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.