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Updating the state's Breeding Bird Atlas

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Keeping up with West Virginia's birds is a big job.

Work began five years ago on an update to the West Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, and the task won't be complete until 2017. Rich Bailey, ornithologist for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the atlas requires thousands of hours of work in the field by a horde of volunteers, plus hundreds more by biologists, writers and editors.

"There's a reason that atlas projects like this are spaced 20 years apart," Bailey said. "They require a tremendous amount of work, both in the field and out."

The first edition of West Virginia's atlas was published in 1989. Work on the second edition began in 2009. The first book showed how the 186 bird species that breed and raise their young in the Mountain State were distributed; the second will not only catalog the species and show how they're distributed, but also will show how abundant they are in any given area.

Before the book can be compiled, six years' worth of field observations must be made. Bailey said volunteers do most of that work.

"We overlay a map of the state with a grid, and the grid includes about 2,000 'blocks.' The job of the volunteers is to make sure we perform enough hours of observation in each block to be reasonably sure we've seen or heard all the breeding birds in a given block," Bailey explained.

"It takes eight to 12 hours' worth of work to ensure the observations represent the total number of species. Our volunteers usually do a little more than that."

Because the effort centers on breeding birds, the observation period is rather short.

"Most of the work takes place between May 25 and July 15. During that time, a volunteer can go to a block and be reasonably sure that any bird that's there is breeding, getting ready to breed or has hatched out," Bailey said.

After they make their observations, volunteers upload their data via the Internet to the Cornell Lab for Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., which acts as a clearinghouse for bird data nationwide.

Bailey said the hardest part for the volunteers is gaining access to what he calls "priority blocks," key areas that must be observed to be sure the new edition provides an apples-to-apples comparison with the previous one.

"West Virginia is a tough state to work in the field because of access issues," he explained. "It's sometimes difficult to gain access to private lands, particularly down in the coalfields where companies own huge tracts and don't want you on the property for safety reasons."

This edition's priority blocks range from highly inhabited areas such as the middle of Morgantown to uninhabited, roadless areas such as the Cranberry Wilderness.

The current roster of volunteers includes birding enthusiasts, landowners and people who simply have an interest in helping. Bailey said more than 350 people have registered as volunteers, and 100 to 120 of those contribute data in any given year.

One more year of observations is still needed, but so far the volunteers have uncovered some interesting trends.

Several species, for example, are showing what Bailey calls "marked expansions in both range and abundance." Those include the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the yellow-throated warbler and the yellow-rumped warbler.

At least two species, the red-headed woodpecker and the cliff swallow, appear to be abundant enough to remove them from the list of the state's rare birds.

And, as people who live in rural areas can attest, Eastern whip-poor-wills and common nighthawks are declining in number.

Most of the final observations for the new atlas will be made before Sept. 30, 2014, but Bailey said the official observation period wouldn't expire until Dec. 31 of that year. After that, work can begin on writing the atlas and creating maps for each species' distribution and abundance.

"At the end of the field [research] period, Cornell will give us the database they've been holding for us. We'll work on that data in house [at the DNR] with a statistician who has done abundance data in other states. Then, with those data and statistics, we'll produce the maps.

"Once that process is done, I will edit the book and write a sizable percentage of it, but there will be 10 to 12 other writers contributing as well. West Virginia University Press will be publishing the book, and will be assisting in the process as well."

Eight to nine years of work, which would include DNR staff time, a payment to Cornell to maintain the database and payments to a handful of contractors, will probably push the new atlas' production cost into the $200,000 to $350,000 range. The bulk of the funding comes from federal grants.

Though only a year remains in the data-collection period, Bailey said the project is still accepting volunteers to help with the fieldwork.

"We welcome as much help as we can get," he added. "The perception is that you have to know every bird by sight and sound to participate. That isn't the case. We encourage landowners and others to go to the website [http://bird.atlasing.org/Atlas/WV] and start entering the birds they know."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or e-mail johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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