2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Project


This is a very brief and preliminary introduction to the essentials of the Breeding Bird Atlas project which will be more completely described in the Field Manual that is currently being written by the project coordinators. Some of the details given here may possibly be superceded by information in the official Field Manual and on the project web sites http://bird.atlasing.org/Atlas/PA/ and http://www.carnegiemnh.org/atlas/. Those without Internet access can use the computers in public libraries such as Schlow Library in State College and Centre County Library in Bellefonte.

The Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA) project is a 5-year project to produce the 2nd edition of the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. The first edition was published in 1992 after gathering data from 1983 to 1989.

For purposes of the project, the state is divided into regions, most of which are a single page in the Pennsylvania Atlas and Gazetteer published by the DeLorme Company. Each region has a Regional Coordinator (RC).

Most regions (pagesin the Atlas) are subdivided into 84 blocks, each of which is 9 square miles. Each block has a unique number based on its location on the atlas page. One of the major tasks of each Regional Coordinator is to find people, called the block owners, to volunteer to be responsible for collecting data for one or more blocks. A DeLorme Atlas map page will be provided to every block owner. The BBA web site will have the capability of printing out a larger and more detailed topographical map of an individual block. The entire state has 4928 blocks which will require several thousand block owners and other volunteers.

You do not have to be a Regional Coordinator or Block Owner to participate in the project. You can register as a volunteer on the web site and then enter your data for whatever blocks you did your observing in. This will be covered in more detail on the web site and in the Field Manual.

The emphasis and goal of observing birds for this project is quite different from bird-watching in general. The goal of every BBA observation is to determine if the bird is involved in any activity that is related to breeding. Each observation is recorded with the time and date and a one or two letter breeding code that indicates what breeding activity was observed. Field cards (3.5" x 8.5") will be provided that contain the codes and space for 75 observations. You do not have to use the card if you have another method of recording in the field that you prefer.

Each block owner will spend about 20-30 hours visiting each block over the course of five years recording the species that are seen along with the time and date, and a breeding code that indicates if it is just seen or heard (O - observed), seen or heard in a suitable nesting habitat (X - possible breeder), a probable breeder (5 codes), or a confirmed breeder (10 codes). The hardest part will be determining the correct code to assign. If more than one code applies, record all of them with appropriate comments. The accuracy of these records is very important. If you are unsure of the identity of the bird or the breeding activity, you can always re-visit the site after studying field guides or consulting with another block owner or your RC.

The probable and confirmed breeding codes include the following breeding actions: territorial behaviour observed, pair observed together, courtship behaviour observed, agitated behaviour or anxiety calls given, bird carrying nest material, nest building at nest site, distraction display, recently fledged young, adult carrying food or fecal sac, adult feeding fledged young, next with eggs, or nest with young.

Many of your observations will be recorded with the breeding code O or X. When the breeding code O or X is used, the date must be within the safe date range for that species. You will be provided with a list of safe dates for all species. E.g., if you see a Carolina Wren in a suitable nesting habitat after 4/1 without exhibiting any other breeding activity, you can record that with the code X. Safe dates do not apply to any of the probable or confirmed breeding codes. Based on experience with the first Atlas, the most frequent "probable" breeding codes may be "T" (territorial behaviour) and "P" (pair observed). Complete details about these codes and safe dates are on the BBA web site and will also be found in the Field Manual.

Determining the confirmed breeding status of some species is much harder than for others. For example, determining the confirmed breeding status for Chimney Swifts, Common Nighthawks, Woodcocks, Whip-poor-wills, and Rails is much harder than for Robins, Bluebirds, Starlings, and House Sparows.

Some species are species of special concern and will require some extra observation to determine its status. The list of special species for all regions is now on the BBA web site. More information will be available in the Field Manual.

At some point, the block can be considered complete when you have found a large percentage of the birds expected. You can, of course, continue to observe the block, but the project may benefit more by your working in another block.

The field data will be recorded using a web site on the Internet. Participants not having Internet access can give or mail the data to the regional coordinator who will then enter it, or they can go to a place with public Internet access and enter it.

Most of the information discussed in this news letter will be available on the BBA web site (see above) and will also appear in the field manual which will also be available on the web.

The BBA web site has been mentioned several times, but it currently does not have all of the information that it will have when it is completed. When complete, you will be able to (1) print maps of blocks with probable habitats of selected species marked, (2) print topographical maps of any block, and (3) enter your own data into the BBA database. The importance of #2 may become evident as you approach the boundaries of your block and realize that the DeLorme Atlas page is not detailed enough.

In spite of not having all of the information or access to the completed web site or even understanding all of the breeding codes, participants can begin immediately with just a notebook by recording the time and date of each observation and very carefully recording any breeding activity. You can figure out the appropriate breeding code at a later time.

If you have any questions about the BBA project, please feel free to contact by phone or e-mail any of the State College Bird Club members who are RCs and listed on the BBA web site or previously mentioned on the SCBIRDCL listserv group.

Bob Fowles, State College Bird Club