Biological Sciences, Santa Barbara City College pipeline center for sustainability

Biology 130: Methods in Field Biology

Field Technique:  Point Counts, Strip Transects for censusing Birds

Study Bird Identification relevant to the land birds Santa Cruz Island. The full list of birds observed on the Channel Islands can be seen here.

Helpful tips for using binoculars.

Censusing (From (See full paper here)

The assessment of population size should be an integral part of any monitoring program. Various methods have been employed and thoroughly tested (see Ralph and Scott 1981). Abundance of birds has long been used to measure habitat suitability but is often retrospective, giving trends without any possibility of determining causation, and can even be misleading (van Horne 1983). 

It is desirable to use a method that allows the biologist to census as many points as possible in the time available, thus gaining as many independent data points as possible. That is, it is much better statistically to census five points in a 10-day interval, than to count at one point five times. The farther apart each of the five points, the more likely the data can be extrapolated to a larger region. 

Below we outline four major methods. Two of these, the point counts and the spot mapping methods, are the most common ones used (for definitions see Ralph 1981b). The point count is probably the best for most surveys and has been adopted as the standard method for monitoring (Ralph and others, in press). The methods for both are taken in part from the excellent book by Koskimies and Vaisanen (1991). In addition, a strip transect count and an area search method are also presented. The latter is especially popular with volunteers.

General Considerations Time of Day

The best time for censusing at most temperate latitudes during the breeding season is usually between 5 and 9 a.m. Under most circumstances, no counts should be done after 10 a.m. Exceptions could be in the non-breeding period. It is best to start within 15 minutes of local sunrise. Examining pilot data is the best way to determine when detection rates are the most stable. In general, the period between official sunrise and the ensuing 3-4 hours is usually relatively stable. For most species, during the period between dawn (first light) and sunrise, the number and rate of birds singing is somewhat higher than the rest of the morning. For maximum comparability in detection probabilities for species among points, it will be best to start at sunrise rather than at first light.

Census Period

Breeding season point counts should be run during the time of year when the detection rates of the species being studied are most stable. Within the breeding season, the months of May, June, and the first week in July are best for counting most passerines in North America. However, stable counting periods, when the rate of singing of the various species has stabilized, are as early as April in the Southeast and Southwest and may extend later in the boreal zones. In Latin America the breeding season will be longer, and censuses can profitably be conducted throughout the year.


Birds should not be surveyed when rain or wind interfere with the intensity or audibility of bird sounds, when fog or rain interfere with visibility, or when cold weather shuts down bird song activity.

Point Counts

We suggest two levels of point counts. Extensive point counts are intended for a series of points, placed at a minimum of 250 m apart, largely on roads or trails over an entire region. Intensive point counts are placed within a mist net or nest search plot. 

The account below is based on Hilden and others (1991), and the standards are taken from Ralph and others (in press), as adopted by the Point Count Workshop of the Monitoring Group of the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Program, held in Beltsville, Maryland, November 1991.

Background and Aims

In many countries point counts are the main method in monitoring the population changes of breeding landbirds. With the point count method it is possible to study the yearly changes of bird populations at fixed points, differences in species composition between habitats, and abundance patterns of species. The point count method is probably the most efficient and data-rich method of counting birds. It is the preferred method in forested habitats or difficult terrain. Point counts involve an observer standing in one spot and recording all the birds seen or heard at either a fixed distance, or unlimited distance. This method can be conducted one or many times at a given point. The North American Breeding Bird Survey of the U.S.D.I. Fish and Wildlife Service is such a method.

The point count method applied to landbirds does not provide reliable data on waterfowl; however, rails and waders are counted well. Some landbirds also pose problems as they are particularly quiet, loud, nocturnal, or flocking. If these species are of particular interest, the method may be modified to accommodate them.

Equipment and Time Needed

One should not start point counts without good identification skills, including a knowledge of the songs and calls of birds. Details on training for distance estimates are given in Kepler and Scott (1981). In the tropics, learning all the songs and calls of all species at all times of the year is difficult in practice. In many areas it takes an experienced observer 4-8 weeks to identify 80-90 percent of the species. In temperate zones, this can often be done in less than 2 weeks. 

For the census one needs a map, a pencil, notebook, a watch that shows seconds, and binoculars. The route and the points are marked on a survey map and, if necessary, in the field with plastic tape or streamers to ensure that the same points are found in the following years. The observer may move from one point to another by foot or with a vehicle. 

The time needed for censusing one point count route is usually no more than four morning hours, depending on the distance between the points and the method of travel.

