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What is the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas all about?

By Ashley Peele

An image of a Red Breasted Nuthatch on a tree

Red-breasted Nuthatch by Brent Slaughter

The second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas is launching soon!  Spring is in the air and birds are returning to their summer breeding grounds around the state.  At the VABBA2, we are adding final touches to our website in preparation for launching next week!  Stay posted for updates about the website and volunteer sign-up.  For more information about the background and importance of breeding bird atlases, check out this article written by our atlas coordinator and published in Virginia Birds this month.

Virginia’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas: showcasing the value of citizen science for conservation research.

Atlas promise: Nature and its preservation is the province of all people.

Season one of the 2nd Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA2) launches this month as part of a 5-year study to document the breeding status and abundance of all bird species spending their breeding season in Virginia. In order to accomplish this, a statewide
network of volunteers is needed to carry out the field data collection. At its core, the VABBA2 is a mammoth collaboration between the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, the VSO, bird clubs, Master Naturalist chapters, and all the citizen scientist volunteers who will help collect atlas data over the next 5 years.  To put it plainly, we need birders and lots of ‘em!

First, let’s step back for a moment to consider the idea of citizen science.  At it’s roots, citizen science is public participation in scientific data collection.  Citizen scientist volunteers are individuals who choose to devote their free time to scientific data collection, generating large datasets that researchers would not otherwise have the support to assemble.  In the case of environmental research, volunteers collect data that adds to our collective understanding of the natural world.  These data are a public good, a resource that benefits us all by providing clearer guidance for environmental management and policy.  However, until recently, such datasets were under-utilized by the research community.  These days, conservation biologists and ecologists are recognizing the value of both new and old datasets generated by volunteers.

Historically, citizen scientists were the only collectors of scientific information.  Scientific research as a professional career only existed these last 150 years or so1.  Prior to this, amateur naturalists and citizen scientists were at the forefront of scientific inquiry into the natural world.  In 1851, Henry David Thoreau began monitoring flowering and leaf-out dates, as well as migratory bird arrival times around his home in Massachusetts1. Other individuals continued this practice and today, a dataset stretching back over 160 years provides researchers with a means of measuring shifts in phenology and migration schedules.  In a time when understanding the effects of climatic change on ecological systems is of paramount importance, this dataset proved its merit and the value of recording basic natural history information.

Such examples highlight why modern research scientists are turning their attention back to volunteer-driven data collection.  In many ways, the increase in citizen science-based research is a return to the earliest days of science, when all researchers were private individuals driven by curiosity and the willingness to conduct systematic data collection.  Through projects like the VABBA2, researchers and managers hope to engage Virginia’s citizens in bird conservation efforts and get your help in achieving the breadth of data collection we need to better understand and preserve Virginia’s birds.

Birders have blazed many trails including citizen science projects aimed at better understanding bird distributions and breeding success.  Just a few examples of these are the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), Project Nestwatch, Feederwatch, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and eBird.  These projects take advantage of modern technology to increase the ease of collecting and documenting bird data.  The VABBA2 is partnering with eBird to generate our own online data portal, very similar to the classic eBird page.  This portal will allow volunteers to easily enter and report VABBA2 data.  The only change will be that users will add breeding information to typical bird identification and count data.  The goal of the atlas project is to document evidence of breeding for as many species detected as possible, so volunteers will use a series of breeding codes to classify different types of breeding behaviors that they may observe in the field.

The VABBA2 eBird portal is scheduled to launch in the second week of March and at this time, volunteers will be able to start surveying for the atlas.  Virginia has 12 atlas regions and each of these has a local Regional Coordinator who will train atlasers, answer questions on protocols, and oversee their regions data entry.  Additionally, an atlas handbook describing the guidelines on survey protocols, data entry, private land access, etc. will be provided on the VABBA2 website (  This handbook will be the main reference for all atlas procedures, but additional supplemental information and tutorials will be provided on the website and eBird page.  Volunteers who wish to help carry out atlas surveys will be able to register on the VABBA2 website and sign up to survey one or more atlas blocks.  More details about block sign-up can be found on the website.

The VABBA2 will hold a launch event at the April 29-May 1st VSO Annual Meeting in Roanoke.  Please plan to come out and learn more about the VABBA2 and other exciting bird conservation work going on around the state.  Further information about upcoming VABBA2 events will be available on the website.

The core belief of the VABBA2 is that nature and its preservation are the province of all people.  This project is founded on the understanding that citizen science is a powerful tool for generating ecological data to inform conservation and management policies.  To that end, we hope that birders, naturalists, and folks with a budding interest in environmental conservation work will consider volunteering their time to the VABBA2.  We will do our best to ensure that all interested people can play a role in this exciting and important bird conservation endeavor.


Ashley Peele, PhD

VA Breeding Bird Atlas Coordinator (

1Miller-Rushing, A., R. Primack, and R. Bonney. 2012. The history of public participation in ecological research. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10(6):285-290. 

  • March 9, 2016