Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Cover of ATLAS of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin

February 2015

A historic bird survey

Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II will be the largest avian citizen science project ever in the state.

Lisa Gaumnitz

In Waushara County, the woods around Jeffrey Wolk exploded with the insistent, crescendoing call —Tea–cher, Tea–cher, Tea–cher!

Wolk, a dentist by profession and a birder by passion, scanned the trees and the ground for 45 minutes.

"I heard it, waited, watched and finally saw it," he says. The effusive, elusive chorister was an ovenbird, a warbler so–named for its dome–shaped ground nest.

In Marinette County, Bettie Harriman moved slowly and quietly for hours through the shrub and grasses of Dunbar Barrens State Natural Area. Her patience was rewarded by finding some newly hatched upland sandpipers, a threatened species in Wisconsin. "It was just revealing," she says. "Very educational and very peaceful."

In Green Lake County, renowned Wisconsin bird illustrator Tom Schultz picked his way around the tamarack swamps and wet meadows of the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area seeking avian amore, and found inspiration for his next paintings.

"I find birds endlessly fascinating," he says. "They demonstrate such a diversity of activities and interactions."

Twenty years after the three searched Wisconsin fields, forests and fens as part of a historic statewide bird survey, they're planning to do it again. United by a desire to keep birds a key part of Wisconsin's identity, the three will pull on their boots, grab field guides and binoculars and join other Wisconsinites this spring in search of breeding birds.

Known as the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, the effort will be the largest avian citizen science project ever in the state and the first in the country to use eBird, the wildly popular bird reporting and analysis website, to help carry it out.

"The second Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas is critically important to help us understand how Wisconsin bird populations are changing, and how the changing landscape and climate affect their numbers and distribution," says Bill Mueller, who directs the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, one of three key atlas partners along with the Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO). "And, it is fun, and a great way to learn more about the natural world."

Adds Nick Anich, the DNR conservation biologist coordinating the survey for the agency, "The strength of the project is it mobilizes so many skilled observers and everyday Wisconsinites. We're looking for people to volunteer. We won't turn anybody away."

Field work for Wisconsin's first atlas began 20 years ago this spring, a time when many other states were also conducting their first bird atlases. Atlas surveys look for specific behaviors ranging from birds on a nest, to male birds singing their hearts out to potential mates, to mother birds feeding their young. Though June and July are the months when most birds in Wisconsin nest, owls and some other species can begin nesting with snow still on the ground.

The WSO spearheaded the first atlas and provided key financial and volunteer power to get it done. Harriman was the project director, spending much of the mid– to late 1990s crisscrossing the state with Noel Cutright to make presentations to birding groups to recruit members to do surveys.

They and their regional coordinators successfully recruited more than 1,600 people who submitted over 172,000 records of birds engaged in some kind of breeding behavior. The "atlasers," largely volunteers but with a handful of paid staff, confirmed 226 species of breeding birds and recorded another 11 as probable breeders in the state.

Harriman, Cutright and Robert Howe wrote and edited information together into a 600–plus page book, the core of which are two–page write–ups on each bird confirmed nesting in Wisconsin and maps showing the species' location.

That first atlas provided a rich data set that has been very important in confirming what birds breed in Wisconsin and where, and helping shape conservation efforts on the state and federal levels.

"This is the raw data a lot of DNR bureaus use when making decisions about property management and species worthy of conservation," Anich says.

Tapping birding's rock stars and broadening the base

This go–round, the atlas effort will build on the strengths of the first but also capitalize on advancing technology to increase participation and collect more information.

The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, the driving force behind the first atlas, remains a major partner but the Department of Natural Resources and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory will play even greater roles.

"Having three organizations lead the second effort will make for an even more robust atlas project," says Kim Kreitinger, WSO president. Each brings different skills and resources to the table.

"Because WSO is an all–volunteer organization with no paid staff, I feel it is really a necessity to forge strong partnerships for a project as massive as the breeding bird atlas," Kreitinger says.

