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Marsh Bird Surveys

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The Pennsylvania Game Commission's marsh bird survey focuses on secretive nesting marsh birds including: pied-billed grebe, American bittern, least bittern, black rail, king rail, Virginia rail, sora, common moorhen, and American coot. This marsh bird monitoring protocol is adapted from the Standardized North American Marsh Bird Monitoring Protocols (Conway, 2009) and very similar to that used in the 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas (Lanzone, et. al. 2006) because they have shown that these often under detected marsh birds, respond to playback at particular times of day during the nesting season. Playback surveys can improve our understanding of the statewide distribution and relative abundance of these rare birds (Conway 2009).

The information collected will promote conservation efforts for this declining habitat and the birds and other wild species that depend upon it. Other rare non-target birds may also be encountered including; Wilson’s snipe, sedge and marsh wrens, American woodcock and alder and willow flycatchers.

Surveys should be conducted between May 15th and June 30th either in the morning or the evening, when marsh birds are most detectable. Vocalizations usually peak in the hours surrounding sunrise and sunset (Conway, 2005). Morning surveys can be conducted anytime in the period from first light (30-45 minutes before sunrise) to 3 hours after sunrise. Evening surveys should be conducted in the period from 3 hours before sunset to dark (30-45 minutes after sunset). Please do not conduct the surveys outside the designated times. After reading the instructions if you have any questions about the protocol, please don't hesitate to ask for clarification. Please understand the details before expending time and effort to conduct surveys.

To improve surveys; familiarize yourself with the various vocalizations of marsh birds likely to be encountered, both target and non-target species. Examples are on the audio files available for these surveys. There are also internet resources for reviewing marsh bird vocalizations including the North American Marsh Bird Monitoring Program.,

The marsh bird survey will be conducted playing a standard audio file. Participants will need equipment to broadcast audio playback file: if you conducted marsh bird surveys for the atlas the equipment is similar. Some examples from the North American Marsh Bird Monitoring Program,, are below.

Audio file: for Pennsylvania marsh birds
MP3 players: SanDisk Sansa m240 (~$50) and numerous other options.
Speakers: Panasonic RP-SPT70 Travel Speakers ( $19.99)
Sony Personal Active Speaker System (Toys "R" Us Item#: 915429 $24.99)
X-Mini MAX II Capsule Speakers ( 44.95)
CM-PA Megaphone (Bull Horn USA, 1-800-691-5540: 59.95)
GPS Unit: Any standard handheld GPS (global positioning system) unit will work, set for map datum WGS84 and decimal degree (dd.ddddd). Also using Arcview online with your smartphone can generate your location for you. You can identify your location manually with Acrview online by zooming into the location and dropping a point.

As soon as you arrive at your survey point, record all the supporting data (e.g., weather, habitat, etc.) on the data sheet (Appendix 2). Rapidly assess habitat in a semi-circle area with a radius of 100 meters in front of the survey point (Image 1). This should be a first impression that only takes a few seconds to determine, not an in-depth analysis.

Marsh bird survey habiat assessement area sample habitat assessement

Image 2 is an example of vegetation recorded at a wetland in the habitat section of the data sheet (Appendix 2). 

Open water- 1-25%Floating Vegetation 25-50%
Cattail 1-25%
Sedge/Rush 1-25%
Phragmites 0%
Woody 1-25%
Other 25-50%
For more information on wetland plants visit, examples of habitat components (Appendix 3).

Play the audio file provided. The observer should be outside of a vehicle and far enough from the playback equipment to avoid interference from the equipment itself. The speakers should be pointed directly at the wetland and least 3 feet above the ground. Set the volume as loud as you can without distorting the calls. The survey track begins with the spoken word "start;" and ends with "stop." Do not stop the track at any time during the survey. Focus on vocalizations that are not part of the recording. Don't forget to watch for birds too. Marsh birds sometimes approach a sound or invader in their territory by walking a distance before vocalizing. Keep track of the location of different vocalizations and possible responses between different birds. Be careful to distinguish recorded from natural sounds and minimize other noises or quick movements.

