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Massive Volunteer Effort Helps the Second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas Build a Mammoth Database

A black-crowned night heron captured while nest-building, a behavior that was counted in the Second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas. Photo by Alex Shipherd

By Dr. Ashley Peele, Atlas Coordinator

The second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA2) is a five-year citizen science project that concluded recently. Volunteers collected key data to create a survey of all bird species breeding in the state. Climate change and other anthropogenic causes are rapidly changing the conditions that birds and other wildlife must cope with in order to survive. Data collected for the VABBA2 can tell us when birds are forming territories, building nests, laying eggs, and fledging chicks, as well as their distributions among different habitats throughout the state. The Virginia birding community, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech (CMI), and the Virginia Ornithological Society (VSO) partnered in the VABBA2, the largest citizen science bird conservation effort in the state to date. VABBA2’s Atlas Coordinator, Ashley Peele, looks back at the five years of volunteer effort.

Leaves are turning gold and frost covers the grassy fields in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Drab little Cape May and Tennessee warblers flit through the tree lines, while streams of common nighthawks track southward through the river valleys. These heralds of autumn signal a finale that was hard to imagine nearly five years ago, when the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR, formerly the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), the Virginia Society of Ornithology, and the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech launched the second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA2).

Over the last five years, a total of more than 1,400 Atlas volunteers have collected breeding bird data around the state. That volunteer effort, along with a network of project partners (bird clubs, Audubon societies, Master Naturalists), volunteer regional coordinators, and field technicians, was essential in building what is truly a mammoth database for the VABBA2 project.

The volunteer community that has arisen around this project is, quite frankly, one of its most important accomplishments. Growing from a few hundred to more than 1,400 contributors speaks to Virginia birders’ commitment to not only birding, but birding for conservation. I’ve used this phrase many times over the course of this project and it is not a concept that all birders or wildlife viewers ascribe to. Yet, what more important thing can be done with our birding data than putting it toward the active management and conservation of the species we love? This is the fundamental idea that VABBA2 volunteers have supported with their time, funds, and energy.

Unexpected Challenges

We must acknowledge the impact that COVID-19 had on the efforts in this, the final year of the project. Like every wildlife data collection project across the nation and world, we devoted April and much of May to assessing if and how the project might move forward this year. There were a couple inevitable impacts on this season: 1) a delayed start to birding for our field technicians and many volunteers; 2) the cancellation of more than half of our planned Atlas events.

Fortunately, many volunteers were still able to find ways to safely get out and collect data by early June.  A couple things were in our favor… first, that birding can easily be a solitary activity. While it may be more fun to bird in groups, many of our volunteers adapted to “solitary” birding for the sake of collecting data. Second, our target areas for 2020 were in largely rural regions, which allowed volunteers to avoid interacting with other members of the public. The project managed to reach all areas targeted for breeding bird surveys this summer.

Given how bleak things looked around mid-April, we have to thank all of the volunteers who persisted in finding ways to safely collect data this summer.  We were up against a challenging new set of conditions, which you helped us to work through. To past volunteers who were unable to participate this year, we also want to thank you for all your work in those past seasons. The pandemic has brought changes and challenges to all our lives and we appreciate the folks who had to make tough, but necessary decisions to protect their own health and/or that of their loved ones.

Success!

While our final season was impacted by COVID-19, this year marked only one of five great seasons of collaboration, community, and collecting data for the conservation of Virginia’s birds.

In those five years, there were more than 108,000 checklists submitted to the Atlas eBird portal! Within these checklists, volunteers reported nearly 700,000 breeding codes and documented more than 5.5 million birds. Our ability to use eBird as a tool for data collection has obviously been a game-changer for collecting bird data, but you don’t build a database of this magnitude without also having a dedicated community of volunteers.

The earliest areas to receive VABBA2 effort were those closest to our largest cities. Logical, right? More people usually means more birders, which results in more data! As the project progressed, effort spread out into more rural regions and slowly began to fill in the gaps. However, Virginia has huge areas of the southern Piedmont and mountain-valley region with few people and even fewer birders, in contrast to regions like Northern Virginia or Virginia Beach. These areas took special effort by both field technicians and Atlas volunteers who were able/willing to travel to remote corners of the state to collect data. Some folks did this through participation in Atlas rally events hosted at Virginia State Parks, others organized their own trips and ventured into areas of the mountains or Piedmont previously unknown to them.  If you’re interested in hearing more of their stories, check out the articles on the VABBA2 page!

Species Highlights

While a deep dive into the species data will be forthcoming next year, a few interesting species highlights stood out this field season. First, thanks to both volunteer and field technician efforts, Pittsylvania and the surrounding counties received a huge surge in Atlas data this summer. Nesting ravens were found in this county, a very eastern record for the southern Piedmont, contrasting with a westernmost breeding record for Mississippi kites, found near the same area of Pittsylvania County.

In the mountain-valley region, the westernmost record of a probable breeding prothonotary warbler was documented near Abingdon with the westernmost confirmation for this species found along the New River in Giles County. Detections of breeding Virginia rails continued to increase in southwest Virginia, highlighting the value of searching small wetlands and pond areas for these secretive species.

Many high elevation breeders found over the border in West Virginia have proved difficult to find and confirm in Virginia’s western mountains, but this summer the elusive purple finch was finally confirmed breeding in Highland County, near Locust Springs.

Next Steps

What comes now that five years of data entry are completed and we’re left with this colossal dataset? Not surprisingly, the next phase of the VABBA2 project will be a deep dive into data review and cleanup, supported by continued funding from DWR. While a coarser level of data review has occurred on an annual basis, this next phase will include a much more refined evaluation of the existing dataset, as well as incorporation of many ancillary datasets collected by project partners and collaborators over the same time period (2016-2020).

These additional datasets will help to fill gaps in survey of specific habitats (e.g. marshes), species (ex. golden-winged warbler) and/or regions where additional data may prove helpful (e.g. National Forests). This data review process is scheduled to launch in earnest this January and is expected to take around a year to complete.

Once data review is complete and the final raw atlas dataset is in hand, the data analysis and modeling phase of the VABBA2 will begin, again through funding by DWR.  Projected to take approximately 1.5 years, proposed Atlas analyses include:

  • Distribution and occupancy modeling of current breeding bird populations
  • Assessment of change in distributions, since Virginia BBA1
  • Modeling of bird population density for various species, as well as estimation of their current population sizes in Virginia

Working with DWR, our goal is to continue updating our volunteer community on both the status of the VABBA2 review and analysis, as well as new citizen science opportunities that may arise in future years. We value the tremendous impact that our strong volunteer network can have on regional wildlife monitoring and ultimately, hope to provide more and more opportunities for you to play a hands-on role in the conservation of Virginia’s birds.

Find out more about VABBA2.

  • October 15, 2020