20 Dec
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RI Bird Atlas 2.0 Documents Birds across Rhode Island



In 1982, former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was freed after spending 11 months under house arrest. Actor John Belushi was found dead of a drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel. Barney Clark became the first American to receive an artificial heart. And 68 Rhode Islanders set out on a five-year quest to document every breeding bird in the state. Now, over three decades later, another group will attempt to do the same thing.

Rhode Island Bird Atlas 2.0 kicked off last week when over 100 birders packed Weaver Auditorium on the URI campus to learn about the plan. Rhode Island’s DEM, US Fish and Wildlife, and the University of Rhode Island are organizing and implementing the atlas. Some attendees were part of the original crew of the 1980s, while others had yet to be born. All were there to become a part of the most comprehensive bird map in state history.

Participants will monitor one or more of 165 atlas “blocks” which divide the state into roughly 15 square mile portions. In addition to documenting breeding birds, the project will document wintering and migrating species. Each block will be monitored for at least 20 hours during that five year period, as volunteers record information about the birds seen in both daylight and heard during evening hours. According to Dr. Charles Clarkson, Bird Atlas Coordinator, the knowledge gained will extend far beyond knowing which birds nest in the state.

“The atlas involves a lot more than birds. It will determine how land use has changed in the state over the last 28 years and whether the habitat has degraded.” Clarkson notes that birds are bio-indicators. Like the canaries brought into coal mines to warn of toxic gases in centuries past, increases and decreases in bird populations can provide important information on how the state is doing in terms of preserving natural habitat. “What happens to the population of the birds will impact other flora and fauna as well. Bird populations are tied so intimately to the habitat that they reside in that their population is a reflection of many other conditions. Whether you’re interested in birds per se or not, there is something that will interest you.”

Dr. Charles Clarkson

Dr. Charles Clarkson

In this event, the word “atlas” becomes a verb: “atlasing”. Clarkson defines “atlasing” as “slow birding”. That is, remaining in a given block to observe not only the species of bird, but to watch its behavior. Seeing actual birds sitting on their nests is a rare sight, so Clarkson says volunteers will have to rely on noting behavior changes that may indicate the bird is nesting.

The idea of atlasing came from the United Kingdom. In the early 1960’s, some 10,000 volunteers tallied birds from Great Britain and Ireland. Since then, the process has spread to many parts of the world, including Serbia and Russia. Massachusetts was the first in the States to begin the process back in 1974, and Rhode Island participated from in a campaign from 1982 – 87. By now, 30% of the earth has been atlased.

Once an atlas sets a baseline for birds, subsequent atlases can trace the rise or decline in species. For example, the American kestrel, a small member of the hawk family, was almost unknown as a breeding species in the 80’s. Now, there is a good chance that this little carnivore will be documented as nesting here. American eagles, once a rarity, are being sighted daily, and may also be counted as nesting here.

Unfortunately, the predictions are that not all the news will be good. “There aren’t many happy stories when it comes from conservation,” Clarkson said. The Northern bobwhite was an abundant bird years ago. However, the reduction in the grassy habitat it uses for nesting likely has spelled the end of bobwhites in Rhode Island.

“The atlas gets more useful with time,” Clarkson said. “More atlases allow for more examination of the presence or absence of birds, and where the species may be moving. It’s also a way to get detailed information for rare and declining species. A robust data set allows for prediction and analysis of movement and changes in habitat. We can also learn not only where a given species is, but how dense the population is.”

Clarkson says the end result will be of interest to more than only bird enthusiasts. “What’s so wonderful about this atlas is that it’s arguably one of the most comprehensive scientific studies that have gone on in the state. Being statewide, what it will do is give us the ability to use newer techniques in mapping to gain a depiction of how our entire state looks in terms of underlying habitat, underlying physical components, and how all of these things will predict abundances in bird species.

“The maps that we will present will be useful to outdoor enthusiasts, because we’re also going to be mapping the habitats. These maps will do a good job of recording how those habitats have changed over the last 28 years. People who have been in the state for their entire lives or for an appreciable length of time will be able to make sense of anecdotal observation. They’ll be able to say, ‘I remember when there was a stand of evergreens that stood here, and this species (of bird) no longer comes because the evergreens have disappeared.’

“It’s going to be useful to a large audience, whether you’re a birder or whether you are interested in the geography of the state.”

Find more about Rhode Island Bird Atlas 2.0 at www.ribirdatlas.com and facebook.com/ribirdatlas.

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