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How You Can Contribute to the Breeding Bird Atlas While Out Hunting or Fishing

Photos by Bob Schamerhorn

Great Horned Owl with two chicks at nest.

Great Horned Owl with chicks at nest.

On a still spring evening, Lisa Benish listens to the sounds of evening setting around her, as she casts a line over Mill Creek in Grayson county.  A long-time angler and outdoors-woman, she pays attention to the creatures emerging around her.  On this particular evening, she begins noticing the many different songs and bird calls echoing down the creek.  Soon, she sees and hears an Eastern Phoebe, a Red-eyed Vireo, then a Hairy Woodpecker.  Most exciting of all, she spots a Chestnut-sided Warbler flitting around in the canopy above her.  All of these birds breed in this area of Virginia and therefore, are important species for the VA Breeding Bird Atlas project (VABBA2).

The VABBA2 is a statewide volunteer project sponsored by DWR and the Virginia Society of Ornithology with the goal of documenting the distribution and breeding status of all bird species across the Commonwealth.  Lisa is not only an avid angler, but also a contributor to this important conservation effort.  On that spring evening, she returned home to log her bird observations to the project.  Because sportsmen and women like Lisa spend much of their time immersed in the outdoors, they naturally observe the activities of all kinds of wildlife, including birds.  All this time helps them acquire a good skillset for noticing things like when the turkeys or woodcock start courting or when cardinals start building their nests.  Early risers will also pick up on vocalizations of nocturnal birds like owls and Whip-poor-wills.  These types of observations are exactly what the Atlas project is interested in, which puts hunters/anglers in a unique position to contribute valuable data.

Two wild turkeys in a field

Wild Turkey.

Understanding the breeding status, distribution, and population size of ALL Virginia bird species is crucial for effective conservation and management.  While a number of bird species are already being monitored closely through other programs, e.g. Northern Bobwhite Quail, there is far too little information for many others.  The VABBA2 began in 2016, enlisting the help of many volunteers to start filling in these information gaps.  However, many parts of Virginia have too few volunteers reporting any breeding bird data or have received no nocturnal observations.  This is where we hope to recruit the help of more of our sportsmen and women…

What to Report?

You can report new observations as well as observations that you have made in the past, as long as they do not fall before 2016.  There are three key pieces of information to include when reporting observations of breeding birds:

  1. Where did the observation occur? When out in the field, make sure you note the location of your observation.  If you don’t have GPS, at least note the general area to pinpoint on a map later.
    • The Atlas project uses a grid (or block) system based on the USGS Topographic Quad Maps. Atlas blocks are 1/6 of a USGS Quad or approximately 3×3 miles in size.  Check out the Atlas Block map!
    • It is important for us to know what block you were in when you observed breeding bird activity, which is why we encourage you to carefully note your location.
    • If reporting observations made in the past, be as accurate as possible in reporting your location. If you do not have a fairly good sense of where you were at the time, it is best to leave that observation out.
  1. When did it occur? In addition to noting the date of your observation, it is important to record the time that you started out into the woods or field, especially if you were moving through an area, and when you finished.  If you’re only logging a specific observation that occurred in a single instance, then be sure to note down the time you observed it.  If this observation occurred in the past, an exact date is required, but you can provide an approximate time.
  1. What did you observe? This question has two parts to consider…
    1. First, what species of bird is it? If you don’t know, then hold off on reporting the observation until you’ve been able to determine the type of bird that you saw.  If you can’t, then let that observation go.
    2. Second, what was the bird doing? The answer to this can be very broad!  You might see or hear a bird singing, which indicates a possible breeder.  If lucky, you might see something like the bird returning to a nest, which would confirm that it was a local breeder (and be super exciting to boot)!  Check out this page for a full list of the breeding codes that this project uses to classify breeding behaviors.

If you keep track of this information when spending time out in the woods, fields, rivers, etc., then you will be in good shape for reporting your data to the VABBA2 project.  If you DON’T know where and when an observation occurred, then don’t try to guess.  Just remember to record those details next time.

A male northern cardinal among white flowers

Northern Cardinal.

When and How do I Report These Observations?

 Let’s begin with the question of when to report your sightings.  The shortest and easiest answer is right after you’ve made an observation!  Best practice is to report your data quickly, so you don’t forget details or lose your notes.

For more specific guidance, mid-May through early August is the peak window of time for breeding bird activity.  Some species of birds, especially year-round residents, begin nesting earlier than this and a few others will go later.  However, if you’re outdoors during this peak window time, then keep your eyes peeled!  For more detailed information on the timing of bird breeding, check out our ‘Breeding Timeline Charts’.

Although we value any older (2016 or later) observations that you are able to report, reporting new observations as quickly as possible is a good idea.  Whether logging old or new observations, you can use the following guidance to report data to the VABBA2 project.

On to how to report your sightings…

To begin with, all observations of breeding bird activity should be report to the project’s eBird data entry portal or through the eBird mobile app.  The portal is not only the place to report your findings, but also a place to read about the project and explore what other volunteers have reported.  To actually begin to report data, you will need to create an account, which is simple to do on the eBird site.

Next, you’ll need to decide what type of information you are reporting.  Here is what to consider…

First, are you reporting all the birds you were able to identify at a given time or location?

If no, then you’ll be reporting ‘incidental’ observations and should follow the instructions found here… Atlas Data Entry Round 1 – Recording Incidental Observations.

If yes, then you’ll be reporting a complete checklist of observations and should follow the instructions found here… Atlas Data Entry Round 2: Submitting Complete Checklists.

A red headed woodpecker on a telephone pole

Red-headed Woodpecker.

Interested in becoming a fully-fledged Atlas volunteer?

Check out the DWR Atlas website, where you’ll be able to learn more about this important project and to link to the official VABBA2 website and all of its resources.

  • February 22, 2019