Community Science – Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas
Article by John Challis
The pandemic, even at its worst, had one silver lining: it turned people’s attention to nature. While people were locked down, idle hours were filled walking in the woods or parks. Birdwatching suddenly was cool. With the street silenced, a pure, warbling whistle might be heard in the trees; a flash of colour might draw the eyes to a cardinal or indigo bunting.
Community science was a beneficiary of the change in behaviour. With the country locked down in April 2020, use of eBird, the internationally popular bird-reporting app, rose 40 per cent over a year earlier. The Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, one of the most ambitious community science projects going, was ramping up in 2021. The five-year survey, which repeats every 20 years, is building a massive database of breeding bird populations, and trends, across the province. Thousands of volunteers contribute time to the Breeding Bird Atlas.
Here in Muskoka (one of 42 atlassing regions), 139 people are currently participating, assigned to 10-km-by-10-km squares. The atlassers, as they’re known, are an ambitious bunch.
“The atlassers have spent an incredible 4,967 hours to date atlassing in the field, the second highest total in the province!” enthuses David Goodyear, one of Muskoka region’s six atlas co-ordinators. Now concluding the third of the five years, Goodyear says Muskoka’s atlassers have submitted “a whopping 5,898 atlas checklists, comprising 55,480 records, the third highest total of all the atlas regions.”
Atlassers range from experts who’ve worked in all three Atlases to relative newcomers. New technology helps: A specialized phone app was developed to allow records to be added in the field in real time. Other tools, like Cornell University’s Merlin app, are great aids in identifying birds through photos or song recordings.
“We are extremely fortunate that we have such enthusiastic and dedicated atlassers,” Goodyear says. “Without them this monumental project would not be possible.”
Apparently, not even heart surgery can stop some of them. Jane-Anne Campbell joined as a novice birder, along with her daughter Mary, after being told the Georgian Bay area needed more coverage. Her efforts were put in doubt after heart surgery last winter, followed by a stroke. It didn’t matter.
“I was so grateful to have recovered well enough to be involved again this season,” Campbell says. “In the hospital, I was telling the health care team about my interest in birds and involvement with the Atlas. They got completely on board, and even gave me tests of the different bird species to help my recovery.”
“The project has done wonders for my abilities as a birder and has contributed to the knowledge of birds in this area,” Campbell adds.
James Kirkland was another beginner in Georgian Bay’s under-surveyed area. His family bought a cottage on Georgian Bay to cope with the pandemic, and he signed up for the Atlas, “to help someone with expertise,” he says.
“I was unexpectedly promoted to principal atlasser of 100 square kilometres of bush, swamp and mosquitoes around 12 Mile Bay . . . you rarely see birds in my area, which is a thick, wet forest with a few gravel roads running through it.”
He learned that one of the most reliable means of identifying birds is through song, so took a training program offered by the project. Using the Merlin app to help, he was sending in his first records.
“With three years mostly completed, I almost feel like an expert going into the final two years of the atlas,” Kirkland says. “This project has seen me through the pandemic and added purpose to my retirement, and I am grateful for that.”
As Kirkland learned, there is some preparation required, but the Atlas website, birdsontario.org, has links to training tools. Wendy Hill, one of the six co-ordinators and a veteran birder, reassures that the actual birding part is just “a slow and immersive process of quietly listening, watching and waiting. The longer you wait, the more birds and actions are revealed.”
Discovering birds and their breeding activity is, she says “my favourite part of atlassing. Each encounter is like a mystery that I am challenged to solve. And I whisper a quiet Miigwech after each offering and discovery.”
The Atlas is revealing many changes, both good and bad. Those with long experience in Muskoka will know the steep and worrying decline of the whip-poor-will and ruffed grouse. The feisty, little, red-breasted nuthatch, however, is one of several with growing numbers.
Anyone who’d like to sign up and become a community scientist for the Atlas can connect through the Facebook page (Muskoka Region 18 – Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas-3). You can also sign up on the website, birdsontario.org. Once signed in you can search for regional co-ordinators where you’ll find a list of contacts.