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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 1998

Stand up and be counted! WBBA atlasers see and hear birdlife galore, siskins included, on their quads. Scott Nielsen, ©1998

For the birds

Across Wisconsin's marshes, forests and fields, intrepid volunteers are gathering vital information for the state's most comprehensive survey of avian life to date. Care to join them?

Maureen Mecozzi

Stand up and be counted! WBBA atlasers see and hear birdlife galore, siskins included, on their quads.

© Scott Nielsen

Gathering data | A national effort | Volunteers | How to join | The atlas

I began atlasing in early April with the first relatively snow-free, non-frigid day. It was an extraordinary day: migrating swans, a song sparrow singing from every stem, the earth steaming with the end of winter in the air. In June I would find broods of turkey and grouse, singing waterthrush and white-throated sparrow.

Memorable experiences filled the season. There were encounters not only with birds, but animals, foods, and weather. I was skunked, nudged by a whitetail fawn, stuffed on serviceberries and blackcaps, drenched in sudden thunderstorms.

What is the most important part of atlasing? Our enjoyment of birds; and personal discoveries in sound, color, movement, and behavior to enrich our lives in ways unlike any other activity.

Murray Berner, Atlas regional coordinator

Take a static noun and make it fly. That's how "atlas", generally used to describe a leather-bound behemoth with all the Earth crammed between two covers, becomes atlasing, a lively engaging quest to create a detailed portrait of a certain place at a certain time.

Painting one such portrait of Wisconsin has long been a goal of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO). In 1995 the organization embarked on an ambitious 10-year project to compile a record of all the birds breeding in the state at the end of the 20th century. The ultimate product of the endeavor will be a comprehensive atlas revealing the status of birds in Wisconsin through maps, tables and figures. Researchers will use the atlas to document changes that have occurred in breeding bird populations, to determine how human activities affect bird life and to provide information for similar projects nationwide.

Remarkable for its breadth and scope – every corner of the state will be monitored during the project's five-year fieldwork phase – the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas (WBBA) is perhaps most notable for the hundreds of volunteers observing birds and gathering valuable data in marshes, woodlands and fields statewide. Each "atlaser" tracks the birds present in a "block" – an area three miles by three miles in size – and follows-up with observations on breeding and nesting. Analysis of the atlasers' field records and notes will increase our understanding of the natural history, and distribution of breeding birds throughout Wisconsin.

Sighting by sighting, atlasers are sketching in the detail of this grand feathered portrait, and they're having a grand time in the process. Many have discovered atlasing – which combines sight and song identification skills, habitat analysis, map-reading and recordkeeping abilities, a touch of diplomacy and a knowledge of bird behavior – has added a new level of enjoyment to basic bird watching. Should their avian accounts intrigue you, remember there's always room for more: New volunteers are welcome to sign up for a block or two and embark upon their own atlasing adventures.

Gathering data

I have climbed the cold forests from the east side of the Andes in Ecuador to the west side going uphill and down through mist, mud and vegetation so thick you had to either crawl through it or cut it. But nothing I have done to date has been more rigorous than atlasing Jackson County. Marsh, bog, swamp, flowage, and moist brush land with an untold number of cranberry cover the blocks with any degree of proficiency, you just put on old tennies with jeans and jump in.

Major Dennis R. Kuecherer, Atlas regional coordinator

Atlasing begins with quads – the U.S. Geological Survey's topographical quadrangle maps. Each quad is divided into six blocks, each block being three miles square. Using this method, Wisconsin can be gridded into roughly 6,900 blocks.

That's a lot of ground to cover. To manage the area to be surveyed while maintaining the statistical integrity of the atlas, the WBBA designated the centereast block of each quad as a priority block. All atlasers are required to survey that priority block in their quad before they work specialty blocks (sites of unique habitat or particular interest) or supplementary blocks (the remaining blocks in a quad).

During the breeding season, which runs from February (starting with great horned owls) through September 15, the day all field reports are due, atlasers try to identify all the birds present in their blocks. They then try to confirm nesting for at least 50 percent of the species they find in those blocks.

Atlasers mark down sightings and other details on field cards, which are then sent on to one of 27 Regional Coordinators.

WBBA volunteers track the activities of grebes and other waterfowl on field cards.

© Scott Nielsen
WBBA volunteers track the activities of grebes and other waterfowl on field cards. © Scott Nielsen

The RC's review the data and pass the information on to the Data Management Center at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, where it is processed for the atlas.

Atlasers don't have to visit every single field or marsh in their blocks, but it helps if they can survey every type of habitat in a block. In areas with roads a half-mile apart or closer, much of the observation can be done from roadsides. In other cases, atlasers must get permission from property owners to conduct surveys on private lands. (That's where diplomacy comes in.)

Supporting the atlas

In Greek mythology, the titan Atlas held up the heavens on his shoulders. The following organizations similarly support the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas with funds and technical support:

Bradley Foundation
Consolidated Papers Foundation, Inc.
Environmental Systems Research Institute
Kaytee Avian Foundation
Madison Community Foundation
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
The Society of Tympanuchus Cupido Pinnatus
U.S. Forest Service
U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Zoological Society of Milwaukee County
F. Weyenberg Charitable Trust
Windway Foundation
Wisconsin Electric Power Company
and a $25,000 grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

A national effort

Wisconsin isn't alone in its atlasing endeavor. Most states east of the Mississippi River have completed fieldwork and are now compiling data.

