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Atlasing is a great way to exercise and maintain sanity – while still practicing good social distancing

By Eric Wallace

An image of two red shouldered hawk fledglings sitting in a nest in an oak tree

Red-shouldered Hawk chicks at Midlothian VA (CO Bob Schamerhorn)

The U.S. economy has ground to a halt. Bars, restaurants and most businesses have shutdown. Schools are scrambling to pivot toward online learning. Working parents are trying to manage home-office and classroom hours simultaneously. Toilet paper nor disinfectant can be found anywhere. While Virginia currently has no shelter-in-place order, we’re urged to limit time beyond the home to essential activities.

Thumbing through email inboxes and smartphone newsfeeds has subsequently become a game of Russian roulette—the Bad News Brigade could easily trigger a nervous breakdown.

Luckily, for Atlasers, relief is ready and waiting.

“Birding is the perfect activity while practicing social distancing,” writes National Audubon Society associate editor, Andy McGlashen, in a recent op-ed addressing the global coronavirus pandemic. “Handled responsibly, open space and wildlife observation might be just the balm you need.”

Despite mixed messaging from various media outlets and organizations—including some bird-related groups—for Virginians, time out-of-doors and in nature is currently classified as an activity essential to maintaining good health. (The logic and legalities are outlined by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, here. Also, see here for eBird’s take on birding at this time.)

Skeptical about the claim? A growing body of peer-reviewed medical research has confirmed nature-related health benefits.

“For instance, in a study of 20,000 people, a team led by Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces—local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced over several visits—were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t,” writes Jim Robbins of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, in an email.

That said, venturing outside in the era of coronavirus demands precaution. Executed properly, they can ensure your personal safety and that of others.

“We don’t want to get too crazy about this… taking reasonable precautions should be sufficient,” particularly in areas where shelter-in-place orders haven’t been instituted, Drew Harris, a population health researcher at Thomas Jefferson University, told NPR.

He qualified different types of outdoor experiences in an email interview.

‘The difference between visiting a public park in a major metropolis and hiking into obscure natural areas in rural locales is like night and day,’ said Harris. The former is risky. The latter, not so much. The same is true for a sidewalk stroll in a crowded subdivision vs. the shoulder of an unmarked country road.

“Is it safe to walk, run, or bike outside right now?” asked Los Angeles Times travel editor, Mary Forgione, in a recent report. According to doctors familiar with outdoor recreation, the answer was, “Yes. … So long as you follow a few common-sense rules for staying safe when you go outdoors.”

The spirit of safer-at-home orders is to decrease contact with others, she explained. If you’re sick, exhibiting possible symptoms of the virus, or have come into direct contact with someone in either condition, you need to stay home. Otherwise, when heading into little-traveled outdoor areas—especially those where you’ll encounter few, if any, people—practicing social distancing is easy enough.

Following a few quick guidelines, reported Forgione, can foolproof expeditions.

  • For starters, don’t carpool. Tripmates shouldn’t include anyone you aren’t currently living with.
  • If you encounter someone on a trail, in a parking area, or elsewhere, maintain a distance of at least six feet. When passing one another in the woods, this may require stepping off the trail, so be sure to wear long pants and appropriate shoes.
  • Pack a cooler with food and drinks. Avoid vending machines, entering gas stations, sitting on public benches, and so on.
  • Steer clear of—and absolutely do not touch—public objects. Bring hand sanitizer as a safeguard, just in case.
  • When refueling your caruse gloves, disinfectant wipes, or doubled-up paper towels to handle the pump. While waiting for the tank to fill, don’t touch your face! Once you’re done, dispose of the gloves or towelettes. Then sanitize your hands immediately, prior to entering the car.
  • If you encounter crowds in an area, leave immediately.

The greenlight is good news for birders, opined McGlashen, the Audubon Society editor.

“We know: It might seem exploitative for the Bird People to promote birds during a public health crisis,” he wrote. “But there’s an argument to be made that—as long as you don’t put yourself or others at risk—birding is the perfect thing to do right now.”

And medical experts agree.

“I think this is a great way to relieve stress and should present little or no threat of exposure,” Robyn Gershon, an epidemiology professor at New York University’s School of Public Health, told McGlashen. “We should encourage these healthy coping mechanisms. And also, it’s good for people to maintain their enjoyable pastimes to the extent possible.”

As Gershon suggests—and Robbins and Forgione argue—contact with nature can ease anxiety, provide welcome relief from impending cabin fever, and boost morale during the crisis.

“With rising fears and palpable tension in the air,” wrote McGlashen, “we can all benefit from this calming influence. If you’re a seasoned birder, now’s the time to take comfort in an activity you love.”

But what if you enjoy birding and atlasing, but have never tried it solo?

“I would encourage our birders to give it a whirl.  I’m frequently surprised (and pleased) by how much breeding activity I tend to pick up, when I’m alone and quietly birding my way down a woodland trail or across a field,” says VABBA2 director, Dr. Ashley Peele. Chances are, you’ll find the activity offers a unique and enjoyable experience. “And that it can easily lead to addiction, albeit one that’s extremely positive,” she adds with a laugh.

Avid atlaser and Blue Ridge Parkway biologist, Tom Davis, agrees.

“To me, getting out in the backcountry and birding by myself is one of the best pleasures life has to offer,” he says. Atlasing has been a go-to means of destressing since 2016.

“It’s an exercise-meets-meditation type experience,” says Davis. Yes, it gets his heart-rate up. But more importantly, he comes away feeling restored. Immersing oneself in the quiet woods surrounded by wildlife, he says, is calming. It helps contextualize worries within a greater, more macro perspective.

Facing the difficult times ahead, that sounds like helpful medicine indeed.


Calling All Atlasers:

Given the strangeness of the times and the disruption of group meetings, our need for organization amongst our volunteers is greater than ever.

Do you live in an area with high-value priority blocks?  (See map below).  Could you get out onto country roads and this spring to collect some early breeding bird data?

Birding this spring will help you prep for Atlasing during the peak summer months, regardless of whether we’re still under coronavirus restrictions.  Additionally, you will join veteran volunteers like Jeff Trollinger in documenting some unusually early spring arrivals. Just today, he reported Whip-poor-wills calling in the central Piedmont, a very early arrival indeed!

A state map showing the target efforts being taken in different counties; the priority is birds along the Appalachian mountains

VABBA2 2020 Target Effort Map – (searchable view available on Atlas Block Explorer)

If interested in participating, please contact your local regional coordinator or project director, Dr. Ashley Peele, with questions about how you can get involved.

  • March 27, 2020