How would you like to spend your vacation along the lower Colorado River between Lake Havasu City and Yuma, Arizona, searching–by boat and four-wheel-drive vehicle–for nesting sites of the rare Yuma clapper rail and the elusive black rail? Or if your tastes run to cooler weather, how about spending a few weeks searching the virgin forests on Prince of Wales Island near Ketchikan, Alaska, for nests of the marbled murrelet or the northern goshawk?

If you choose the Arizona trip, the federal Bureau of Land Management will provide you with vehicles, boats, binoculars, spotting scopes, maps, and a one-day training session. You’ll have to bring your own camping gear.

If Alaska is more to your taste, the U.S. Forest Service will provide food, lodging, laundry facilities, training, equipment, and the transportation and tools needed to do the job.

You need specific skills for this work. The Colorado River project requires people who can recognize–by sight or by sound– the American coot, common moorhen, black rail, Yuma clapper rail, great egret, and other marsh birds. You will also be monitoring populations of Neotropical migrants along the Bill Williams River, and for that you need general birding skills.

On Prince of Wales Island you need the ability to identify Alaskan birds as well as a current driver’s license and the ability to hike up to five miles a day in rough terrain, live in field camps, fly in float planes, and work in rainy weather.

I found both of these opportunities for birders looking for interesting ways to spend their vacations in the December 1992 issue of Winging It, a monthly newsletter published by the American Birding Association. They were among 230 different projects in 36 states that offer recreational birders a chance to make a significant contribution to conservation while having a very good time. Most of the projects involve nesting surveys. Some are general surveys; others–like the two described above–focus on particular species.

Ecotourism is a hot topic right now, but these volunteer projects offer much more than an opportunity to follow a guide around while he or she shows you the local natural wonders. Each entry in the Winging It directory includes a paragraph detailing the skills needed for the job. Here, in addition to details about specific birding skills, we find requirements like these: “Willingness to walk off trail in rugged terrain.” “Ability to …live in remote location under primitive conditions.” “Ability to hike long distances in extremely rugged, mountainous desert terrain.” “Must be tolerant of cold, snowy weather.” “Must be in good physical condition and able to work in steep terrain at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet.” “Ability to… walk up to 5 miles, off trail, over rugged lava flows and steep cinder cones at 6,000-foot elevation.” “Must be able to endure difficult winter conditions at night above 5,000 feet elevation.” And most important of all: “Must work well with others and maintain a good sense of humor.”

Not all of the projects are physically arduous. Birders who are also Civil War buffs could spend some easy days working for the National Park Service exploring Gettysburg National Military Park in search of threatened and endangered birds nesting there. Virginia’s Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park needs people to survey the park in all seasons to learn what birds nest, migrate through, or winter there.

You can even build nest boxes for bluebirds, wood ducks, and other species in Oregon or Alabama. You don’t even have to be a good birder for these projects. You just have to be able to do some simple carpentry. Or you can draw pictures of birds and their habitats for interpretive brochures or even photograph them for a slide collection being gathered in the Eldorado National Forest in northern California.

The “Directory of Volunteer Opportunities for Birders” was compiled by Daphne Gemmill, a member of the ABA board. All the projects are sponsored by federal agencies. A new edition of the directory will be published at the end of this year that will also include projects sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the various state fish-and-game departments, and Canadian government agencies.

The American Birding Association was founded just over 20 years ago and currently has about 14,000 members. Its monthly magazine, Birding, features articles like “Juvenile-plumaged LeConte’s Sparrows on Migration” and “Plumage Variation in ‘Kumlien’s’ Iceland Gull.” The newsletter, Winging It, usually runs detailed accounts of where to find birds at hot spots around the world.

The focus of the ABA from its beginnings has been on birding as recreation. The organization as an organization has not involved itself in conservation causes. This stance has generated endless debate within the ABA, with one side arguing that anyone interested in birds cannot ignore environmental issues and the other side replying that our environmental problems are not created by a shortage of organizations devoted to ameliorating them. We have the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society and a host of others, so why add one more to the list?

The attention the ABA is now paying to surveys of nesting birds offers a way out of that debate. The information we collect in a nesting survey is a real contribution to society’s ability to make intelligent decisions about conservation. And it is a contribution that we birders are uniquely qualified to make. Anybody can write his congressman, but only birders can study the nesting success of red-cockaded woodpeckers or willow flycatchers.

The government’s eagerness to seek volunteers for these projects is partly the result of budget cuts that have eliminated all sorts of jobs for biologists. Public relations also enters into it. Most of the 230 projects in the directory are sponsored by the Forest Service, which has often been reluctant to use volunteers in the past. The organization has been rightly castigated for the policies it followed during the Reagan-Bush years. Under the Republicans the Forest Service has built more miles of roads than any other public agency in the world– including the U.S. Department of Transportation. It has sold off timber at prices well below cost and in general has looked on forests as incipient lumberyards and trees as stacks of two-by-fours with leaves.

But bureaucrats–though we may deride them for spending most of their working day asleep–are acutely sensitive to which way the wind is blowing. Faced with Clinton and Gore, the Forest Service is eager to make itself look like Greenpeace on the Potomac.

The projects the government agencies are undertaking serve as an early-warning system, a clear indication of coming conservation battles. For example, the states from the Rockies to the Pacific account for 145 total projects. Of those, 24 involve surveys of northern goshawk nests. The northern goshawk, which we see here only as a winter bird, nests in old-growth forests at high elevations throughout the west. A lot of people think the goshawk is going to be the next spotted owl, the next bird threatened with extinction by continued logging in the west. Presumably the feds are gathering information expecting the goshawk to soon be the object of great controversy.

The second most common object of study is the willow flycatcher, a tiny songbird that lives in riparian forests in the southwest. Ten studies are being devoted to determining its status. The reason behind this attention is that the rapid destruction of riparian forests–the narrow strips of woodland along riverbanks in arid and semiarid regions–is eliminating the nesting grounds of this species. So the willow flycatcher is another candidate to be the next spotted owl.

The marbled murrelet is also getting some attention. Murrelets are seabirds, but they nest in burrows in the mountain forests along the coast in the Pacific Northwest. Their nesting areas are also being destroyed as the chain saws advance across the region.

For me, the “Directory of Volunteer Opportunities for Birders” is a real wish book, a chance to dream about taking part in glamorous research projects without spending years in graduate school. Should I go search for great gray owls in the Payette National Forest in Idaho or count songbirds of the forest interior in the Plumas National Forest in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains? How about censusing Neotropical migrants along tributary streams in Grand Canyon National Park? Or seeking out bank swallow colonies along creeks in the central Sierras?

Any birders who want to do some good while having a great deal of fun can get copies of the December 1992 issue of Winging It by writing to the American Birding Association at PO Box 6599, Colorado Springs, CO 80934. Enclose $2 to cover printing and postage costs.