The more states that complete an atlas the better, according to Bettie Harriman, director of the WBBA. With a comprehensive picture of avian breeding in the United States, conservation groups, planners, local governments, and state and national environmental agencies can better address bird conservation needs in future land-use decisions and environmental assessments. "Atlases are especially helpful in understanding the breeding habits of rare bird species and neotropical migrants," Harriman says. "Besides giving us an overall look at the abundance and habits of common species, an atlas can point out species or habitats that may warrant focused conservation efforts."

The WBBA has completed three years of fieldwork, with two more to go. Add another five years for data processing, analysis and the writing and publication of the atlas.


From late May to August, my life was immersed in the private lives of birds I had taken for granted. I was no longer just ticking birds off a list. A bird within sight captured my immediate attention and scrutiny, and a litany of questions would instantly follow: What is it doing? Is it carrying nest material? Is it carrying food? Does it have a mate? Does it have a nest? Which sex is it? Is this the right habitat? What does that behavior mean?

Jeff Dankert, Atlas regional coordinator

There are ornithologists involved in the WBBA, of course, and some professional atlasers are paid to cover especially difficult or remote blocks, but most of the people working on the atlas are amateurs. "I say that in the truest sense of the word," says Harriman. "They do it for the love of birds."

Volunteers must be able to identify the birds that breed in Wisconsin, either by sight or by songs and calls. The better an atlaser is at sound identification, the easier it will be to cover a block.

Atlasers are encouraged to visit their blocks often in June, when most species are singing to attract mates. July is the best time to confirm breeding, because many species are feeding their young and are easier to spot as they search for food. The early bird gets the worm no matter what month an atlaser surveys. "Getting out early – 5 to 10 a.m. – is the best time for finding most birds," says Harriman.

The field card is the heart of the entire atlas project. Atlasers track sightings and mark down observations using a series of codes. These codes cover habitat types, estimates of abundance, behaviors, and breeding criteria divided into four categories of evidence: Observed, Possible, Probable and Confirmed.

Harriman knows the amount of detail needed can be daunting for novice atlasers. Not to worry! After a few visits to a block, an atlaser will become well acquainted with the birds frequenting the site. "This is when you get to be a bird watcher, actually watching the bird's behavior, compared to just making a list of birds observed," she says.

Besides recording specific details on breeding behavior and habitat, the atlasers also are encouraged to write down casual observations of birds and wildlife in their blocks. Recording casual as well as specific observations adds depth to a day in the field, sharpening an atlaser's senses for future outings.

Scarlet tanager. Atlasers must rise early to observe birds when they are most active. DNR Photo, © 1998
Scarlet tanager. Atlasers must rise early to observe birds when they are most active.

© DNR Photo

Harriman estimates most blocks require about 25 hours of work to be thoroughly surveyed, not counting the time spent getting permission from private landowners. To date, landowners have been not only cooperative about the project, but overwhelmingly friendly, offering their own bird observations and even inviting some atlasers to lunch!

Some volunteer atlasers choose to complete their surveys in one season. Others elect to make observations across two, three or more breeding seasons before completing a single block. Still others are welcome to forward nesting observations on smaller plots even if they can't complete a whole block. Special forms for such observations are available from the Regional Coordinators.

How to join

When you think of birding with children, what immediately comes to mind? Too noisy, a pain in the neck? But back at the start of the Atlas project in 1995, my most valuable volunteer was four years old. She charmed landowners, found bird nests I never would have found, had endless energy and pushed me to find those far-off birds. Children have a whole different perspective. They can look up underneath the leaves, which makes nests much easier to spot.

Heidi Parry, Atlas volunteer

Close to 1,000 volunteers of all ages are participating in fieldwork to confirm nesting for all of Wisconsin's 220-plus identified breeding bird species.

Even children can participate in gathering data for the atlas.

© Bob Queen
Family of birdwatchers. Even children can participate in gathering data for the atlas. Bob Queen, © 1998

If you enjoy bird watching, want to develop good field skills, learn more about avian life, and experience a genuine sense of scientific accomplishment, there's a place for you in Wisconsin's largest ornithological undertaking. The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas will be the standard reference on Wisconsin birds for many years to come, the baseline to which future bird research and surveys will be measured. It's a project worthy of your time and effort.

Contact Bettie Harriman at (920) 233-1973 or write her at 5188 Bittersweet Lane, Oshkosh, WI 54901 to get started. You'll be put in touch with a Regional Coordinator, who will provide maps, field cards, and the other information you'll need to survey a block. The WBBA maintains a World Wide Web site and publishes a newsletter to keep volunteers informed as the atlas progresses. Atlasing workshops held at various locations throughout the state cover map reading skills, code interpretation, and hints on finding elusive species. Best of all, you'll meet other atlasers who share a common interest in birds and the outdoors.

Get out those binoculars and get ready to watch, listen and learn. It's time to start atlasing and add your own brushstrokes to the grand feathered portrait for birds in Wisconsin.

WBBA on the Web: Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas

Maureen Mecozzi is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources.