Skip to Main Content

Making the Most of Mid-summer Atlasing

By Ashley Peele

A grey catbird with a beak full of caterpillars

Gray Catbird with Caterpillars (CO Diane Lepkowski)

July has arrived with some of our hottest and often driest weeks of the summer.  It is tempting to write off birding efforts at this time of year, but! While birds may sing less frequently, July is a very busy time for most breeding species.  The early breeders are working on their second (or even third!) clutches of the season, while late-breeding species are just beginning. For example, American Goldfinches are now building nests and beginning to lay their first clutches of eggs.

However, it is hot out there and we want to consider how to best maximize our Atlas efforts, i.e. for what remains of the summer.  To that end, here are some tips to consider for late summer blockbusting…

  1. Focus on the forests!  While open habitats tend to ‘shut down’ earlier in the day, as temperatures rise and the birds retreat to cover, activity can actually increase in the forest.  Birds that usually stay up in the canopy will descend to lower heights to forage in the shade, where temps remain cooler for longer.  Shade up yourselves and keep an eye out for activity, when you do so.
  2. Head to higher elevations.  If you’re someone who lives near or can travel to mountainous areas of VA, consider getting out to do some blockbusting in July.  Breeding activity remains high throughout July in these areas and will deliver a good return on your time investment.
  3. Review the block data before going out. Cornell continues to work with BBA projects to develop better and better tools.  Use the ‘Explore a Region’ tool OR the handy Atlas Effort Maps to review a block’s summary data. This will allow you to focus on the species that need to be upgraded.
  4. Get out early AND late.  Have you ever noticed how busy hummingbird feeders get as dusk falls?  Mid-day in July isn’t the best time to bird, but dawn and dusk can be productive.  Consider combining an evening birding walk with some nocturnal survey time.  If you do, don’t forget that you need to start a new checklist 30 minutes after sunset for it to be classified as nocturnal.
  5. Slow down!  Instead of trying to cover lots of ground, pick a smaller area within your block to slowly work through.  Pace is often correlated with the # of breeding codes reported, so slow things down to cover less ground more thoroughly.
  6. Find the vantage points. Along with covering less ground, try to find productive locations for stationary counts. Productive locations typically provide a good field of view for some distance, as well as a mix of habitats (forest, edge, shrubs, and grasses).  Fledglings are often lurking on the edges of habitat within dense vegetation, where foraging parents can check on them.  Identifying such vantage points can prove surprisingly effective, especially in wooded landscapes.
  7. Be quiet. Once you’ve found your vantage points, sit quietly for a while.  Volunteers often share stories of the exciting behaviors they observed after sitting quietly in a location for anywhere from 15-45 minutes.  Birds will acclimate to your presence and return to their normal activities, giving you a peak into what is REALLY going on in that meadow or woodlot
  8. Narrow your focus. Instead of trying to track many different birds at once, focus in on one or two adult birds at a time.  If fledglings aren’t obvious, try to keep your eyes on potential parent birds and follow their activity.  This will often lead you to the location of hidden nests or fledglings.
  9. Stay alert for fledgling calls. While hatchling or fledgling calls are not typically distinctive enough to ID to species, detecting such sounds can lead you to young birds or nest sites. Last week at the Natural Tunnel Atlas rally, many confirmations were logged by following fledgling calls to locations where parents were feeding young.  Young birds abound at this time of year and finding them provides a quick and easy confirmation.
    An image of three barn swallow fledglings on a telephone wire

    Barn Swallow Fledglings (CO Ashley Peele)

  10. Confusing fledgling? Wait for the parents.  It may not be obvious what species a newfound fledgling is!  For example, Ovenbird fledglings abound right now.  They are brownish, fuzzy, streaky, with light bellies… so are a lot of other fledglings!  After waiting around for a couple of minutes, a very agitated adult Ovenbird showed up and chipped loudly at me as it circled the fledglings.  Ding, ding! When in doubt, wait for the parent to return.
  11. Be alert for suspicious behavior. At other times, distinguishing between an adult and an older fledgling can be difficult. Here are some behaviors to watch out for:
    1. Are there more than 2 birds hanging out together? This can be a good tip-off in the breeding season.  Look for features like shorter tails, fleshy pale gapes at the corners of the mouth, and oddly small or short bills.
    2. Is a bird sitting really still? This isn’t a normal bird behavior, so examine more closely.  It might be a fledgling attempting to stay hidden or a female waiting to return to her nest.
  12. Caution! Be wary of older juveniles.  This is also the time of year when we need to use caution when applying the FL code.  If you see a bird, e.g. a cardinal, that fledged this year, but has no downy fluff, a full-length tail, is foraging on its own, and/or is flying well, then it may not have originated locally.  Many species of songbirds, hawks, etc. disperse far away from their nests after fully fledging.  So code with care.

Stay tuned for next week’s article on the highlights from the Natural Tunnel Atlas Rally!

  • July 1, 2019