Nature nerds have a reason to rejoice this month with the release of the book form of the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas. The atlas is a complete encyclopedia of the birds that breed in Vermont, based on five years and 30,000 hours of rigorous fieldwork.
Rosalind Renfrew, biologist for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, edited the atlas.
“The atlas is a massive and scientifically sound, unparalleled effort in accurately tracking and mapping Vermont’s bird life,” she said at a press conference on Wednesday announcing the release of the atlas.
Gov. Peter Shumlin also spoke at the press conference.
“As Vermonters, we care about birds, we care about our natural resources, and we all know that as we continue to degrade our environment as a nation, birds are feeling the effects of environmental degradation and climate change. The challenge ahead for us is to ensure that we protect and build ecosystems where birds will thrive,” he said.
The atlas, slated for release next week, is the second breeding bird atlas ever created for Vermont. The first was released in 1985 and serves as baseline data on bird populations. The latest atlas analyzes changes in bird populations over the last 30 years.
“The second atlas focuses on change. Changes on Vermont’s landscape, but primarily changes in the populations of the birds in Vermont,” said Renfrew. “It is now the new go-to resource for information on Vermont birds.”
Renfrew said the atlas will be an invaluable resource for researchers, planning commissions, public and private landowners, conservation groups and state biologists.
Steve Parren, a biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, said the atlas is the first resource he and other biologists will use to understand trends in bird populations.
“This wouldn’t be a regulatory tool in and of itself, but it certainly would be a tool that biologists like myself would be relying on,” he said.
The atlas has already been used to inform the state listing of certain species as threatened or endangered. One such species is the common nighthawk. The nighthawk has declined precipitously and, despite the extensive searching volunteers undertook for the atlas, is no longer known to breed in Vermont.
Populations of the nighthawk’s close relative, the whip-poor-will, and other birds that catch and eat insects while in flight, are declining across the country. Renfrew said that scientists are at a loss as to why.
Other groups have declined as well. Grassland birds, like the eastern meadowlark, have decreased as Vermont’s farms and grasslands have reverted to forest or been developed. But some groups fared well in the last three decades. Species that have received conservation attention, like the osprey, peregrine falcon, and common loon, are doing better. Other species, like the northern cardinal, tufted titmouse, red-breasted woodpecker, and Carolina wren have expanded northward, becoming more established in the state.
The atlas was largely funded through the Fish & Wildlife Department by a State Wildlife Grant to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, though many other organizations were involved in organizing volunteers and conducting research.
Bryan Pfeiffer, a birdwatching guide and photographer whose photographs appear in the atlas, is enthusiastic about the book.
“This thing is a masterpiece,” he said. “This thing belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting Vermont conservationist, anybody close to the land, but it also could be on the coffee table.”
Pfeiffer thinks the book will resonate with a natural affinity that people have for birds.
“The blend of color, flight and song is something that harmonizes with human DNA,” he said. “People love birds.” And, he added, that love can translate into funding for conservation and tourist dollars.
Renfrew noted that birds are indicators of land-use change. “In some cases they track what we’ve experienced as humans on the landscape and in other cases the birds show us what’s happening on the landscape.”
The atlas is the result of five years of fieldwork by 350 trained volunteers. The citizen scientists surveyed preselected sites using rigorous protocols and each of their 57,000 observations went through a three-tiered review for quality. The atlas contains 208 photographs, 415 maps, 591 tables, and 215 graphs illustrating Vermont’s breeding birds. The atlas, published by the University Press of New England, is on sale through the Vermont Center for Ecostudies for $75. Copies will be donated to 150 libraries across the state. The atlas can be viewed online at http://www.vtecostudies.org/vbba/.