Noel Cutright, the well–known Wisconsin ornithologist who was twice president of WSO and founded the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, was intimately involved in planning for this second atlas before his death in November 2013.

"When Noel knew he was dying, we held meetings every other day or so for the last four months of his life," Mueller recalls. "His charge to me, as I was about to take over as director of the observatory, was to help push this new atlas project forward."

Mueller is well–known himself for having walked across Wisconsin in 2013 to raise money for bird protection.

"Now is the correct time to re–do the atlas," he says. "Much has changed in terms of birds' geographic range, abundance, and the factors affecting bird populations."

Technology eases birders' task

For the most part, the second survey will follow the same basic methods used 20 years ago. That consistency allows ornithologists to compare bird populations over time and also over statewide, regional and national scales, Anich says.

Wisconsin has been divided into thousands of roughly 3.3–mile by 3.3–mile square blocks, with 1,130 priority blocks the organizers want to complete to provide a good picture of what's going on statewide.

County–level coordinators will work to recruit citizens to claim the blocks; a kickoff meeting that is open to the public is set for Feb. 27 through March 1 near Wausau. This symposium will feature a chance to meet atlas planners and county coordinators, get familiar with atlasing protocol and learn about some of the useful analyses that are being done with the data, Anich says.

Get Involved
  • Learn more: wsobirds.org/atlas.
  • Sign up for email updates or to volunteer: wsobirds.org.
  • Attend the kick–off meeting: Feb. 27–March 1, Stoney Creek Hotel and Conference Center, Rothschild. Register ($10) at wsobirds.org

The "atlasers" will go to the priority block they commit to and record on a paper checklist the different birds they see, documenting for each species the breeding behaviors that were observed. Seeing a singing male in suitable habitat is a sign that breeding is possible; observing a pair of birds in suitable habitat during the breeding season is a sign that breeding is probable; seeing a bird on a nest or a bird feeding its young are confirmed signs of breeding.

Volunteers can visit the same block many times over a single breeding season to get a good representation of the birds that use that habitat over that period, or they can spread their effort on the same block over multiple years.

People with less time and fewer bird identification skills can still turn in more casual reports on the birds they see engaged in breeding behavior.

"Any bird you see on a nest, as long as you know where you are and what the bird is —we'll take it," Anich says. People can upload bird photos for help on identification.

Birders will be asked to enter their data into a specifically customized eBird portal at the end of a surveillance day. That will add useful functionality to the atlas process, with real–time maps making it much easier for atlas coordinators to keep tabs on incoming surveyor effort, Anich says.

Volunteers with GPS units or GPS–enabled smartphones can mark immediately where they find birds, and the DNR is building an interactive map to aid birders in finding their way around their block and locating all of the different habitats that hold birds.

There are also plans to incorporate a survey method called the "point count." Observers stand at a particular spot and write down everything they see or hear for three minutes. Then they move another half–mile and do it again. Analyzing data collected from this standardized protocol allows for more rigorous calculation of the abundance of some species.

"The first atlas provided a lot of basic information on the distribution of common and uncommon birds. This next atlas will collect quite a bit more data and at a finer scale," Anich says.

Exceptional diversity with easy entry

The Cornell Lab has been looking for ways to harness eBird to be used for specific projects, and Wisconsin's atlas is a great candidate.

A female red–winged blackbird feeding her young. © Laurie Smaglick Johnson
A female red–winged blackbird feeding her young.
© Laurie Smaglick Johnson

"There is just such a strong team and tradition with such greats as Aldo Leopold, Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom, Sam Robbins, Noel Cutright. Wisconsin is at the leading edge of bird conservation," says Chris Wood, an eBird project leader.

The state has "exceptional bird diversity. Wisconsin is a transition zone where you find all of these species. There's really no state that's better to appreciate warbler migration."

