Ask Maine Audubon: Winter atlas project needs help all over Maine – Press Herald


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Your wildlife questions are answered by Maine Audubon Staff Naturalist Doug Hitchcox.
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The Maine Bird Atlas is looking for help in detailing winter bird activity around the state, and the results from year to year are fascinating. The common redpoll was barely seen in the winter of 2019-20, then low birch crops to our north resulted in a major influx the following winter. To learn more, and see maps of where efforts are most needed, go to maine.gov/birdatlas. Jeffrey Schmoyer/Courtesy of Maine Audubon
I’ve written a lot here about the Maine Bird Atlas, especially when we wrapped up the breeding season this year. The work this past summer was a tremendous effort from technicians and volunteers around the state to complete the most comprehensive survey of birds that has ever been done in Maine.
One of the most common questions I get now is “What’s next? What do we do now that it is over?” Well, fear not, because now it is time for a final push. We still have one more season of the winter portion of the atlas and we need your help to make this the most comprehensive dataset possible.
Historically, bird atlases just focused on breeding birds. The first atlas that was done in Maine was even called the “Atlas of Breeding Birds in Maine,” which was done from 1978 through 1983. Now, The Maine Bird Atlas, a project by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, has replicated the breeding portion – and being able to compare what has changed since that first atlas will be very important – and has added a “wintering” component. There are many species of birds that call Maine home during the winter, and they are often spending more time here than they do on their breeding grounds. So for the first time, we’re creating a complete and statewide snapshot of which birds rely on Maine in the winter.
The fortunate thing for anyone who wants to help is that winter atlasing is so much easier than in the summer. During the breeding season, you need to watch for quick behaviors and code them at various tiers of breeding evidence. While that is really fun (for some people), the winter atlas only needs to know what species you are seeing, and when and where you are seeing them. We use Cornell’s eBird database for collecting sightings, which has a very easy-to-use app (simply called eBird) that makes it possible to submit records within seconds. Not sure what species you are seeing? Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID app is eerily good at suggesting identifications of what birds you are seeing based on a few simple questions (like size, location, and behavior).
We have a very lofty goal in terms of what we need to survey this winter. In hindsight, our goal at the beginning of the summer was also very intimidating, but amazingly enough, we got it done. A year ago, we had just over 66% of our “priority” blocks (the 9-square-mile survey areas systematically distributed across the state) completed and most of the remaining areas were in northwestern Maine. The map for this winter looks similar, heavily weighted toward the northern half of the state, but every bit counts.
If you have plans to go snowmobiling (or sleddin’), skiing or snowshoeing in the woods, please keep the bird atlas in mind. It is super easy to submit a couple of checklists of what you see or hear, even if you’re just taking breaks from other activities. Every crow or chickadee you casually encounter is worth knowing about. I hear often from snowmobilers who know about families of Canada jays (formerly called gray jays) that come swooping in for handouts.
Even if you aren’t in remote areas, we still need your help. An interesting component of the winter atlas is how different each winter can be. They can vary by weather, obviously a major factor in when and where you see birds, but also based on food availability. Common redpolls are one of my favorite species to compare results from the last few years. In the 2019-20 winter, there were only a handful of reports for redpolls across the whole state. The next winter, 2020-21, there was a huge irruption of redpolls coming south because of low birch crops to our north, and the birds were everywhere. Then last winter, there was another big push of redpolls into Maine, but they barely came south of Bangor.
Even if you are in a populated and heavily birded area, being able to get more data across each of these winters is going to be a huge help to the project. To learn more, and see maps of where efforts are most needed, go to maine.gov/birdatlas. The winter atlasing season begins this week on Wednesday and runs through March 15. We hold weekly Q&A sessions on Zoom, every Thursday evening (see the calendar of events on the link above), so come with questions or just drop in to hear how the project is coming along!
Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 8 to 10 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.
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