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Volunteer Guidance for Final 2020 Field Season

By Ashley Peele

An image of a grey catbird that has a beak filled with caterpillars

Gray Catbird with Caterpillars (CO Diane Lepkowski)

Volunteer Guidance for the Final Season of the VABBA2

With some perseverance (and good weather), the VABBA2 can reach 100% priority block coverage, as well as set a Virginia record for block completion, in the final year of VA’s second breeding bird atlas project.  Our volunteers have already managed to surpass the number of blocks completed in the first VA BBA by 10% and we know that they can help us continue to bring those numbers up dramatically in our final year.  Blockbusting is a key strategy to help cover as many priority blocks as possible in the final field season. This article addresses key strategies for tackling new PBs this summer…

What is blockbusting?

This term is frequently used, but rarely explained in the context of breeding bird atlases.  Simply put, blockbusting refers to the practice of surveying one or more Priority blocks over the course of several days or a weekend.  Typically, these blocks do not yet have any breeding bird data and are located in rural areas with few to no local volunteers.

Why are we focusing on it?

As we enter the final year of the VA BBA project, there are several regions that have many PBs with little to no data.  These blocks are almost always in rural or remote areas, anywhere from 1-6 hours from the state’s larger cities.  Blockbusting is an effective way for volunteers to help us tackle these remote PBs.  While most Atlas volunteers may not be able to commit to spending a whole summer in southern Virginia, blockbusting offers an opportunity to add valuable data in empty Priority blocks and significantly improve the county and even region-level breeding bird data for rural areas over the course of a few days or weekends.

Is this the only way to volunteer for the Atlas now?

Nope!  Despite some regions being better surveyed than others, volunteers who can’t travel far can still contribute valuable breeding bird information to the project including:

  • Identifying non-priority blocks with underrepresented habitats and surveying these for breeding birds
  • Targeting rare or underrepresented species in your region
  • Nightjar surveys – some priority blocks do not have mid to late-summer nocturnal survey time, which means that nightjars are likely undetected in the block. Consult with your regional coordinator to find out if any blocks in your area still need nightjar surveys.

If you are able and willing to do this type of surveying, then we encourage you to reach out to your local regional coordinator to find out what blocks/habitats/species need help in your area.

However, if you decide to participate in blockbusting our highest priority blocks, then this leads us to the next question…

Where should I blockbust?

All Atlas regions still have one or more priority blocks in need of additional survey time, but several are dominated by forested and agricultural landscape with lots of great habitat and few humans to get out and survey in them.  Such areas are primarily located throughout southern Virginia.

To provide guidance on where to blockbust, we pooled all unassigned and incomplete priority blocks, then ranked these according to a series of criteria.  The criteria included current survey data, historical data, and proximity to completed blocks.  From these rankings, we produced a Blockbusting Target Map to guide volunteers in choosing where to go and what blocks to focus on.

An image of the Virginia birding effort target map; it prioritizes the Appalachian mountain range and the extremities of the state

VABBA2 2020 Target Effort Map

This map provides a statewide view of where targeted priority blocks are located.  There are three tiers of blocks:

  • Red blocks – Higher Priority
  • Blue blocks – Intermediate Priority
  • Green blocks – Lower Priority
  • Purple blocks – Nocturnal effort needed

All of these blocks need survey effort, but volunteers should start with green blocks and work down to blue, if possible.  If logistics don’t allow this, then we’re happy for volunteers to report breeding bird data in any target priority blocks, especially in the southern regions of Virginia.

Note: Grey blocks indicate priority blocks that are either assigned to volunteers or completed.  Additionally, priority blocks that are not pictured are those that are assigned to field technicians for this summer. The VABBA2 Block Explorer mapping tool has the same block prioritizations illustrated, so you can use this tool to identify target blocks, download maps of those blocks, etc.

Upon reviewing these maps, you may still feel like you need more guidance on what blocks to target.  Reach out the area’s regional coordinator or the Atlas state coordinator with such questions (Atlas Contacts).  We’re eager to help you get out into the field to search for evidence of breeding birds!

Priority Block Coverage Guidelines for 2020

For our final field season, we are modifying our block coverage guidelines to allow volunteers to cover more blocks in less time.  While our original Block Completion guidelines allow for a greater depth of breeding information for a given block, we are prioritizing coverage of under-surveyed blocks for this final season.

For this reason, volunteers should aim for the following goals, when tackling a new rural/remote priority block:

  1. Daytime survey effort – shoot for a minimum of 8 hours of birding
  2. Breeding species list – 60+ potential breeders (This should be a realistic goal, unless blocks have extremely low habitat diversity, e.g. entirely agricultural fields or single-age stand forest cover)
  3. Breeding codes – 60% of species in either the probable or confirmed breeding category
  4. Nocturnal effort –one hour of effort (try to get in one spring visit for owls and one summer visit for nightjars, if suitable habitat is present in block)
  5. Habitats – visit all major habitat types present in block

Blockbusting Events!

This field season, the VABBA2 project will be hosting a series of blockbusting rally weekends in the southern half of Virginia.  These events will be based at four different state parks.  Volunteers will be organized into small groups, which will radiate out from the state parks and into surrounding priority blocks.

See the Atlas Events page on our website ( to learn more about the dates and locations of our 2020 summer atlasing rallies!

  • March 13, 2020