Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas

I crept forward through the dense understory of spicebush, trying not to make too much noise, as I followed the soft, incessant trills of a fledgling begging call. I was birding in a small valley right next to our house in the hope of getting a wood thrush breeding confirmation, as we had heard many singing down here recently.  As I removed the final branch blocking my view of where the calls seemed to be coming from, I saw the fuzzy reddish brown backs of 3 little thrushes hopping around on the ground.  I snapped a quick photo and than left them alone.

The 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA or VABBA2) is an ambitious citizen science project designed to document the distribution and abundance of Virginia’s breeding birds.  This year, I participated in the VABBA to learn more about our breeding birds and my local area, and to promote bird conservation through citizen science.  This year was the second of the five-year project, and my first as a volunteer.  Virginia is divided into nearly 4,400 nine square mile blocks, each of which should ideally be surveyed completely.  In recognition that complete survey is very unlikely, one out of every six blocks is a priority block, a designation given to attempt to focus efforts more evenly across the state.  There are approximately 798 priority blocks in Virginia, of which 570 now have data.  VABBA block survey consists of attempting to identify and document breeding evidence for as many species of birds as possible, across as many different habitats in the block as possible.

Through the second season of this project, I have been amazed by the ability of the birding community to contribute large quantities of important data.  The VABBA2 has received 37,669 checklists from 742 participants in just its first two years.  Atlas volunteers have confirmed 185 breeding species in Virginia.  The first VABBA, held over 25 years ago, only confirmed 196 species in five years.  So far I have confirmed 34 species in my block, with an additional 16 as probable, through 45 checklists.

This year I signed up to be the principle atlaser for the block that we live in, Greenfield Central West (CW).  It is not a priority block, but I didn’t want to have to drive somewhere else to bird and I wanted to learn more about the ecosystems around our house.   I was also happy to get to know more local property owners through asking them for permission to survey their properties.  Our immediate neighbors have been very accommodating to birding, and we have unlimited access to a large chunk of land adjacent to our own.  Participating in the Atlas was an opportunity to expand this access to other properties nearby.

I have really enjoyed my participation in VABBA2 this year, but have also found it challenging.  I learned a lot about the breeding biology and behaviors of our summer species, including the habitats different species favored, and I expect to learn much more next year.   Now I know, for example, that I can reliably find ovenbirds and worm eating warblers in the dry oak hickory forest on the Paul’s Creek Trail in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  These are two species that I don’t expect to find breeding in the lush floodplain forest on our property in the same block, less than a couple of miles away.  Similarly, I hoped to find breeding hooded warblers as the elevation increased, and was pleased when I was able to confirm one.  I also began to learn which behaviors distinguish a bird that is likely to show breeding evidence.   For instance, a bird silently feeding in the brush or flying directly back and fourth between shrubs is much more likely to give you a breeding confirmation than a bird leisurely singing in the canopy.

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These Barn Swallows illustrate the confirmed breeding code Nest with Young (NY).

As I learned more about the differences between atlasing and regular birding, I was able to confirm many more new species per atlasing venture.  Like regular birding, atlasing consists of looking for and identifying birds, but when atlasing, you must also observe and rank breeding behaviors. There are four categories of breeding behavior: observed, possible, probable and confirmed. The goal is to observe the highest possible category for each species. For example, you might see a singing male in the same spot more than seven days apart (a ‘probable’ behavior), but you aren’t done with that species until you have observed it exhibiting a ‘confirmed’ behavior, such as feeding young. To observe so much, you have to move slower, and pay more attention to any given bird than you would in regular birding.

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This Northern Flicker Feeding Young (FY), was observed at McIntire Park, Charlottesville, VA.

On one atlasing trip in early spring, I made a visit to a farm in my block with some large fallow fields to look for displaying American woodcocks.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to confirm them, as they nest on the ground in dense vegetation and blend in so perfectly that even when you know one is right in front of you, it still might take you five minutes to see it.  Despite this, I was excited to get the probable display code on them and witness their strange display flight again.  Right as it was getting so dark I was worried we wouldn’t find any, the strange dry “peeent” of an American woodcock came from across the field, followed by the sharp twittering as it flew overhead.  We heard two or three more birds that night.

One of the aspects of atlasing that I found most challenging was figuring out the timing of the breeding season.  There are species breeding almost all year, with species like bald eagle and great horned owl starting as early as December, and the smaller owls and raptors soon following.

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This Great Horned Owl was observed on March 9nth, at Thomas P. Grater Community Park in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is not in the VABBA2 area.  This would be the Occupied Nest (ON), confirmed breeding code.

However, the vast majority of our breeding species, the neotropical migrant songbirds, are easiest to confirm during June and early July.  I remember feeling full of energy and having plenty of time for atlasing during March when only a few species were breeding.  In May and June, though, we went to the Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio, and to Glacier National Park, plus many weekend birding trips around the state.  By late June when most species are breeding, I felt stressed and worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to confirm a decent number in my block this year.  My stress was exacerbated by my inexperience with the VABBA protocols because I didn’t know at the outset where to focus my effort and attention.

Overall, atlasing has been a very educational and rewarding experience for me, and although this breeding season is finishing up, I am looking forward to finishing my block next summer.

3 thoughts on “Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas

  1. Awesome post, Ezra! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with the Atlas project. Learning new protocols is challenging for us all and we appreciate you sticking with it! Feel free to reach out to your regional or state coordinator any time you have questions or could use some help. We like hearing from volunteers, especially when there are aspects of the project that they are finding challenging. Keep up the great work and best birds! ~Dr. Ashley Peele (VABBA2 State Coordinator)

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  2. Such a great story, Ezra! I believe I met you at the Charlottesville training. Like you I learned (after a frustrating morning trying to spot a singing scarlet tanager and wood thrush) that a singing bird isn’t usually where the (confirmation) action is! I love all the things I’ve learned from this project and it’s clear you do too. I’m very envious that you spotted Wood Thrush fledglings, something I very much wanted to find! It’s wonderful that you are taking the time and energy to participate in VABBA2 and I wish you continued success!

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  3. Thanks, Ezra, for writing this blog about atlasing. Although I was involved in a number of bird conservation projects in the 1990s, I never did atlasing. It sounds delightful, particularly because you have to be more observant and follow protocols. Keep up the good work!

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