Are you interested in birds? Would you like to contribute to a study about the various birds that nest in Manitoba? Then consider joining the project called the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas. Now in its third year, this is a five-year project that aims to record the distribution and abundance of all the birds that breed in Manitoba. The project has a couple of hired employees, but volunteers are a very important part of it, and those who would like to become involved can still do so.
To “map” the province, it has been divided up into squares 10×10 km which are assigned to various volunteers. Participants sign up for one or more squares and are asked to contribute several hours per square each year, checking out what birds are nesting in that area. Birds building or sitting on a nest, or adult birds carrying food for their young, or recently fledged baby birds are clear evidence that nesting is occurring. Volunteers must then fill in and submit forms with the information, using the correct coding. Experienced participants may also conduct “point counts,” where they go to specific assigned points and count all the birds they see or hear. This information will be used to estimate the abundance of bird species in different squares.
According to Robert E. Jones, who has two assigned squares and acts as a regional co-ordinator for the south-central region, “casual atlassers” are also welcome. “These can give valuable information,” he says, “especially if they see unusual species.” Those who do not want to commit to doing a particular square might consider this option. For casual sightings, exact GPS locations would be very valuable.
Birdwatching experience is an asset, as well as a good pair of binoculars and a bird book or two to help with identification, but participants don’t have to be experts; atlassing and identification workshops are held in the spring for those needing assistance. A camera could also be useful. Sometimes, if I’m unsure of what species a bird is, I like to snap a photo and then try to identify it later, either with my own bird books or through an online group of Manitoba birders at http://birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/MANI.html.
Manitoba includes parts of several ecosystems — the prairie grassland, the boreal forest and the coastal tundra along Hudson Bay, so there’s a wide variety of species that nest in our province — close to 300 species. The Manitoba atlas surveys began in 2010 and will continue until 2014. It is expected that the information recorded will become a useful tool for conserving all these ecosystems and their inhabitants. In other parts of North America and Europe such surveys have often been repeated every 20 years, to see what changes might have occurred. Alterations in bird distribution may reflect changes in land use, such as urban expansion, destruction of forests or pasture lands being converted to cropland. Climate change and global warming might also be reflected in the bird life.
The atlas that is formed from the information gathered over the five-year period won’t actually be a book. Instead it will become interactive web pages where one can view results for a particular species in a specific square or the province as a whole. Some information gathered over the first two years is already available in this form.
The group’s spring newsletter indicates that there are over 800 registered atlassers, but other groups are also providing information. For instance, the Manitoba Nocturnal Owl Survey, conducted in late March and early April, provided information about owls. This summer my husband, who is part of the Bluebird Society based in Brandon, plans to send information about the numbers of bluebirds nesting in the areas he monitors. Information about birds classed as “species at risk” — which includes such species as the barn swallow, the piping plover, the burrowing owl and the chimney swift — would be of particular value.
For those who are keen on birds but don’t feel able or confident enough to contribute as a volunteer, monetary donations are welcomed. Or check out the Breeding Bird Atlas website; it’s an interesting and informative site. For instance, in mid-June three golden eagle nests were reported by a team birding on the Broad River. This is the first confirmed breeding in Manitoba in more than 50 years.
For online information see http://www.birdatlas.mb.ca/.