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Wild WNY / A serious bird count

The third breeding bird atlas project is underway and you can help

Birding can be more than just a hobby.


Bird watching for many participants is a sport. We keep lists of the species seen in a day, month, and year; as well as in Erie County, New York State, North America, and the world. We seek to add a rare bird like a dickcissel to our life lists, to contribute a species never before reported in Amherst State Park or Tifft Nature Preserve, or even to add one to our yard list. A basic question we often consider: how do my lists compare with those of my friends?


While those activities add a significant amount of pleasure to simply watching the birds in our surroundings and can even add to occurrence and migration records, many serious birders want to go further. The Buffalo Ornithological Society, for example, supports annual regional surveys of birds in April, May, and October, and the New York State Ornithological Association organizes an annual January waterfowl count.


But easily the most important serious activity involving birders is the development every twenty years of a New York State breeding bird atlas. The first of those atlases was co-directed by Buffalo Museum of Science ornithologist Robert Andrle and covered the years 1980-1985. Over 4,300 volunteers submitted 361,595 observations of 242 species. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State covered 2000-2004, with 1,207 volunteers submitting 519,562 observations of 248 species. The most common birds on both lists were American robin, black-capped chickadee, blue jay, common yellowthroat, and song sparrow. Two species recorded on the first census, canvasback and loggerhead shrike, were not recorded as nesting on the second, but six were gained: trumpeter swan, common eider, black vulture, merlin, sandhill crane, and Wilson’s phalarope. In the published atlases, the distribution of each species is represented by a detailed state map.


Comparison of the data collected by the two atlases demonstrates an increase in woodland birds and a decline in grassland birds. It also provided evidence that climate change is having an influence: the geographic distribution of 129 species extended northward an average of 5.7 miles.


Now, after years of planning, the third atlas project is underway and will run through 2024. For this survey the state is divided into 5,710 three-by-three-mile blocks, about one-sixth of which, chosen arbitrarily, are listed as priority blocks.



What this means for Western New Yorkers

According to the volunteer handbook for the project, “Anyone with an interest in birds can contribute records to the atlas. Whether you spend many hours surveying or report just a single nest you discovered in your backyard, your contribution will help to build the New York breeding bird atlas.”


No one needs to be an experienced birder to participate, and each block has an assigned mentor who takes reports and can assist. For example, those looking for nesting birds in Amherst’s Nature View Park can seek help from me, as I am serving as mentor for that block. (I am also happy to respond to other questions about project participation at insrisg@buffalo.edu.)


The handbook also offers an encouraging description of the benefits of participation: “Atlasing is different from normal birding. Instead of trying to find as many species as you can, atlasing requires slowing down to watch the behavior of individual birds. Atlasers search for evidence of breeding throughout the breeding season and note the behaviors they observe for each species. As you atlas, you will start to learn what specific habitat features they use. You’ll gain an intimate glimpse into the daily struggles of raising nestlings and be able to regularly check in on how ‘your’ birds are faring.


“As you search for breeding birds, you are likely to explore new areas where you would not have considered going birding. You may find yourself regularly visiting powerline rights-of-way or a small patch of wetland just to find a field sparrow or a wood duck, and in the process stumble on a brown thrasher or prothonotary warbler. This is the excitement of atlasing: going to new places, finding unexpected birds, and observing behaviors you have only read about in books. What more can you ask for?”


There are three ways to contribute to this project. The first is simply to report incidental observations, such as a chipping sparrow nest to be watched as a family is raised, possibly with an unwanted but well-cared-for cowbird intruder.


The next level means spending time in the field, finding and reporting breeding birds. This is especially helpful in the priority blocks, but doing so in any block is helpful.


Finally, experienced and enthusiastic birders can sign up to be Principal Atlaser for one or more of the priority blocks. For each block so chosen, this means committing twenty or more hours of field work each year, confirming breeding of as many birds as possible, submitting data, and providing documentation for rare or priority species.


Technology for recording

Easily the most significant way this third atlas differs from its predecessors is its access to and use of technology. Today, most serious birders use the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s resource eBird to record their observations. In 2019, over a half million of them did so. Downloaded free to any smartphone and carried into the field, this resource makes reporting easy and the shared results available for analysis.  For an indication of the importance of this tool as a research aid, eBird records contributed to fifty-eight published research papers in 2019.


For The Third Atlas, the Cornell technicians have prepared a special eBird portal, accessed from ebird.org/atlasny. Participation in the atlas project, including how to report your observations is described there. The Buffalo Audubon Society and Buffalo Ornithological Society are also sponsoring talks about how best to use this site. For schedules, see their websites.


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