The track begins with five minutes of silence, followed by a series of vocalizations of marsh bird species (Appendix 1). Record individual birds heard during the silent period and during the tape playback period in the appropriate columns on the data sheet (Appendix 2).

Survey Method for wetlands greater than 10 hectares:
Multiple survey points, determined by the observer should be conducted at least 400 meters apart AND all points conducted during the same survey period (e.g. All points in one morning). Each survey point should be visited three times, each two weeks apart, between May 15 and June 30

Survey Method for wetlands less than 10 hectares:
One survey point and one visit is sufficient for these size wetlands.

Negative data are important in learning about the statewide distribution, habitat preferences, and relative abundance of breeding marsh birds in Pennsylvania. If you detect no marsh birds during a particular survey, please fill out the data sheet entirely, and write "no birds detected" in the comments section.

In addition, if a wetland marked on the map is gone or unsuitable for nesting marsh bird species, please indicate that by choosing the appropriate type of observation symbol on marsh bird ArcView Online interface, record any details in the comments section and submit this data.

At the end of the survey, record the number of different individuals of each species you detected as the totals on the data sheet. When conducting surveys, be smart and stay safe:

  • Respect private property (do not trespass). Look for a way to survey from a public road, obtain permission from the landowner or move on to another wetland.
  • On public lands let managers know what you're doing, avoid surprises and minimize interruptions
  • Avoid busy roads and any unsafe conditions
  • Carry a reliable flashlight for early morning and evening travel and extra batteries
  • Travel with a partner or tell someone where you are going
  • Plan ahead, checking maps for driving directions and best access points

Marsh bird surveys must be run under satisfactory weather conditions, inappropriate weather conditions reduce the chances of hearing or seeing marsh birds, surveys should not be conducted during steady rain, thunderstorms and windy conditions. If during any of the surveys the weather briefly changes to any of the unsatisfactory conditions, you may pause the survey and continue when the weather event subsides or passes. If it lasts for a long time you may want to continue the surveys another time.

Any extra information should go in the comments section of the data sheet (Appendix 2), such as:

  • unusual vocalizations heard and not identified (do your best to describe or, if possible, record these),
  • interruptions or excessive noise
  • emergent wetlands no longer in designated area
  • multiple birds counter singing, agitated behavior, adults carrying food, recently fledged young or adults feeding young, and
  • any birds that respond from an adjacent wetland rather than the one you are surveying. When in doubt, please include the details

After completing your surveys, please enter your marsh bird data, even if you did not have any marsh birds or the marsh was not suitable for surveying, using the marsh bird survey ArcView Online interface. Double check to make sure everything is completed. Confirm your marked survey points on the GIS map coordinate with your observations. Please input your data as soon as possible, but no later than July 15th each year.

Thank you for your hard work and attention to details! Contact the marsh bird coordinator with any questions at



Conway, C. J. 2009. Standardized North American Marsh Bird Monitoring Protocols, version 2009-2. Wildlife Research Report #2009-02. U.S. Geological Survey, Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Tucson, AZ.

Lanzone, M. J., R. S. Mulvihill and T. M. Miller. 2006. 2nd Pennsylvania breeding bird atlas marsh bird survey protocols. Powdermill Avian Research Center, Rector, Pennsylvania. 22 pp.

Appendix 1. MARSH BIRD CD TIME CHART coincides with the marsh bird survey audio file and data sheet. During each "period" record the number of individuals seen or heard on the data sheet. The "type" in the chart below refers to L – Listening, or P – Playback.

Marsh bird CD time chart 

Appendix 2. DATA SHEET - Printer friendly version (PDF)

appendix 2 data sheet 

Appendix 3. EXAMPLES OF WETLAND VEGETATION - Printer friendly version (PDF)

appendix 3 example of wetland vegetation