained their refusal cited liability concerns.

We maximized the educational value of private landowner participation by sending landowners background information about migratory bird conservation issues, project status updates, lists of birds observed on their property, and an informational booklet that was completed at the end of the study. The booklet provided information about local bird clubs, lists of recommended bird books, habitat protection options, and habitat management recommendations.

Bird watcher involvement

The project coordinator was responsible for recruiting volunteers from local bird clubs, training them in point-count methods, and supervising all field work. We clearly defined volunteer roles in the project by creating volunteer job descriptions. We then identified people with the skills needed for each role and aggressively recruited them and trained them in methods specific to the project.

Bird watcher recruitment

Volunteer recruitment was facilitated by New York's organized bird watching community. The Federation of New York State Bird Clubs provided lists of all bird clubs and their officers. Shoreline area club officers and other people within the bird watching community identified the most skilled bird watchers. The project coordinator aggressively recruited proficient bird watchers through direct mail and personal phone calls.

Volunteer training

Volunteer training consisted of a bird song identification tape and a one-hour classroom session on point count methodology (Ralph et al. 1993). The song identification tape, created by the Cornell Library of Natural Sounds, included songs of 48 bird species commonly found in upstate New York during spring. Copies were provided to all volunteers, allowing them to brush up on their song identification skills before the field season.

Most participants valued the song identification tape as a new way to improve their birding skills. Improvements on our song identification tape would include a good variety of song types for each species. Furthermore, grouping songs by habitat guild would allow observers to use both habitat type and song to identify each species as they do by ear in the field.

The classroom session was a valuable way to discuss point count standards, address all questions, and distribute project materials. To generate a sense of team membership among the volunteers, we provided each volunteer with a clipboard, a TNC baseball hat, a letter of introduction for curious passers-by, a laminated sign to place on their dashboard, detailed written information covering all aspects of their involvement, and the song identification tape. The baseball hat and dashboard sign also provided a way for landowners to identify volunteers on their property from a distance.

Volunteer administration

The coordinator created the structure of the project by identifying several volunteer roles including field observer, logistical field support crew, and administrative assistants. This allowed the volunteers to step into a pre-defined framework and focus their efforts in areas of most interest to them.

During the field season, the project coordinator focused on providing organizational support and oversight of data collection across the entire study area. This support simplified the tasks of each volunteer. Volunteers were given both written directions and maps to find the study sites. All data forms were provided along with addressed, stamped envelopes for data return to the project coordinator. Cost of gas was reimbursed for all who requested it. On a few occasions, the project coordinator made camping arrangements for volunteers traveling more than 100 miles to study sites.

Flexibility was crucial to the success of the project. Volunteers were allowed to set their own commitment to the project with regard to number of days of participation, maximum travel distance, number of hours per day, and their own role in the project. Data collection was allowed between two hours after sunrise until one hour before sunset to accommodate work schedules. Since most study sites were located off road in rural areas, we did not require volunteer observers to work alone. However, we did require that only one person on a team actually conduct the point count.

Communication between the project coordinator and volunteers throughout the duration of the project also was critical. The project coordinator's home and work phone numbers were provided to all volunteers. Providing the coordinator’s home number gave the volunteers a sense that someone was available at any time in the event of an emergency. However, during this two-year study, the coordinator was contacted at home on only a few occasions. As minor problems arose throughout the study, volunteers worked with the project coordinator to identify and implement solutions. The coordinator shared status reports and preliminary results through mailings, newsletter articles, and public presentations, allowing volunteers to see tangible results from their work and to maintain their dedication to the project. Volunteers can never be thanked too often! Recognition and thanks for their contributions were made in all correspondence, during special events, and in published articles.

Data Quality Control

We addressed data quality at several levels including: study design, volunteer recruitment and training, data review, and statistical analysis. Our study design included rotating observers to different sites to disperse observer bias. As discussed above, to ensure that we recruited competent observers, we focused recruitment on the best bird watchers in our area. Point count training included both written and verbal explanation of methodology and the need for standardized data collection. We assessed song identification skills of each volunteer with the tape. Individuals were encouraged to learn songs that were unfamiliar to them. The project coordinator reviewed all data forms; full accounts of unusual birds were required before they were included in the data base. Finally, we analyzed the data for observer bias and removed outliers.


