Quantifying observer heterogeneity in bird counts



An essential pilot study was designed to quantify observer heterogeneity and to compare observation methods for the detectability of forest birds in stands of Eucalyptus and Pinus radiata forest as a basis for a major research project on habitat fragmentation near Tumut, southern New South Wales. Twelve experienced observers participated in the investigation. Point interval counts, zig-zag walks and strip transects were used to count birds in both eucalypt and pine forests. The 65 species of birds recorded in the study were assigned to one of nine groups classified by a set of attributes that characterized bird detection by field observers (e.g. body size, colour and calling patterns). Observer heterogeneity varied between groups of birds and was most apparent for small birds foraging in low shrubs (species such as the white-browed scrub wren, assigned to group 2), frequent calling, active birds (species such as the golden whistler, assigned to group 7), and midstorey, undercanopy foragers with distinctive behaviour (species such as the grey fantail assigned to group 4). For bird groups 2, 4 and 7, additional variability due to observer differences resulted in an average increase of ~ 40% in the width of a 95% confidence interval for the logarithm of bird abundance generated from a 20 minute count. Our analysis shows that taking the average of counts obtained by two or more observers would negate the increase in variance of counts due to observer heterogeneity. Few differences between methods of field observation were found. However, for frequent calling, active birds (group 7) there was evidence that more birds were heard using the point interval count method. Our study clearly demonstrated a need to either control for observer differences or to assign at least two observers to individual sites when designing bird surveys for comparative studies. Failure to do so will result in a decrease in precision of bird counts.