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Myth-busting the VABBA2: Tackling Atlas Blocks with Teamwork

By Ashley Peele

An image of two blue grey gnatcatchers sitting on a lichen and fiber nest

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Parents’ by Nancy Barnhart (Fantastic example of a confirmed breeder using ON, Occupied Nest)

If you’re involved in several large-scale birding citizen science projects these days, e.g. Breeding Bird Surveys, Project Nestwatch, Project Feederwatch, or the VABBA2, it’s easy to get confused about protocols and methods. They’re all different! This article is intended to provide additional guidance on how to survey an atlas block. Let’s start with some myths that tend to pop up about the atlas project.

Common atlasing assumptions:

  • I have to survey every inch of my atlas block. Nope!
    • Instead, you should identify important habitats and consider these your survey units. As long as you conduct several survey visits to document species and breeding evidence in each habitat type, your block should be fairly well surveyed.
    • That being said, it is useful to decide on a survey criterion for yourself. In some blocks or for some observers, this may be limited to driving transects.  Others may map out trail systems through forest to use for traveling surveys OR identify a series of point locations from which to conduct stationary counts.
    • Breeding bird atlas protocols give you the freedom to set up your own survey system, as long as you ultimately meet the Block Completion Guidelines (pg. 29 in the VABBA2 Handbook).
  • I have to get onto every private property in my block. Nope again!
    • Instead, only consider requesting access to private lands that may have important habitats or species that are not present anywhere else in your block.
    • If this is the case, follow the land access protocols in your handbook and talk to your regional coordinator about the property you want to visit.
  • I have to completely survey my atlas block in one year. Nothing doing.
    • It’s fine to take a couple seasons to finish an atlas block. We just ask that folks not stretch the point and take more than 2 years to complete a block.  Otherwise, we’ll have a hard time getting through all of the blocks in our 5-year project window.
  • Signing up for an atlas block commits me to all 5 years of the project. Not the case!       
    • We’re happy to receive as much help as you can provide, so you can commit to as many seasons or blocks as you feel comfortable with.
    • Our only request is that you do your best to finish a block, if you sign up for it.
  • I can only enter atlas data for the block I signed up for. Big nope!
    • Anyone can submit checklists or incidental observations for any block into the VA BBA eBird portal. This will help us to not lose important observations made by folks who are not actively engaged in atlasing.
    • On the flipside, we strongly encourage birders to sign up for one or more atlas blocks. This is hugely important for the coordinator to be able to track effort and now how well the different regions are being covered.
  • I have to survey my atlas block alone. Huge, final nope!
    • Up to three observers can sign up for a single atlas block.
    • We strongly encourage folks to team up, especially less experienced volunteers who feel like they would benefit from working with a more experienced birder.

The Second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas is truly a team effort.  The Atlas coordinator is working with regional coordinators, the Virginia Society of Ornithology, the VA Master Naturalist Program and many other bird clubs, all of whom are in turn working with their members to rally support and participation in this project.

Teamwork is what will get the job done.  As VSO board member and atlas volunteer, Shirley Devan, put it, “I’ve been promoting a ‘team’ effort all along among my birder/naturalist friends with experienced birders joined by a newbie or two. Spotters and newbies are SO important in this project.” I could not have put it better.

While the atlas can seem like a lot to take on, it’s also more relaxed and a lot of fun.  Atlas surveys really require us to slow down and take the time to focus on birds’ behaviors.  What are they actually doing?  Where are they going?  As another atlas volunteer put it, “This will be a great and fun project.  I’m so excited to hone my bird observation skills.”  As the coordinator, I’m also going to be getting out in the field and surveying remote blocks this summer and despite many years of studying birds, I can say that I’m already learning new things about our early-breeding species.

For those hesitant to jump into the world of atlasing, consider a gentle plunge instead.  Note down the breeding behaviors you observe while out birding.  Try entering that checklist into the VA BBA eBird portal, including the breeding codes.  Get a feel for how doable this citizen-science based data collection is and then, give some thought to signing up for a block.

Bird conservation doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  We need the help of all Virginia’s birdy folk and hopefully, the help of some new volunteers who we can introduce to the wonderful world of ornithology.  Only through our collective effort will we be successful in understanding and conserving Virginia’s birds.

[Contact Atlas Coordinator, Ashley Peele, with any additional questions you have.]

  • April 15, 2016