American Birding Podcast



Birding for a Cause: Breeding Bird Atlases Need Your Help this Summer

If you’re ready to hit the road this summer, consider putting your birding skills to work for a great cause. Breeding bird atlases are heavily reliant on volunteer effort, and there are several occurring in North America right now that need your help!

New Challenge for Birders

Atlasing adds a new element to birding beyond the usual “see, identify, list” practice. Atlasing is about trying to figure out why a species is there at all: Is that bird passing through, checking out a nesting site, or carrying a caterpillar to a nest full of hungry young? It’s the extra steps of studying and observing behaviors often missed with more fast-paced birding that are really rewarding for many atlasers.

Aside from providing you with awesome birding experiences, atlases serve the important purpose of tracking bird populations on a scale no other project can accomplish. During the course of an atlas, out-of-the-way locales and underbirded counties get better coverage, leading to a more complete picture of birdlife than can be provided with otherwise fragmented coverage of hotspots and populated regions.

Typically repeated at 20-year intervals, many states and provinces in North America have already conducted “first generation” breeding bird atlases. These serve as a baseline to compare against second and even third generation atlases to document range shifts, population increases, and population decreases. Understanding which species and populations may be declining helps managers prioritize conservation actions, which means your birding can have a huge impact!

eBird a Game-Changer

While mobilizing atlasers to cover far-flung territories is always a challenge, data collection has become much easier in the digital age. With eBird, you can submit checklists from any location at any time. Current projects in Wisconsin, Virginia, and Maine are fully integrated with eBird and highly encourage any and all birders to submit sightings.

To enter data for a specific atlas, simply find the correct atlas eBird “portal” on the eBird website or app. Enter a checklist as you normally would, but also add codes from the dropdown for observed breeding behavior. It’s imperative that you use the correct portal! Regular eBird also allows you to enter breeding codes, but if you’re not using the correct portal, your data won’t count toward your intended atlas. You also need to be conscious of where you’re birding. Atlases are split into approximately 3 × 3 mile blocks, and any given checklist should only contain data for a single block.

Wisconsin — 30 species of Breeding Warblers

The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II is now in the last year of data collection, and more than 1,900 people have already contributed since 2015. But even with this huge number of participants, rugged, hard-to-reach areas in the forested north and agrarian central parts of the state still need significant coverage.

The upside is that the areas lacking coverage are also great summer vacation spots, with plenty of diverse terrain to explore. The north woods of Wisconsin are extremely productive for birding, with atlas blocks commonly hosting more than 85 breeding species. Warblers are a hallmark of this part of the state, and at least 25 species breed there, including Golden-winged, Connecticut, and Kirtland’s Warbler. Areas of central Wisconsin have much to offer birders, too, with exciting open-country species like Whooping Crane, Greater Prairie-Chicken, and Henslow’s Sparrow.

Virginia’s Farmland to the Appalachian Trail

The Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA2), planned to run from 2016–2020, faces the same challenge as Wisconsin in getting coverage across all corners of the state. With 1,000+ atlasers having contributed after the third season, VABBA2 shows heavy atlasing in the north but lighter coverage in the agrarian southcentral region of the state, and in the mountainous southwest.

In the grasslands of south-central Virginia, birders can be rewarded with charismatic species that have otherwise declined statewide and regionally: Loggerhead Shrike, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and other species that tend to associate with open shrubby habitats.

The southwest part of the state is perhaps even more enticing to birders, boasting national forests, the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and no shortage of camping spots from which to explore the ridge and valley topography. Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas Coordinator Ashley Peele, Ph.D., is especially excited for the potential to find yet-to-be-discovered pockets of breeding Swainson’s Warblers, and says that other high-elevation breeders, like Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Canada and Magnolia Warblers, and even the odd Nashville Warbler and Red Crossbill, appear to be holding strong in the region’s remnant boreal ecosystems.

Maine’s Diverse Vacation Land-scape

The Maine Bird Atlas is now just in its second season (2018–2022), so there is still plenty of time to plan an atlasing trip to America’s most forested state, and with a rugged and longer coastline than California, a diverse mosaic of habitats and bird life awaits.

Time spent hiking mountain trails and exploring the spruce-fir and mixed woods of the Northern and Western forests will be especially valuable to the project, as these more remote areas were only sparsely surveyed during Maine’s first breeding bird atlas (1978–1983). Birders will be rewarded with boreal specialties like Canada Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, Canada Jay, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and Bicknell’s Thrush.

For the hardiest individuals, Maine’s present-day bird atlas is also seeking to document wintering birds. Although landbirds can be scarce during the coldest months, possibilities of Rough-legged Hawk, Snowy Owl, Harlequin Duck, Northern Shrike, Bohemian Waxwing, and “northern irruptive finches” make winter birding in Maine worthwhile.

Other Current and Forthcoming Atlases

In addition to Wisconsin, Virginia, and Maine, atlases are currently being conducted in Connecticut (2018–2020) and Saskatchewan (2017–2021), though these are not eBird-integrated. However, two forthcoming atlases will be run within eBird: The New York Breeding Bird Atlas III is scheduled to commence in 2020, and New Zealand Bird Atlas is starting in June 2019 (sign us up!).

How to Help
Be sure to get in touch with local atlas coordinators before you head into the field. In addition to getting you up to speed on the finer points specific to each atlas, they’ll also be able to tell you the best places to bird based on the timing of your visit.