Second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas kicks off; eBird to play critical role

Birders at the kickoff meeting for the second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas look at a laptop while learning how to enter breeding-bird data into eBird. Photo by Florence Edwards-Miller
Attendees at the kickoff meeting for the second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas learn how to enter breeding-bird data into eBird. Photo by Florence Edwards-Miller
Atlas logo by Roxanne Schrank
Atlas logo by Roxanne Schrank

Here in Wisconsin last weekend, more than 200 birders kicked off a five-year project to document the state’s breeding bird species. It’s known as the second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, or WBBA II.

The state’s first breeding bird atlas ran from 1995 to 2000, and produced records of 237 species, 235 of which were listed as at least probable breeders in the state. Results from that first survey (available online and as a printed book) provided many insights into Wisconsin’s bird community that biologists and others use to make decisions regarding how to manage state lands and how to conserve birds. For example, the first atlas found that:

  • American Robin, the state bird, was the most frequently reported breeding species.
  • Piping Plover, Snowy Egret, Great Gray Owl, and Western Kingbird were among the least frequently reported species.
  • Great Gray Owl was shown to be a regular but rare nester in Wisconsin, and Western Kingbird was confirmed breeding at a single location. Boreal Chickadee was found to be a well-established, albeit very local, breeder in northern Wisconsin.
  • During the atlas project, breeding by Golden-crowned Kinglet was documented in Wisconsin for the first time.

The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are leading the second atlas project. They have signed up coordinators in each of the state’s 72 counties, and they hope to recruit thousands of volunteers to find and report breeding birds. New this time, atlasers will use a special eBird application that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has built specifically for Wisconsin to collect atlas data.

Read an article by Bill Mueller of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory about his walk across Wisconsin for bird conservation.

Chris Wood, a project leader for eBird, speaks at the kickoff meeting. Photo by Florence Edwards-Miller
Chris Wood, a project leader for eBird, speaks at the kickoff meeting. Photo by Florence Edwards-Miller

The kickoff meeting, held near Wausau, featured presentations about the history of the atlas and reports on the exciting and useful science emerging from atlas data. Chris Wood, a project leader with eBird, was the keynote speaker. He was heavily involved in the state’s first atlas, when he was a student at Ripon College in central Wisconsin. At eBird, he has been one of the leaders in developing the data-collection application for the second atlas. (Wood and three of his colleagues at eBird contribute the “On the Move” column in each issue of BirdWatching.)

He says the Cornell Lab has been looking for ways to harness eBird to be used for specific projects, and Wisconsin’s atlas is a great candidate. “There is just such a strong team and tradition [in Wisconsin] with such greats as Aldo Leopold, Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom, Sam Robbins, and Noel Cutright,” he says. “Wisconsin is at the leading edge of bird conservation.”

If you live in the Badger State or if you bird here, you can sign up here to atlas. Volunteers are asked to survey one or more three-square-mile blocks of land. Atlasers will count the birds and watch closely for behavior, such as singing, building nests, or feeding young, that indicates birds may be breeding.

Then they’ll enter their observations in the eBird portal. County coordinators will check in with volunteers to offer help and support and make sure that all the appropriate areas are being covered. The data collected by volunteers will be analyzed and displayed online and in a published book. You do not need to be a bird expert to participate; the online data entry and numerous online bird-identification tools make it easy to join in.

If you didn’t attend the kickoff meeting, several training events for volunteers are scheduled through early May.

Nick Anich, lead atlas coordinator for the DNR, says about 1,600 people participated in the first atlas, making it the largest citizen-science project in the state. “With the advantage of the Internet to help coordinate, enter, and view atlas data,” he says, “we fully expect that it will be even easier this time for more people to become involved with what promises to be the defining ornithological project of this decade in Wisconsin.”

Fieldwork begins in 2015 and will run through 2019. The information collected will inform conservation and management of Wisconsin’s birdlife, Anich says, and comparisons to the first atlas will be especially useful in gauging recent shifts in bird distribution and abundance. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor