By Gwendolyn Craig
At a time when social distancing and the coronavirus are consuming people’s daily lives, a rare mission to track birds could be a good way to fly the coop for a bit.
New York is undergoing its third Breeding Bird Atlas, a five-year citizen science project that helps track our avian neighbors across the state. New York is the first state to kick off this third nationwide data collection effort. The last effort was in 2005.
Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in a news release: “Just as New Yorkers are embarking on the 2020 Census to track human populations and trends, DEC and our partners track our natural populations to evaluate the effectiveness of New York’s programs and initiatives to promote diverse and healthy wildlife.”
Volunteers are needed to track bird species and what they’re doing, and to record them on an online birding database called eBird.
And if you can’t tell your palm warbler from your olive-sided flycatcher, that’s OK.
“There’s an easy, low threshold for getting into it,” said Mike Burger, managing director of Audubon New York’s state program. “As people learn more, they can contribute more, but anybody can jump into it.”
How to participate:
New York residents can sign up for a free eBird account at ebird.org/atlasny. The state is divvied up on a grid of about 3 mile-by-3 mile blocks. Participants record bird behavior like singing and building a nest.
A Cape May warbler. Photo by Larry Master
The atlas is a particularly exciting opportunity for Adirondack Park residents, because Burger said in the past, the atlas has had difficulty getting the full 6 million-acre park covered. Bird watchers have a chance to get into those wild areas (with the property owner’s permission, of course), and keep eyes and ears open for some species only found in the Adirondacks, unless you cross the border to Canada.
“The atlas gets people back into places where we don’t often have really solid data coming from, that tells us what birds are there, and more importantly, are they actually breeding there,” Burger said. “It’s a really valuable source of information. … It helps us target our conservation work there.”
Michale Glennon of the Adirondack Watershed Institute has been researching songbirds and woodpeckers in the Adirondacks for years. Her dissertation in graduate school used data collected from the first breeding bird atlas, which began in 1980.
“Spring is coming, migration is coming, and people are really excited.”Julie Hart, project coordinator for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas
The Adirondacks are unique in that parts of it are boreal forest—that is it has a lot of spruce and pine trees. Some birds thrive in this habitat, and may only be found in the Adirondacks in the state.
“They’re sort of like our Canadian bird friends that live on the southern range of where they are, here in the Adirondacks,” Glennon said. “They’re considered to be from the boreal ecosystem, but because the Adirondacks sit on the transition zone of boreal eco-type and temperate forest, we’re sort of the nexus of those two, broad geographic zones.”
Some species bird watchers in the Adirondacks might be especially excited to see or hear are:
- Canada jay (also known as the gray jay);
- Lincoln sparrow;
- Palm warbler;
- Boreal chickadee;
- Spruce grouse;
- Olive-sided flycatcher;
- Yellow-bellied flycatcher;
- Tennessee warbler;
- Bay-breasted warbler;
- Cape May warbler;
- Rusty blackbird;
- Three-toed woodpecker (yes, it has three toes);
- Black-backed woodpecker (which, ironically, also has three toes).
Rusty blackbirds and three-toed woodpeckers are particularly rare.
“Birders always like a challenge,” said Julie Hart, project coordinator for the atlas with the New York Natural Heritage Program. “They like to find something rare. I think there was a lot of people in the state, not just in the Adirondacks, who were really gung-ho to try and find, and to see if there are still any breeding American three-toed woodpeckers in the Adirondacks.”
Hart said there hasn’t been any documentation of one since around 2007.
But, even a black-capped chickadee is important to note, Hart added.
The last atlas, which took place between 2000 and 2005, had more than 1,200 participants submit over 500,000 records that documented 251 breeding bird species. The third atlas was announced at the end of March, and already has more than 750 participants confirming the sighting of 50 species over more than 18,000 check lists.
While birding can be a social activity, the DEC and its partners are promoting social distancing techniques like staying 6 feet apart and avoiding shared equipment. Hart said participants can pick specific sites to document, or they can look outside their home windows and record observations.
“I would say that there are a lot of people that are looking to the birds to help them cope right now,” Hart said. “I think it is one of the safer outdoor activities that you can do, as long as you’re not sharing your binoculars, sharing your phone. … I think people are really just looking for that positive outlook on something outside that engages them and takes their mind off things. Spring is coming, migration is coming, and people are really excited.”