Although point counts are frequently used in ornithological studies, basic assumptions about detection probabilities often are untested. We apply a double-observer approach developed to estimate detection probabilities for aerial surveys (Cook and Jacobson 1979) to avian point counts. At each point count, a designated 'primary' observer indicates to another ('secondary') observer all birds detected. The secondary observer records all detections of the primary observer as well as any birds not detected by the primary observer. Observers alternate primary and secondary roles during the course of the survey. The approach permits estimation of observer-specific detection probabilities and bird abundance. We developed a set of models that incorporate different assumptions about sources of variation (e.g. observer, bird species) in detection probability. Seventeen field trials were conducted, and models were fit to the resulting data using program SURVIV. Single-observer point counts generally miss varying proportions of the birds actually present, and observer and bird species were found to be relevant sources of variation in detection probabilities. Overall detection probabilities (probability of being detected by at least one of the two observers) estimated using the double-observer approach were very high (>0.95), yielding precise estimates of avian abundance. We consider problems with the approach and recommend possible solutions, including restriction of the approach to fixed-radius counts to reduce the effect of variation in the effective radius of detection among various observers and to provide a basis for using spatial sampling to estimate bird abundance on large areas of interest. We believe that most questions meriting the effort required to carry out point counts also merit serious attempts to estimate detection probabilities associated with the counts. The double-observer approach is a method that can be used for this purpose.
Additional publication details
A double-observer approach for estimating detection probability and abundance from point counts