Choosing a Counting Route for Extensive Point Counts

An extensive point count route should encompass all the habitats of a region, if possible. In addition, it should include any mist net or nest searching plots in the region. In choosing a route and laying out the points for census, use a systematic rather than random sampling design, either on roads or off roads. Systematic gridding of points is preferable to the random placement of points in most cases. Systematic placement can include placing points at designated distances along roads. Do not stratify by habitat, unless separate estimates for a habitat are required. If the goal is to estimate population trends for an entire management unit, then point counts should be spaced evenly throughout that unit, or along the road system in an area, without regard to current habitat configurations. 

Observers should attempt to carry out censuses primarily on tertiary roads, then secondary roads, and should avoid wide, primary roads. Off-road censuses should be carried out on trails, if possible, in major habitats not covered by road systems. Using roads, travel time can be reduced to as little as 1-2 minutes between sampling points. Under optimal road conditions, up to 25 5minute point counts can be conducted in one morning. In an off-road situation, the number of point counts one observer can conduct during a morning varies between 6 and 12. Roadside habitats usually do not sample all of the available habitats. In this situation, a collection of both on- and offroad surveys can be created that best fits local conditions. Although a road modifies the surrounding habitats, we feel that tertiary road systems (i.e., narrow dirt roads) allow for birds to be counted in approximately the same proportions as off-road surveys. 

The minimum distance between point counts in wooded habitats is 250 m. Birds previously recorded at another sampling point should not be recorded again. In virtually all habitats, more than 99 percent of individuals are detected within 125 m of the observer. In open environments, this minimum distance should be increased because of the greater detectability of birds. Along roads, where travel by vehicle is possible, distances of 500 m or more should be used.

Field Work

The censuser should approach the point with as little disturbance to the birds as possible. Counts should begin immediately when the observer reaches the census point. Time spent at each count point should be 5 minutes if travel time between counting points is less than 15 minutes (for greater efficiency) and 10 minutes if travel time is greater than 15 minutes. If a survey is primarily for inventory and few points will be surveyed, then 10 minutes is appropriate. Data should be separated into those individuals seen or heard during the first 3 minutes (for comparison with Breeding Bird Surveys) and those additional individuals heard in the remaining 2 and 8 minutes. 

The details of each point are recorded: the reference number, name of the point, date, and the time. The species are written down in the order they are observed. For each species, the number of individuals is recorded separately for those within a circle of 50 m around the censuser and for all those outside the circle, out to an unlimited distance. In noisy environments, dense foliage, or in tropical forests, observers have found that 25 m was preferred. The distance is that at which the individual was first observed. For birds near the 50-m border, the category may be confirmed by measuring paces to the border when the counting is over. If a bird flees when the censuser arrives at the point, the bird should be included according to its take-off place. Birds that were detected flying over the point, rather than detected from within the vegetation, should be recorded separately. 

Estimating distances requires experience, so a new censuser should measure the length of steps in different terrain, and then check the distance to several singing birds in order to make the estimating of distances routine. Estimating may be eased by either natural or artificial landmarks. 

If there are several males of the same species around a point, one may sketch in the margin the directions and distances of each singing male with an arrow to ensure that they are not confused. Juvenile birds or birds that fledged during the current breeding season should be recorded separately. 

A bird flushed within 50 m of a point’s center as an observer approaches or leaves a point should be counted as being at the point if no other individual is seen during the count period. It is advisable that this be recorded separately. 

If a flock is encountered during a census period, it may be followed after the end of the period to determine its composition and size. An observer should follow such a flock for no more than 10 minutes. This is especially useful during the winter. A bird giving an unknown song or call may be tracked down after the count period for confirmation of its identity. 

No attracting devices or records should be used, except in counts for specialized groups of birds.

Filling in the Forms

Download data sheet here.

The data taken at point counts are of two types, the location information and the census data. The location data are contained in the first three lines of the “Location and Vegetation Form” and contain information about each census point. We also suggest that the vegetation data be taken. We suggest two types of census data forms. One involves mapping and the other direct recording. (see examples here)

Mapping Point Counts—This method of taking data involves the recorder placing on a map the location of each bird detected (D. Welsh, pers. comm.). We suggest that species codes be used on the map, with a single letter for the most common species, and the full 4-letter code for other species. The birds’ activities can be recorded by the various mapping symbols shown on example map. The circle on the map can be the 50-m radius, enabling the observer to keep track of individuals easily. The orientation of the observer (“DIR”) should be entered on each form by placing the compass direction in the box at the top. Separate time periods are easily kept by using different colored pencils, e.g., birds seen in the first 3 minutes in black, and those seen within 3-5 minutes in red.


