North Coast Journal


Building a bird atlas

by Barbara Henry

This summer Kevin Dyer, who lives near Shelter Cove, got out his opera glasses and went looking for any bird he could see carrying food in its beak, picking up twigs, defending territory, or otherwise exhibiting "nesting behavior."

Dyer's birds will someday appear in an atlas being built county by county, state by state, through volunteers staking out "blocks" they've agreed to monitor over the next few years. Each block is 25 square kilometers, and each volunteer is assigned four blocks.

Dyer has been interested in birds for years, but became serious about it last June when leaders of an ongoing bird atlas project trained him.

"I've tried to get many people interested in this," Dyer said, but added that some were reluctant to commit themselves to a four-block area for the required years, although biologist John Hunter of Six Rivers National Forest is pleased with the overwhelming number of volunteers "from die-hard birders to novices."

Hunter explained that the northeast block of each volunteer's parcel is labeled "priority" and given the most attention. This system results in an evenly distributed sampling, and is based on a European model.

Volunteers avoid trespassing and are given a letter of introduction for landowners. A few people have rejected requests to survey their land, but most have been cooperative, Hunter said. Timber companies, he added, have agreed to participate in the project.

Humboldt is a tough county to survey. Sixty of the some 104 parcels have already been spoken for. "All the easy stuff in people's back yards has already been taken," Hunter acknowledged.

Don Robertson, from Monterey County -- the lone California county to have finished its count -- agrees. He came to Humboldt in June to help survey a few blocks here, and said, "I didn't see any easy areas."

Monterey completed its count despite having sections of the mountainous Los Padres National Forest to cover. Robertson told of surprise findings including nesting blue grosbeaks, green herons and American bitterns. He said the best find of all was the discovery of a bird thought to have disappeared from the area decades ago--the mountain chickadee.

"We rediscovered them on the tip-tops of two little peaks," Robertson said. "It's a tremendous amount of fun."

In Humboldt the recording commenced last spring with volunteers recruited through the Redwood Region Audubon Society. Hunter is one of three Six Rivers National Forest biologists on the project's six-member steering committee. Other participating agencies include the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Humboldt State University, the Northcoast Environmental Center and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.

Volunteers are asked to spend at least four hours on each of four mornings in their assigned territories spread out from late April through July. They jot down all potential breeding behavior -- from subtle twig-carrying by adults to the more obvious sightings of baby birds -- and the habitat in which the behavior is seen.

Humboldt County is divided into more than 400 blocks.

Last spring's kickoff was a learning experience, Hunter said.

"We ran into a few problems. For one thing, we required too much paperwork." This coming year volunteers will have less of that. Also, the requirement that 50 percent of the observed birds be confirmed as nesting will be lowered to 45 percent.

Hunter isn't worried about the project stirring up contention, despite the history of battles over protection of the spotted owl and marbled murrelet.

"It doesn't really, in my mind, have the potential to be controversial," he said.

What people need to realize is that the data won't be presented in such a way that future readers of the atlas could pinpoint where each nest was found. "No government agency will ever find out that (owners) had a wood duck nesting in their back yard," he promised.

What people will have is the knowledge that they contributed to a document that will be on every biologist's desk in the country.

During the next few months steering committee members will assemble the data from last spring's nesting season; then they will lay plans for the 1996 season. Volunteers already are being sought. Contact John Hunter at the Forest Service at 441-3568 for more information and a volunteer handbook.

Barbara Henry, a former reporter for The Daily World, Aberdeen, Wash., is a free-lance writer living in Manila.

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