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Treasures in the Database

By Eric Wallace

An image of a least flycatcher on a branch

Least Flycatcher Empidonax minimus © Tucker Beamer

In October 2018, VABBA2 director Dr. Ashley Peele began the task of reviewing the year’s observations. First, she sifted through more than 1 million e-Bird entries collected by the project’s 1,000-plus birder-volunteers and professional technicians—including an incredible 136,428 new breeding codes. In addition to various software analyses, Ashley and her data technician reviewed more than 50,000 flagged records by hand.

“Our birders work incredibly hard and we don’t want to lose a single good entry,” she says. Simultaneously, the Atlas’s scientific integrity must be preserved. “If our findings are going to impact management and conservation policy, they have to have weight,” she says. That means maintaining rigorous scientific standards.

With the data tidied, Peele synched it with that of the prior two seasons. Comparing the new totals with project goals, she looked for trends that would inform strategy for 2019. This required “drilling down” to look at individual regions, blocks and species.

A chart in the Block-level Presence of Montane Songbirds, there are few rose-breasted grosbeaks and veeries and a lot of blue headed vireos

Block-level Presence of Montane Songbirds

Running stats for montane songbirds, Peele noticed something exciting: Breeding confirmations for species like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Canada Warbler, Least Flycatcher and at least six other warblers—all expected to show declines—were prevalent.

“I started digging into the numbers immediately,” says Peele with a laugh. Comparisons with the first Atlas proved surprising. Despite less geographic coverage of Atlas blocks in mountainous areas this time around, observations of breeding activity had increased dramatically. “Truthfully, I was pleasantly surprised by what I was seeing.”

Confirmations from the VABBA2’s first three seasons surpassed overall totals from the first BBA (1984-1989). While probable or confirmed breeding activity for most species in the subset grew between 20-40 blocks, those for Blue-headed Vireo, for instance, expanded to more than 70.

“This is very welcome news,” says Blue Ridge Discovery Center co-founder and executive director, Aaron Floyd. “We’ve long thought this was probably happening, but our hopes were anecdotal. We had no scientific proof.”

Located deep in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, the Troutdale-based natural history center has been at observational ground zero since 2008. “We’ve been seeing more of these birds popping up each year, but we didn’t know how that was playing out regionally,” says Floyd. “For all we knew, habitat loss in other areas could be leading to greater population concentrations here.”

An image of a yellow bellied sapsucker in a tree

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (CO Jay Martin)

But the VABBA2 shows a very different picture. The past 30 years appear to have brought a substantive increase in breeding occurrence and distribution. Though accurate population estimates will require comparisons with datasets from other states throughout the Mid-Atlantic, one thing is clear: “At least in terms of their breeding distributions, these high-elevation breeding birds are doing much better [in Virginia’s breeding grounds] than we expected,” says Peele.

As the head of a regional conservation organization, Floyd says the findings are valuable.

“If you can say you’re in a hot-spot for all these interesting birds, that attracts visitors,” he says. “When people see these beautiful creatures thriving in this unique and amazing area—that shows them the value of protecting habitat before it’s too late and inspires them to care.”

Though cautious, Peele agrees: The numbers are cause for controlled excitement.

“If this trend gets borne out through the end of the current Atlas, it’s going to be significant,” she says. For instance, problems in wintering ground habitats have driven avian research for about 15-20 years. But data from the VABBA2 may inspire renewed interest—and a corresponding allotment of resources—in breeding areas.“ Land cover in the Virginia mountains has changed dramatically over the last years,” says Peele. “Our data implies the effects of those changes. My hope is new research and serious, actionable conservation impacts will follow.”

The data’s power lies in its ability to suggest links between, for instance, reductions in logging or mining in a block-sized area to increased species-specific breeding activity.  Hyper-localized, the information opens the door for follow-up studies.

“The value of such data can’t be underestimated,” says Peele. “It can provide tremendous weight when seeking funding for new protections or changes in land-management practices.”

At this point in the project, Peele’s primary concern is coverage. Without volunteer follow-through, the trends could falsely level out. Worse, if additional high-elevation priority blocks go largely un-birded, the info will pack less of a statistical punch.

“What we need to do now is survey as many of these high-elevation areas as possible,” says Peele. This would provide accurate information regarding distributional increase. “The force of our findings grows in correlation to comprehensiveness.”

If we can cover most priority blocks in Region 7, 8, and 9 “that amplifies our voice, big time,” says Peele. She likens the difference to trying to shout over a 100,000-person crowd vs. speaking to them via stadium-quality sound system.


Interested in helping us follow-through on these spectacular findings? The majority of priority blocks in western and southwest Virginia are in need of birding effort. As of today, most are less than 25 percent completed. Whether it’s a weekend or week-long field trip, a targeted visit can make a huge difference.

Luckily, the area features many of the most beautiful—and undercelebrated—outdoor opportunities in the state. For example, there’s a block in Sugar Hollow just north of the BRDC and the Laurel Creek Campground, one overlapping with hiking and biking mecca Damascus, and four within easy driving distance of historic Abingdon—including one just west of the fantastically cool and recently formed Channels Natural Area Preserve.

Our four-part VABBA2 Rally Series will offer blockbusting opportunities in an intimate group setting. Held on weekends from May 31 – June 30, team with regional experts and dedicated Atlas volunteers for targeted birding missions in the Piedmont and southern Virginia. We’ll stay in beautiful state parks, hammer nearby priority blocks, and celebrate our successes in a local restaurant or brewpub on Saturday night. To sign-up or get more info, checkout our EVENTS.

For information about camping, amenities, and how to best direct your efforts, contact one of the following regional coordinators. (For a regional map, click HERE.) To ensure expedited attention, include “Vacation Blockbusting Opportunities” in the subject line.

  • March 22, 2019