Point Count Map


Direct Recording Point Counts—This method involves a single-step process of the observer recording the observations directly on the Point Count Data Form. Many observers do not think that it is necessary to map the location of birds in order to keep track of individuals. Using this method, an observer tallies in pencil each individual detected by placing a “tick” mark (a single line), or another code, in the appropriate column. Codes, for example, can be used to separate out singing vs. visual-only birds (S and V) and age categories. When field work is over, the actual number in each distance and time category can be written in ink for data entry. 

Point Count Data Form


The specific data suggested are as follows:

State or province - The 2-column code for each.

Region - An 8-column code, designated by the investigator. Often, the name of the USGS quad, a prominent landmark, or a nearby town will provide the best code name.

Station - For intensive point counts, we suggest a 4-letter code, the same as that used for the mist net array or nest search plot. For extensive point counts, we suggest a code relating to the general area or road. In general, we expect that a given station will have no more than 50 points.

Month, Day, and Year; Observer Visit Number - Indicate how many visits this year will have been made to these points at the end of this day’s census.

Point Number - The 2-column census point number.

Time - Using the 24-hour clock.

Species - The 4-letter species code (

Tally of individuals - This is a series of five fields. The major subdivisions are those birds detected at less than, and more than, 50 m, and those birds flying over, but not landing within detection of, the observer. Within the two distance categories, observers can separate out those detected in the first three minutes, and the next two minutes. Observers wishing to separate out behavioral, age, or sex categories can note them with an appropriate letter code. Otherwise, “tick” marks (e.g., 3 = ///) can be used.

Repeating the Count

In general, a station should be sampled only once each season. Counts can be repeated if the goal is good estimates of the community at certain, specific points, such as a small area of rare wetland habitat. 

The timing of the census of each route should be kept constant from year to year; it should not differ by more than seven days from the date of the first count. If the phenology of the spring differs, then the date can be changed. The start of the count should not differ by more than 30 minutes from that of the first year. If possible, the same observer should census the route every year.

Strip Transects

Strip transects are very similar to point counts, but the observer records all birds seen or heard while traversing each section of a trail. Each section is then the unit of measurement, and can be 100 m or 250 m long. This method is best used in very open terrain where the observer can devote his or her full attention to the birds, and not worry about footing. 

In this method the observer should attempt to cover a given amount of trail in a fixed amount of time, e.g., 100 m in ten minutes.

Area Search Background and Aims

The area search method has been adopted for a nation-wide survey, the Australian Bird Count (Ambrose 1989), and was chosen over several others because of its appeal to volunteers. It uses a method that, while quantitative, mimics the method that a birder would use while searching for birds in a given area. Essentially this is a series of three 20-minute point counts in which the observer can move around in a somewhat restricted area. In this way unfamiliar calls can be tracked down and quiet birds can be found.


The observer should be reasonably familiar with most (if not all) bird species likely to be encountered at the plot. This method allows the observer to track down unfamiliar birds, but walking the plot before a survey with a person familiar with the birds allows the observer to be more efficient.

Choosing a Plot

The plot should allow relatively easy detection and identification of birds (by sight or calls) and allow the observer to move about freely. The plot should be sufficiently large to provide three separate search areas (or plots), each about 3 ha in forest or dense woodland, but larger areas of 10 ha or more can be used in more open habitats. In very dense forest, smaller areas of 1-2 ha can be used. The search areas can have adjoining boundaries or can be in completely separate regions of the plot. More than three search areas can be established within a plot, but the same search areas must be used on each visit.

Time of Day

Because of the intensive nature of this method, it can be carried out longer into the morning than other methods. However, it should continue no later than five hours after dawn.

Field Work

Walk throughout the plot for exactly 20 minutes in each search area, stopping or moving to investigate sightings or calls when appropriate. Record numbers of birds of each species seen, heard, or both seen and heard in the search area during this time. Record birds outside the search area separately, but concentrate on finding as many birds as possible within the plot. The observer may find it easier to tape record observations and then transfer results onto paper soon after the survey. An accompanying person can serve as a recorder. A single survey is completed after at least three areas have been searched at a plot.

Filling in the Form

A standard form is suggested, listing the species found and a running tally of the number of birds, both on and off the area. These tallies can be totaled on the right of each area for each species.


Other papers on the topic:

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Revised 26 January, 2015
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