Outcomes of the project include: involvement of the public in bird conservation, action by a conservation organization, and collection of data valuable to the growing field of stop-over ecology.

Involving private landowners in this project provided a mechanism to educate them in bird conservation issues. A follow-up survey of landowners indicated that roughly half of them were more interested in songbirds as a result of their participation in the study. The other half indicated that they were already very interested in birds before the study began. Most importantly, about half of the landowners polled intend to improve management of bird habitat on their property. Their management decisions are important, since most of the Lake Ontario shoreline is privately owned.

The bird watchers who contributed to the study were educated about bird research methods and gained a deeper understanding of bird conservation issues. A subset of them are assisting with long-term bird monitoring projects at several TNC preserves. In addition, CWNY TNC has received increased financial support for conservation projects from both individual bird watchers and bird clubs including Onondaga Audubon Society, Buffalo Ornithological Society, Genesee Ornithological Society, North Country Bird Club, and Genesee Valley Audubon.

TNC has taken several tangible steps to protect important stopover habitats on Lake Ontario ranging from private landowner education, information sharing with public land managers and land use planners, land acquisition, and cooperation with other land trusts and research groups.

We produced an informational booklet targeted to shoreline property owners. The booklet describes the need for habitat protection near the lake's shoreline and provides several options for doing so. The booklet was mailed directly to all volunteer landowners and bird watchers. Additional copies are distributed through Cornell Cooperative Extension offices and Soil and Water Conservation District offices across the shoreline.

The CWNY TNC also has communicated the study's preliminary findings to public land managers and planning entities. Planning departments in two shoreline counties have incorporated the findings into their assessment of important natural resources. We assisted The Town of Mexico, Sea Way Trail, Oswego County Department of Promotion and Tourism, Onondaga Audubon Society, and other partners in organizing a bird festival that attracted more than 1,000 people to the shore of Lake Ontario.

To date, TNC has protected more than 1,000 acres near Lake Ontario, including rare wetlands and the last mile of undeveloped barrier dune on the east end of the lake. We continue to work with public agencies and other land trusts to increase shoreline habitat protection.

Research results from this project will be submitted to a peer reviewed journal. The CWNY TNC is providing assistance to the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory to foster further stopover ecology research and participation in the Migration Monitoring Network. Further, the project's data are being used in state-wide and Great Lakes basin-wide collaborative research programs.


The outcomes of volunteer-based research are tangible and formidable. The success of the Lake Ontario Songbird study depended on (1) clear statement of project objectives; (2) staff support and coordination of volunteer activities; and (3) follow-up with partners to ensure conservation action.


This project received financial support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Woodcock Foundation, Rochester Gas and Electric Corporation, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, New York Natural Heritage Trust, Buffalo Ornithological Society, Genesee Ornithological Society, Genesee Valley Audubon, and North Country Bird Club. Peer review and helpful comments were provided by Ken Able, Larry Master, George Maxwell, Kathryn Schneider, Gerald Smith, Charles Smith, Bob Unnasch, and Bob Zaremba. We are indebted to the private landowners who let us onto their property. Jean Bruns, Chloe Larson, Bill Monteverdi, Jim Mott, Adrienne Ramsey, Ann Stear, Bob Stear, and Georgia Young provided critical administrative assistance and field support. Finally, many thanks to each of the bird watchers, too numerous to name here, for patiently feeding the mosquitoes and black flies while collecting data.


Mabey, S. E., J. McCann, L. Niles, C. Bartlett, and P. Kerlinger. 1993. The Neotropical migratory songbird coastal corridor study, final report. Unpublished report.

Ralph, C. J., G. R. Geupel, P. Pyle, T. E. Martin, and D. F. DeSante. 1993. Handbook of field methods for monitoring landbirds. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-144. Albany, CA: Pacific Southwest Research Station, Forest Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture. 41 pp.

1 Central and Western New York Chapter ofThe Nature Conservancy
   3339 East Avenue
   Rochester, NY 14604

2Current address:
   1 East Chatfield Place
   Painted Post, NY 14604