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Celebrating Top Atlas Contributors from Around Virginia

By Eric Wallace

An image of the endangered piping plover

Piping Plover at Chincoteague NWR (CO Bob Schamerhorn)

While atlasing activities have been rather curtailed by covid-19 for the time being, we still want to share some of the great stories and achievements to come out of our project so far.  In that spirit, we’ll be continuing to push out Atlas stories and articles in the coming weeks.    Our hope is that we can push forward with data collection, if a contracted season, in our target regions following the lifting of the governor’s executive order.  In the meantime, we’ll continue to stay connected with our community of volunteers. Stay well!

Entering the homestretch of the second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, volunteers are more active than ever before. So many of you have put in serious birding hours over the past four years—and continue to do so.

Here, we’d like to say thanks and give credit where it’s due.

Below, you’ll find a region by region breakdown of our Top-Five most prolific contributors, based on hours of effort logged to the VABBA2 eBird portal. Also, a glimpse into the atlasing lives of two all-star participants.


1 Scott Campbell 3 John Spahr
1 David Davis 3 Stanley Heatwole
1 James Fox 3 Diane Lepkowski
1 BJ + Jon Little 3 William Leigh
1 Diane Holsinger 3 Greg Moyers
2 Kelly Krechmer 4 Janet Paisley
2 Paul + Joan Woodward 4 Donna Sanchez
2 Dave Larsen 4 Guy + Susan Babineau
2 Kurt Gaskill 4 Evan Spears
2 Steve Johnson 4 Conor Farrell

Joanne Laskowski, Eastern Shore

Can you imagine a life centered around birding for a cause? That’s exactly what Joanne and Hal Laskowski had in mind when they retired to the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the early 2010s.

“We’d been conducting bird surveys for [various conservation agencies and organizations] since the 1970s,” says Joanne, 70. The couple’s résumé included work for breeding bird atlases, the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Refuge System, state parks and more. Given the Eastern Shore’s abundant protected lands and location on the Atlantic Flyway, it was a haven for birding and ornithological research. Volunteer opportunities would be ample.

“We thought, given our expertise, there should be no end of things to help with,’” says Joanne.

She has a master’s degree in ecology with a focus on ornithology. She’d taught classes and workshops for prominent environmental organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, and administered science-related curriculum for an entire Maryland school system.

“Basically, my job was to keep curriculum up-to-date and help teachers become the best educators they could be,” says Joanne.

Hal spent his career as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He won a U.S Department of the Interior Meritorious Service Award for, according to the citation, his efforts to “identify the data needs of the NWRS and produce recommendations which are being implemented today [through the] National Wildlife Refuge System Inventory and Monitoring Initiative,” which he helped to create.

Local conservation groups welcomed the Laskowskis with open arms. Joanne was soon the president of the Eastern Shore Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists. The couple became immediate fixtures at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (CNWR) and other protected areas, like Kiptopeke State Park.

When the VABBA2 launched in 2016, the project was a perfect fit. Joanne and Hal committed to completing priority blocks in the CNWR and other areas. They say their time—nearly 200 hours and counting—has been well spent.

Combined with other surveying duties, the Atlas has “given us an excuse to deeply explore some really amazing areas,” says Joanne. It’s carried them into rarely visited backcountry spots on Assateague Island and elsewhere.

A highlight came on Metompkin Island, an uninhabited barrier island, where the Laskowskis conducted avian surveys and monitored fledging success rates among Piping Plover.

“At that point, I hadn’t seen a male dance for his mate,” says Joanne. Spotting one was awe-inspiring—and quite funny. “He was like a little [19th century] Russian dancer, just kicking his feet up and bobbing all over the place. But he kept kicking sand all over his would-be mate and she just wasn’t having any part of it.”

Considering the couple’s background in environmental science and conservation, they understand the significance of the VABBA2 better than most.

Hal spent much of his career analyzing survey data and using it to create better and more targeted management practices in protected areas, says Joanne. “The data the VABBA2 is making available will be an incredible conservation boon.”

“From an ornithological perspective,” adds Joanne, “the significance of this project cannot be overestimated.”

5 Fred Atwood 7 Andrew Rapp
5 Maeve + Joey Coker 7 Kelly Krechmer
5 Mark Sopko 7 Cathy Spencer
5 Jeff Wright 7 Steven Hopp
5 Lee Adams 7 Garrett Rhyne
6 Joanne Laskowski 8 Phil Lehman
6 Joe Girgente 8 Tom Davis
6 Kelly Krechmer 8 Clyde Kessler
6 Edward Brinkley 8 Becky Kessler
6 Aylett Lipford 8 Don Mackler

Phil Lehman, Blacksburg

By day, Phil Lehman works as a clinical psychologist for the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center helping ex-soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress and substance abuse disorders. He spends many evenings and weekends birding for the VABBA2.

“It’s basically my preferred method of relaxation,” says Lehman with a chuckle. To date, he’s logged more than 233 hours birding in under-surveyed priority blocks, most within driving distance of his Blacksburg home. He loves the immersion of Atlasing. “Compared to the listing-type birding I was doing before, it’s a totally next-level experience.”

To be truly effective, atlasers need to understand the relationship between birds and habitat. From there, it’s boots-on-the-ground.

“You’ve got to get into an area and do some exploring,” says Lehman. “You’re trying to think like the birds think, looking for pockets of habitat that would be conducive for nesting. Then, to get the [breeding] confirmations, a lot of times, you’re digging in, watching and waiting.”

Lehman learned to appreciate birds in early childhood alongside his father and grandfather. The former was a nematologist and helped agricultural operations with issues involving roundworms. The work carried the Lehmans throughout the continental U.S. and, on a few occasions, into South America.

“Wherever we went, my dad would research interesting species and take me with him to look for them,” says Lehman. While birding wasn’t a favorite activity, the experiences laid the groundwork for a later enthusiasm.

“The birding bug didn’t strike until after grad-school,” says Lehman, who holds a doctoral degree in psychology. “Then—bang!—it hit me all-of-a-sudden. And it just took off from there.”

Installing backyard feeders and taking casual trips in the Blue Ridge Mountains led to membership with the Virginia Society of Ornithology. From there, Lehman became a fixture of the New River Valley Bird Club. Hearing about the VABBA2, he was intrigued. Talks with director Ashley Peele and related meetings brought an understanding of the project as an important environmental cause—and one he was willing to go out of his way to support.

“I love being outside and looking at these incredible animals,” says Lehman, describing the experience as Zen-like. For him, it’s painful to know so many species are declining and trending toward extinction. He sees volunteering for the VABBA2 as a way to fight back.

“Of course, the birds are important in and of themselves,” says Lehman. “But when I think of my great-grandkids’ generation—I want them to be able see and experience these beautiful birds that’ve meant so much to my life.”

9 Bob Epperson 11 Cheryl Jacobson
9 Jeffrey Blaylock 11 Carlton Noll
9 Donna Sanchez 11 Harry Colestock
9 Mary Foster 11 David Youker
9 Logan Anderson 11 Carol O’Neil
10 Carlton Noll 12 Bob Ake
10 Bill Wood 12 Rob Bielawski
10 Jan Frye 12 David Clark
10 Lewis Barnett 12 Tracy Tate
10 Wendy Ealding 12 Laura Mae

Are you an existing VABBA2 participant seeking to maximize the impact of your participation? Are you or someone you know interested in getting involved with the project?

  • One of our regional coordinators would love to help. Find a complete list of coordinators, contact information and a description of regions, HERE.
  • You may also email questions to VABBA2 director Ashley Peele.
  • April 7, 2020