The Breeding Bird Atlas in 2002

(This column was first published in the May 13, 2002 Buffalo News.)

The statewide census of breeding birds, Atlas 2000, is well into the third year of its five year cycle. Over a thousand birders across the state have participated in this activity so far, but still more are needed. If you have a reasonable knowledge of birds and you have not already joined our census team in western New York, I urge you to do so now.

And even if you do not take responsibility for one or more of the 10 square mile blocks, you may be able to guide census-takers to the nests of uncommon breeding birds. For example, if you know of nests of herons, owls or hawks, I invite you to pass on this information through me.

This is the second Atlas, the first completed in the years 1980-1985 under the able leadership of western New York's senior ornithologist, Robert Andrle. The new Atlas is already providing comparative data that tells us much about changes in the distribution of the state's breeding birds.



But, as the accompanying map shows, much remains to be done. Statewide data from only about half of the 5334 blocks has been collected and many of those blocks remain incomplete. In western New York the picture is similar. Here almost 300 of the 630 blocks are still unassigned and less than 80 have been completed.

Last year I finished four blocks in the Pembroke area but my accomplishment was eclipsed by many others including Bill Watson who completed nine and regional coordinator Dick Rosche and his wife who accomplished a remarkable fifteen. This year most of us who have finished blocks have taken on new assignments. My four new blocks are in the Oakfield and Corfu areas and I would especially welcome assistance from residents there.

Atlasing represents a paradigm shift for most birders. Some of us think that too much birding focuses on the number of species seen in a day or year, the earliest or latest migration record and observations of rare species. Looking for breeding birds changes that pattern. Just seeing a bird is not the end of the observation. Simply because you find a species does not mean that it is nesting. It may simply be a migrant like a fox sparrow or a wanderer like a ring-billed gull that is passing through the area. You must look for better evidence.

As I write, for example, I can see out of my window a robin gathering string and mud, a significant sign that it is building a nest. And now I can even see the nest in a crotch of the ash tree in our front yard. Those observations took me through all three levels of Atlas records: possible, probable and confirmed breeding.

Here is what Cindy Marino has said about her experience: "I have found atlasing to be tremendous fun and a fabulous learning experience. Stumbling upon a redstart's nest with hatchlings, finding a yellow warbler carrying a fat green caterpillar, seeing a hairy woodpecker enter a hole and hearing those squawking nestlings inside were just a few of the exciting finds I had last season. If you have been thinking about volunteering for a block, I would highly recommend it."

A wealth of information about this breeding bird project is to be found in the ATLAS 2000 website. There you can find not only volunteer information but maps of individual blocks, species lists from the earlier census and from the first two years of this one, and even interim information species by species. You can volunteer to participate in Atlas 2000 through this website or by contacting regional coordinator Dick Rosche in East Aurora.-- Gerry Rising