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New England’s Breeding Birds

A review by Matt Pelikan

The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont, edited by Rosalind B. Renfrew

University Press of New England, 2013

576 pages, $75—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13980

The Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2, edited by Joan Walsh and Wayne Petersen

Scott and Nix, 2013

898 pages, $24.99—eBook

The phrase “citizen science” is a relatively new coinage, current among birders for only the past two decades or so and making it into the Oxford English Dictionary only this past summer. But at least in the realm of field biology, you might say that the notion of professional researchers distinct from mere mortals is the oddity, representing a historically recent and somewhat surprising interruption in a venerable history of amateur inquiry.

Certainly in ornithologyfrom the eighteenth-century observations of Selborne’s Gilbert White to modern-day Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys, and eBird liststhe line between recreational birding and serious research has always been a blurry one. And in no endeavor is the compatibility of recreational observation with hard science more apparent than in the production of breeding bird atlases (BBAs). Typically multi-year projects covering a single state or province and involving hundreds of observers, analysts, and administrators, BBAs have emerged as a standard tool for both recreational birding and bird conservation.

Massachusetts BBA 2With a wave of “second-generation” state atlas projects under way, the ability to compare breeding bird populations across time has multiplied the power of atlases to guide avian conservation. BBAs have gained impetus from changes in the management and processing of data since the first atlases were compiled, with digital storage, email communication, electronic navigation and mapping, and desktop graphics and publishing software all permeating our society. Recent second-generation atlas projects in Vermont and Massachusetts differ in some significant ways, but both illustrate the power of linking the skills of recreational birders with professional project management and modern information technology.

The “citizen science” contribution to both of these atlases is mind-boggling. The Bay State marshaled some 725 field observers, who contributed about 150,000 records from 1,037 of the state’s 1,056 ten-square-mile survey blocks. Most blocks received more than 20 hours of coverage during the project period. With roughly one-tenth the population, the Green Mountain State still enlisted more than 300 field observers (one of whom contributed almost 1,500 hours!); in all, more than 30,000 hours of data collection appear to have been involved in the Vermont project.

Even more impressive, and arguably more important, is the overall management of these projects, which boil down to exercises in the collection, movement, and processing of mammoth amounts of information. Large-scale coordination, data review and analysis, and editing, conducted by amateurs and professionals alike, were essential elements in the success of both projects, and in both cases coverage of all the critical roles required close coordination among multiple organizational partners. These things don’t happen automatically.

Vermont BBA 2While they differ ecologically and sociologically, Massachusetts and Vermont both feature a wealth of fine habitat, proud traditions of nature study and conservation, anda key pointprevious atlases to which new results can be compared. Massachusetts was the very first state or province to launch a BBA project, which was, like this second atlas, coordinated by Massachusetts Audubon and deployed some 650 field observers between 1974 and 1979 to survey virtually the entire state. The results weren’t widely available until 1993, when the aging but still important Birds of Massachusetts, by Dick Veit and Wayne Petersen, appeared.

The Green Mountain State, meanwhile, was two years slower getting out of the gate, but its original atlas results appeared in 1985, the first such publication in North America. Given the rate of change in the climate, the New England landscape, and the wintering areas of migratory species, the time was surely ripe to repeat these seminal projects.

The Massachusetts project managers opted for an almost exclusively digital product for Atlas 2. The atlas is available as a print-on-demand paperbackbut given the $200 price tag, few birders are likely to exercise this option. My review copy, an Adobe Acrobat file of roughly 30 megabytes and 898 pages, is predictably cumbersome to use, and the easiest way to access the atlas is probably on the project website. The Vermont atlas, readily downloadable from the website of one of the lead organizations, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, is also available as a three-pound hardcover volume at a reasonable price.

Understanding the merits of digital publication and aware of the difficult publication history of the state’s first BBA, I can’t fault the Massachusetts decision to shun hard-copy publication. But the Vermont atlas is a lovely book and a pleasure to browse through, and I’m glad the project organizers indulged in this anachronism.

Methodologically, both of these second-generation atlases combine scrutiny of current bird distribution with comparisons between the first and second atlases. In Massachusetts, both projects succeeded in covering almost the entire state. In Vermont, fewer participants and more inaccessible territory resulted in a first atlas that sought representative rather than comprehensive coverage; the second atlas prioritized returning to the same survey blocks used in the earlier project, while also adding randomly selected blocks to broaden coverage. In an effort to improve data quality (at a slight cost in comparability), both states introduced “safe dates” intended to weed out migrants. For Vermont in particular, the focus on quantifying changes in distribution must have complicated data analysis considerably, with some data included in some kinds of analysis but not in others. The fact that the atlas appears to pull this off seamlessly reflects very well on the project’s administration.