Wood knows, having gone to Ripon College in the 1990s and being involved in the original atlas as one of its core paid surveyors. He recorded more than 150 breeding bird species in his surveys of blocks in Adams and Grant counties and in the Chequamegon–Nicolet National Forest.

Now, eBird allows people to record the species they see year–round, regardless of where the birds are and what they're doing.

The customized eBird portal for the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II will be tailored to specific information atlasers will be collecting: the highest level of breeding behavior, location, habitat type and more.

WSO is funding development of this customized portal and the Wisconsin atlas portal will be accessed through WSO's website. All of the atlasing materials, guidelines, project updates and more will be found at wsobirds.org; partnering organizations like the Department of Natural Resources, and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory will have links to that website from their own.

Based on the fact that 3,500 Wisconsin birders submitted their checklists on eBird last year, organizers expect at least twice the number of people helping with the atlas this time around, if not more.

The proverbial canary in the coal mine

Anich expects the Breeding Bird Atlas II to reveal some shifting ranges and abundances in bird species. When the first atlas was done, wild turkeys were primarily in the southern half of Wisconsin. Now, they've spread pretty much across the north as well.

People report fewer Connecticut warblers, black terns and western meadowlarks. The atlas will test if those anecdotes hold true. Thirty percent of Wisconsin's native birds have been identified as species of greatest conservation need.

Anich and Wood say the atlas will yield important clues about the health of Wisconsin beyond its birds.

"Birds are truly the canary in the coal mine, an indicator of what is happening on the landscape," Wood says. "It's a very cost–effective way to learn about the larger environment."

Birds are found in every imaginable habitat.

"Each of the species has the potential to tell us something about ecosystems and help us understand the relationships we have with the natural world," Wood says. "The purpose of the atlas is looking and comparing in one of the states with the richest diversity. The atlas will help us understand what has happened in the last 20 years and start thinking about changes that might need to be made or not."

Birding for a cause, finding personal benefits

Wood got into birding in Wisconsin the way many do: when a veteran birder took him under his wing. Tom Schultz was his mentor when Wood was a student at Ripon College studying economics, politics and government and environmental biology.

Schultz was a regional coordinator for the atlas, charged with recruiting other birders to complete blocks. He also wrote articles for 10 species of birds and collected and edited the photos of species throughout the atlas book.

Though Schultz had been painting birds for nearly 20 years, by the time he surveyed his first block, including doing some of the illustrations for the National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America, he says the experience definitely enriched his experience as a field birder. "When you're in the field for many hours and looking for those behaviors you tend to learn a lot more details," he says.

Bettie Harriman developed her passion for birds after taking John Kaspar's ornithology class at UW–Oshkosh and discovering she enjoyed identifying birds.

"Why do people love birds? It's because they fly," Harriman says. "Humans are so envious of the ability of birds to fly. Birds are very visual and a lot of them are colorful. For many people it's probably the wild creature that attracts them more than any other."

Harriman, while serving as overall atlas director the first time around, conducted breeding bird surveys herself.

"I had a splendid block in Marinette County by the Town of Dunbar. I worked three seasons and it was so much fun to do. The atlas really gives a birder another way to appreciate birds," she says.

Harriman's descriptions of her survey work while visiting her dentist, Jeffrey Wolk, inspired him to get involved. He too, had taken John Kaspar's ornithology class.

The atlas sounded interesting so he went to the meeting and signed up to survey a block in Waushara County on land around his family's cottage on Porters Lake.

"I like getting out in the woods and learning things. When I see something I like to figure out what it is — plants, flowers, trees, birds, fish."

Wolk wasn't able to get involved in the first atlas as fully as he would have liked to because his children were young, but he enjoyed what he was able to do to help Wisconsin's fine feathered friends.

"It was a good project. It was a worthwhile project, useful," he says. "It can be fun, it can be good exercise, and it can just be getting outside."

Lisa Gaumnitz is a freelance writer from Madison, Wis.