Column: Birders needed for breeding bird atlas

Published 12:05 am Thursday, March 2, 2006

By Staff
As you regular readers know, I occasionally pass on conservation oriented volunteer projects that are particularly suited to us Average Joes. Most of these programs are outstanding opportunities for us laypersons to have hands-on involvement in meaningful scientific research. I find it very rewarding to be a player rather than just an armchair quarterback; to know that I am personally making a significant contribution to science. I also find it fun and highly educational to rub elbows with the professionals that are invariably involved with such projects. One program that should appeal to any bird enthusiast is the Michigan Bird Breeding Atlas (MBBA II). Nearing its completion, this is a comprehensive, six year survey involving professionals and amateurs to map the current distribution and abundance of birds breeding in Michigan. The data will have infinite uses with one of the most important being to aid managers in making decisions on habitat preservation and restoration.
A similar project was conducted twenty years ago and early comparisons have shown marked changes in Michigan's bird community since then. Not surprisingly, one of the most notable changes is a severe, across-the-board decline in grassland bird species. Birds that were once fairly common such as bobolinks, meadowlarks and savanna sparrows, to name just a few, have all but disappeared from the scene. The upland sandpiper has even made the State endangered species list. It's no secret amongst bird hunters that upland game species have also declined. Though ruffed grouse are still found in reasonable numbers in the northern part of the state, throughout the southern regions they have nearly disappeared. Woodcock numbers are steadily dwindling and there's not much left to say about pheasants, other than what pheasants? There are exceptions but most wetland species are also declining to varying degrees. How long has it been since you've seen a common snipe? I can remember when they used to be thick as blackbirds around marsh shores and along stream banks. Preliminary results are showing declines of a number of other species as well.
The MBBA II is not portraying all gloom and doom, though. Many species are dramatically increasing, particularly certain species inhabiting forest and transitional areas such as downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, brown creepers, goldfinches and titmice to name just a few. The survey has also discovered several species not previously known to breed in Michigan such as a pair of great gray owls found nesting in the U.P. Other newly confirmed breeding species are blue grosbeaks found in St. Joe County, black necked stilts in Monroe County and Wilson's phalarope in Saginaw and Muskegon Counties.
The project was initiated with funds from the Department of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Program, the division of the DNR focusing on non-game species. Other supporters are the Michigan Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service, the University of Michigan, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arcus Foundation's Gay and Lesbian Fund and numerous private donors. Ray Adams of the Kalamazoo Nature Center has the significant task of overseeing the project. Both professionals and amateurs are contributing data to the MBBA II.
Obviously the Michigan Bird Breeding Atlas will be indispensable to those involved in habitat management by showing them precisely where to focus their attention. Though the project concludes in 2007 they are still in need of volunteer surveyors. The more people out looking, the more thorough and accurate the data. You needn't be an expert birder. All you need is a little spare time, a good pair of binoculars and a bird I.D. book or two. For more information and data forms go to the Michigan DNR website, Click Wildlife and Habitat then Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas. Specific volunteer information can be found at the MBBA II website, or call the Kalamazoo Nature Center, 269-381-9738. Carpe diem.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at