Guest post by Kir Talmage, Outreach and IT Coordinator for the Birds of Vermont Museum. This article also appeared in the Vermont Great Outdoor Magazine.
a : a bound collection of maps often including illustrations, informative tables, or textual matter b : a bound collection of tables, charts, or plates (Merriam-Webster)
This meager definition masks the huge intention and effort that goes into the creation and revision of an Atlas. This particular Atlas is the product of a state-wide breeding birds research project that has spanned ten years, brought together some 57,000 observations, and drew on 350 volunteers. It epitomizes a successful citizen science project. The data (observations) were pulled together by Vermont Center for Ecostudies into one beautiful reference book, which was published in April of this year. The completed Atlas—with maps, individual species accounts, discussions of Vermont’s habitat and land use changes, and analyses of the data—has already helped scientists and policy makers decide how best to work and plan for avian conservation.
Building the Atlas
A Bird Atlas maps the spatial distribution of birds (individual species and groups of species) in a particular place or set of places (e.g., a state) over some set period of time. This Atlas is specific to Vermont (although there are some sampling areas that reach over our borders somewhat), and focuses strictly on those birds that are known to breed in Vermont. A first Atlas was published in 1985; this is one of the first “second-round” Atlases completed in North America.
In 2002, conservationists met and began the project of the second Atlas. For the next 5 years, volunteer birders–newbies, professional ornithologists, and experienced birders–looked, listened, and recorded data on birds on specific blocks of land across the state. This phase of the Atlas was generally coordinated through the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences (VINS). Dr Rosalind Renfrew was the director of the project (and later, the editor of the published edition). Experienced birders trained others and coordinated survey efforts. Their shared goals included:
- documenting which birds were in fact breeding and where (the current spatial distribution)
- identify rare species and important breeding areas
- share the work of the Atlas via field trips, public presentation and other outreach activities
- increase citizen scientist participation and skills
- use the current data in comparison with other atlases to look for changes
The Atlas project defined a clear sampling protocol in order to provide scientific robustness, consistency across the varied experience-levels of the volunteer researchers, and comparability to the first edition. This protocol included specifying where to survey (blocks of land) and how to encode the observations of birds. The blocks of land covered included all those surveyed in the first Atlas project. More were added in order to get a more complete assessment of Vermont. Actual surveying for birds followed standard procedures used in many Atlas projects across North American (see the North America Atlas Committee website for more). Surveying effort was guided by likely breeding dates (“safe dates”), the land itself, and the number of likely species in that type of land (habitat).
And all that went on for five years, from 2003-2007.
Putting it all together
The Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) managed the next phase of the Atlas project: error checking and mapping, and data summaries, and coordinating species accounts. Every observation was reviewed independently to ensure data quality. Much of the actual data is publicly available (some online and more by request to VCE).
With 350 volunteers logging over 37,000 hours or work, they achieved all the original goals and and more. Every species known to breed in the state is documented and has an accompanying occurrence map. Species richness (how many species are in an area, a useful first-order measure of biodiversity) has been estimated and analyzed both in terms of effort and in comparison to various landscape features, such as elevation or road density. Species have also been grouped by habitat, and these data analyzed as well.
This Atlas also documents some significant changes since the first Atlas. Some species increased due to management programs, range expansion, and forest habitat changes. Other decreased, apparently due to loss of their habitat types.
Using the Atlas
Because this is the second edition, we can use the comparisons with the first to discover conservation issues that are already succeeding as well as those that need new or greater attention. We can see where management programs are succeeding, and which habitats (and thus groups of species) are more vulnerable. Individual species data contribute to better recovery and management plans for endangered species. Individual and groups species data can be used in other research projects, e.g., forest assessments and management issues, or to give solid research-based recommendations to land managers (from single private landowners to municipalities to the Vermont National Guard). You can find out more about what is going on locally by picking up your own copy of the Atlas, checking one out from local libraries (150 Vermont libraries received a free copy), or viewing some of the maps online.
The Birds of Vermont Museum is collaborating on an exhibit with Vermont Center for Ecostudies to highlight some of stories that have emerged. Which birds have expanded into our changed landscape? What habitats have changed? What species need our focus for better protection? We’ve chosen eight birds and fourteen artists to illustrate these stories and issues. Conservation relies on all of us, from many walks of life and many perspectives, to be successful. We hope this blend of our varied voices and solid data will add to that, just as the many participants have contributed to, and thus strengthened, the Atlas project.
The Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas website: http://www.vtecostudies.org/vbba/
The Atlas data only: http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bba/index.cfm?fa=explore.ProjectHome&BBA_ID=VT2003
The North American Ornithological Atlas Committee: About Atlases http://www.bsc-eoc.org/norac/index.jsp?targetpg=aboutatlases
Audrey Clark’s article at Vermont Digger, “Five years in the making, new Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas takes flight” http://vtdigger.org/2013/04/04/five-years-in-the-making-new-vermont-breeding-bird-atlas-published/