Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Citizen scientists document breeding birds in every corner of Rhode Island

            At the edge of a 40-acre hayfield behind St. Theresa’s church in Burrillville, long-time Audubon member Cindy Szymanski called out the names of the birds she heard singing – house wren, blue-winged warbler, eastern wood peewee, common yellowthroat, tufted titmouse, Baltimore oriole and several more. She spotted additional species darting across the field and soaring overhead.
But identifying the birds was only the first step in Szymanski’s morning of birding. She patiently watched each species she saw for any obvious signs that the birds were breeding. A bird carrying a caterpillar – without swallowing it – was a sign it was bringing food to its nestlings, for instance, or a bird flying away with grass in its beak was an indication it was building a nest.
Those observations are crucial data being collected by more than 240 volunteers as part
of the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, a five-year effort to document the breeding status of every species of bird found in the state. The project, now in its fourth year, divides Rhode Island into 165 blocks, each 10-square-miles in size. Volunteers scour the various habitats in each block during the breeding season for as many bird species as they can find – day and night – and record any behaviors they observe that indicate whether the species is possibly, probably or confirmed breeding in the block.
Szymanski recorded 77 species in her block by July 1 and had confirmed that 41 were breeding.
Atlas coordinator Charles Clarkson, a member of Audubon’s board of directors, said that the Breeding Bird Atlas is a way of gathering data to understand the health of bird populations by measuring their distribution, density and use of habitat.
“Birds are bio-indicator species that can tell us a lot about the health of ecosystems. How well bird populations are doing tells us how their habitats are doing,” he said. “The data we collect helps us better direct our conservation efforts. The atlas is a useful conservation tool used by non-profits like Audubon as well as by state agencies.”
Clarkson describes the process of collecting data as “slow birding,” because it requires volunteers to watch individual birds for extended periods of time while waiting for them to exhibit behaviors indicative of breeding. It requires a great deal of patience, but the payoff in seldom-seen behaviors is high.
In addition to the data being collected by individual volunteers in their assigned blocks, similar information for the atlas is gathered during nocturnal bird surveys seeking to document the breeding behavior of owls, woodcocks and nightjars. Biological technicians also conduct “point counts” at designated sites to assess bird abundance. Long-term bird survey data from other sources, like Audubon’s osprey monitoring program, local bird banding station data, e-Bird and Project Feederwatch, will also be incorporated into the final report, which will take the form of a coffee table book with species accounts and distribution maps. The data will also be available online at the conclusion of the project.
            Sponsored by the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas is a follow-up to an identical effort conducted in the 1980s, when 68 volunteers documented 164 species breeding in the state. The current atlas has already documented 167 species, but the detailed results will likely be quite different from the previous atlas, due largely to...

Read the rest of the article in the fall 2018 issue of Audubon Report.

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