These two new atlases take slightly different routes in presenting their results. Both feature introductory matter that outlines the methodology used, offers descriptions of the state’s geography and habitats, and summarizes changes in the landscape and the birds over the years between the first and second atlases. A hefty chapterin the Vermont atlas on the state’s biogeography is especially admirable, taking you down to bedrock in explaining why the state looks the way it does. Appendices present some of the key Vermont data in accessible tabular form. Even if you never make it to the individual species accounts, both of these atlases will give you a solid grounding in the ecology and salient trends in the bird life of their respective states.

In the Massachusetts atlas, the accounts for 191 species confirmed breeding, 18 “probables,” and 13 “possibles” include a drawing of each (credited to John Sill with Barry Van Dusen and David Allen Sibley); a one-phrase assessment of current status; an epigraph describing the species (often quite poetically); a detailed history of the species in the state; paragraphs comparing Atlas 1 and Atlas 2 results; a map showing changes between the atlases (each block gets an up, down, or stable icon); a summary of BBS data if available; and a chart breaking down the results of the two projects by geographic region. Matthew Kamm, Joan Walsh, John Galluzzo, and Wayne Petersen are credited as authors of the atlas, with Walsh and Petersen credited as editors. The Massachusetts accounts are briefer than those in the Vermont atlas and more focused on status than ecology. They are not, however, devoid of colorful anecdotes or humor: for example, the drawing of the House Sparrow (“likely declining”) portrays the bird on a parking meter with the “time expired” flag showing.

Slightly more compact in layout, each Vermont species account includes a photograph and a substantial text summarizing current status, history, and general ecology of the species. One map, with each of the state’s eco-regions in a different color, shows whether the species lost, gained, or stayed the same in the blocks repeated from the first atlas. A second map, incorporating blocks covered in only the second atlas, shows current distribution, while charts summarize the change between atlases. The text accounts, well edited by Rosalind B. Renfrew, are signed by multiple authors and, accordingly, differ somewhat in emphasis, comprehensiveness, and formality. But the quality is uniformly high, and once again, the way this atlas makes a consistent product out of variable input reflects well on the management behind the effort.

Encouragingly, both new atlases recorded more new species than were lost since the first project (though the number of fully confirmed breeders dipped slightly in Massachusetts). Many of Vermont’s “new” birds are species generally expanding their ranges across the Northeast (for example, the Black Vulture, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Clay-colored Sparrow) or species still rebounding from previous declines (the Bald Eagle and Merlin). As in much of North American, most open-country birds (such as the Loggerhead Shrike, Short-eared Owl, Henslow’s Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper, and Eastern Meadowlark) fared poorly between the Vermont atlases, as did many aerial foragers (for example, the Common Nighthawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Purple Martin). Also disturbingly, many birds of Vermont’s boreal forest declined, including the beleaguered Rusty Blackbird. Many birds of lower-elevation forest, however, did well as the state’s second-growth forests continued to mature, and two key species of high elevations, the Bicknell’s Thrush and Blackpoll Warbler, apparently held their own.

In Massachusetts, where much habitat of all kinds has been lost to development and forest has replaced what was once farmland and early successional habitat, the northward march of many species was especially evident. The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Blue Grosbeak, and Kentucky, Prothonotary, Hooded, and Cerulean Warblers are among species detected or confirmed during the second atlas but not the first, and all are birds I grew up in Massachusetts thinking of as casual wanderers from farther south. The Red-bellied Woodpecker and Carolina Wren (again, southern birds expanding northward) vastly increased their distribution between the two atlas periods. Also on the plus side, the Cooper’s Hawk and Eastern Bluebird, once badly squeezed as breeders in the state, have staged remarkable comebacks. In contrast, grassland and shrubland species including the American Kestrel, Eastern Meadowlark, and Brown Thrasher tended to show significant reduction in distribution. But there’s no need to worry about the Song Sparrow, confirmed in 1,022 of the 1,037 blocks surveyed!

On balance, these atlases present a somewhat discouraging picture of the bird life of the two states. But there are glimmers of hope for an avian future that is different but not necessarily worse.

And the simple fact of the existence of these atlases inspires optimism. They’re compelling testaments to the energy and dedication of the birding community, reflecting deep knowledge of the birds themselves and a willingness to commit vast effort to science and conservation. They also reflect a strong alliance between “citizen scientists” and the more formal scientific community, effectively integrating objective rigor, professional project management, and modern data analysis with the traditional field skills of recreational birders. Everyone involved in these atlases has a lot to be proud of.

14-6-03-08 [Matt Pelikan]

Matt Pelikan birds, bugs, and botanizes on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. An ecologist with The Nature Conservancy and a freelance writer and photographer, he formerly edited the ABA newsletters Winging It and A Bird’s-Eye View and the Massachusetts birding journal Bird Observer.

Recommended citation:

Pelikan, M. 2014. New England’s Breeding Birds [a review of The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont, edited by Rosalind B. Renfrew, and The Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2, edited by Joan Walsh and Wayne Petersen]. Birding 46 (6): 66.

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