December 17, 2018
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Maine seeks 1,000 volunteers to create statewide bird atlas

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Loons are seen swimming away from a motor boat and two kayakers in this file photo taken at Hermond Pond.

The state of Maine recently launched the Maine Bird Atlas, a multi-year citizen science project to map out birds throughout the entire state, creating an important database of information that will inform future management decisions at local, state and federal levels.

The project — led by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in partnership with the Maine Audubon, Maine Natural History Observatory and the Biodiversity Research Institute — will be the largest bird monitoring effort to ever occur in the state, with the goal to mobilize at least 1,000 volunteers.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” said DIFW wildlife biologist Adrienne Leppold, who’s serving as the Maine Bird Atlas director. “And it’s a massive investment the state is making in this project.”

The atlas, which will entail five years of data collection and about two additional years of compilation and analysis, is estimated to cost just over $2 million.

The majority of that money will come from a federal fund created by the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, which set up an excise tax that provides funds to each state for management and restoration of wildlife. To access that money, the state of Maine must provide a 25 percent match. Fortunately, the state can count the value of volunteer time given to the project, and that will likely exceed the required amount for matching funds.

“I estimate volunteer contributions for this project will more than match the cost at 100 percent,” said Leppold. “Not only will volunteers be contributing data, they’ll be enabling us to fund the project as a whole.”

This will be Maine’s second breeding bird atlas. The first was completed 35 years ago and is long overdue, Leppold said. The international recommendation for the time period between state bird atlases is 20 years.

“It’s actually a huge effort to pull this off,” said Maine Bird Atlas coordinator Glen Mittelhauser of the Maine Natural History Observatory. “It takes a lot of time and dedication. There was an effort to organize one a bunch of years ago that Maine Fish and Wildlife was working on, and you know part way through setting that up, they decided they didn’t quite have everything pulled together to pull it off.”

Maine’s first breeding bird atlas, conducted between 1978 and 1983, didn’t cover the entire state. For the data collection, the state was divided into 706 topographic quadrants, and by the end of the project, only 230 of those were deemed to have adequate coverage.

“All of Aroostook County and western Maine was just blank,” Leppold said.

This time around, Leppold is determined to cover the entire state.

“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right,” she said. “That’s why I budgeted a little more for the paid field technicians than a lot of other states had. We can redirect technicians to go atlas some of these really remote areas of the state so we don’t miss out on getting a complete picture of birds in Maine.”

The field work for the atlas will be completed between 2018 and 2022, and while it will involve paid field technicians, the vast majority of the data will be collected by volunteers.

“In order to be successful, we want more than just birders and that crowd involved,” said Maine Audubon staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox, who’s serving as an atlas outreach coordinator with his Audubon colleague Laura Minich Zitske. “Getting information from a hardcore birder who’s going to be out tracking down rare species and finding their nests is just as valuable as people reporting a chickadee they’re seeing in their backyards.”

The official start date of the project was Jan. 1, but it wasn’t until last week that the Maine Bird Atlas website, www.maine.gov/birdatlas, launched, allowing people to adopt birding areas called “blocks,” which are about 9 square miles. But you don’t need to adopt a block to contribute data. Anyone can submit bird observations from anywhere in the state at any time.

“You can contribute one record or a thousand,” Leppold said.

This week, project coordinators are working with eBird to make some final changes to the atlas database, then it will go live for people to start submitting their data. This early in the year, the birds breeding in the state are raptors, such as bald eagles and owls.

Throughout the late winter and early spring, the Maine Audubon will be running workshops on how to enter data into the Maine bird atlas, teaching volunteers how to record observations in the field and submit it online or by mail.

The goal is to document as many breeding birds in Maine as possible, and that will require not only seeing the birds, but observing them to detect signs of breeding, such as nest-building and breeding behaviors. These many signs are described in detail in the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas Volunteer Handbook, available through the atlas website.

In addition, an effort to document the distribution of wintering birds in Maine is planned to begin in the winter of 2018-19. This will be the first time the state has endeavored to create an atlas of wintering birds.

The amount of observation the project necessitates could have an interesting side effect on volunteers, Leppold pointed out.

“The more intimately you understand something, I think it’s just natural that you care about it more,” said Leppold. “And so I think that not only are we hoping to collect very valuable data that can help feed these management plans and actions that we work on within the agency, but I’m also hoping to just really foster that deeper appreciation and connection in the long run.”

When all the data is collected, it will be compiled into a resource that’s available to the public, likely in the form of an ebook and print-on-demand hard copy.

To learn more, visit www.maine.gov/birdatlas.

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