FAQs

The frequently asked questions page is based on questions asked by fellow atlasers during Atlas webinars.

Quick Links

General Atlas Questions

Read more Background on the Atlas.

What is an “Atlaser”?

An atlaser is anyone who participates in the Breeding Bird Atlas project and records breeding behaviors.

What is a “Principal Atlaser”?

A Principal Atlaser is someone who commits to making sure that a particular atlas block is completed. Read more.

I can’t commit to an entire block. Can I still participate?

Yes! We encourage you to! We realize that not everyone wants or can to commit to covering a block. We encourage you to still submit your observations of breeding birds by adding breeding codes to your checklists wherever you happen to be birding!

I’m not in New York. Can I still participate?

Yes! Anyone who watches birds in NY can participate in the Atlas. People from neighboring states and provinces participate as do people that vacation here for only a week or two.

How do I access block data from previous Atlases?

Visit the DEC website for the second Atlas.

What will happen if we’re not able to cover all the priority blocks in five years?

Hopefully we will! It’s only one-third the effort we required in the previous two Atlases. Worst case scenario we will consider adding another year, but that is a decision that won’t be made for several years and will be depend on funding.

Will you have paid blockbusting volunteers?

No. At this time we do not foresee having funding to pay volunteers to blockbust. Blockbusting is a term used in atlases to complete a block in a short amount of time. We do plan to organize weekend trips to blockbust in underpopulated and restricted-access areas.

How will you ensure that the data are accurate?

There are eBird regional reviewers who ensure that rare and unusual species are accurately reported and well documented. We will also be including data checks to confirm breeding observations that are reported well outside of the known breeding period for a species.

How can my bird or nature club get involved?

Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

      • Include atlas articles in club newsletters
      • Sign up for blocks in your area and commit to getting them covered
      • Keep track of progress in your area and ensure it gets covered
      • Help negotiate access to private lands
      • Recruit volunteers
      • Hold public talks and training workshops
      • Help offset volunteer costs (e.g., camping fees)
      • Target field trips to cover special species, habitats, or locations

Is there an email address to ask additional questions?

Yes! The general email address is nybba3@gmail.com. You can also email your local regional coordinator:

A map of the regions can be found on the Atlas Team page.

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Breeding Codes

See the Breeding Behavior page for code definitions and when to use them.

If I see several breeding pairs of a species at different stages of breeding, what code do I use?

You can only enter one breeding code per species per checklist, so we ask you to enter the highest code for each species.

Why don’t we record the number of breeding pairs of a given species?

The eBird platform does not currently provide a way to collect these data. We ask that you record the number of individuals of each species per checklist and report the highest breeding code for that species.

Should I continue to report the same breeding codes if I’ve already reported that code for that species in that block?

Please report breeding codes on every checklist. By reporting the highest code each time you observe breeding behavior, you’re collecting valuable information about not just where birds breed, but also when birds breed. Your data help us understand breeding phenology or the timing of when each species breeds.

What is the benefit of documenting breeding codes repeatedly, especially if you can’t upgrade the code?

To provide information on breeding phenology. For example, if you record the entire cycle of a robin nest, we will be able to get information on when robins build nests, lay eggs, and incubate. The highest possible code is “NY – Nest with Young.” If you keep providing checklists after the young leave the nest, we will also get a better idea of when fledgling robins are most commonly encountered. American Robin is a common species that we know pretty well, but there are many other species that breed in NY for which we don’t know much about breeding phenology.

How is the Atlas handling breeding codes for birds that do not breed in the state?

We will go through a code reinterpretation process in the fall of each year to amend codes for species that do not breed in the state. This will provide a clean state for assessing block completion status at the start of each breeding season.

Is it OK to submit checklists that do not contain any breeding codes through the portal?

It is fine to submit checklists without breeding codes if your intent was to look for breeding birds and behaviors and you stayed within the block boundaries.

Do you want comments for the A, T, or C codes?

Comments are not required, but are strongly recommended whenever you are unsure about the appropriate code to use or are using an unusual code for a species. See the Acceptable Codes Chart for the codes frequently used for each species.

I recorded a bird singing, but I couldn’t identify the call. Do we have anyone who is willing to listen to these recordings?

Start by loading your recording to your eBird checklist. Enter “1 bird species” (or add finer resolution if you know it was a warbler, shorebird, duck, etc.) and add the media file to that record. Then you will have a link to the recording and you can send it to anyone you want and they will be able to listen to it. You can share the recording with other atlasers on the Facebook discussion group, forward it to your regional coordinator, or post it to a local bird listserv.

How do I report a dead bird?

If you find a dead bird during the middle of its breeding season, you can add a ‘0’ count for that species on your checklist and then add the appropriate code. Use H for adults and FL for nestlings or fledglings. Please also add a comment so we know you didn’t enter the code accidentally.

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Tricky Species

Whenever you are in doubt about how to code a particular species, refer to the Acceptable Codes Chart and enter species comments in your eBird checklist. There are also lots of tools available to help you learn the life history of birds so you can better interpret breeding behaviors. See the Handbook & Materials and Links pages.

How do we code chimney swifts?

Chimney Swifts observed in June and July (sometimes earlier) should be coded with at least an H for habitat, S if it’s also twittering. If you see two birds flying in close formation, that is considered courtship. If you see a bird enter a chimney, that is N – probable nest site. If a swift enters a chimney and stays for a long period of time, it can be coded as ON – occupied nest. You might see them carrying nesting material, but you are unlikely to see them carrying food or feeding young.

How do we code goldfinches and waxwings, usually in mobile groups of 4-10 birds?

Goldfinches and waxwings are the latest species to breed in NY, and often don’t start until July. Groups of goldfinches and waxwings have not settled on their territory yet. Wait until you see them in pairs before you mark them as H. Note that both species started breeding early in 2020.

What if you find egg fragments on the ground that you can ID to species but don’t see a nest nearby?

For any of the confirmed breeding codes, you need to be sure of species and block. If you didn’t see who dropped the egg, you can’t count it. This is because a predator may have carried the eggshell a long distance before dropping it. Crows and ravens can carry eggs miles before eating them. With careful observation you will usually confirm the species anyway through carrying food, feeding young, or seeing the fledglings.

If I see Bobolinks doing their distinctive hovering flight over a field is that courtship display?

Yes, that is the courtship display of Bobolinks and should be coded C.

If we hear Blue Jays calling is that considered S for singing?

No. Singing should only be used for vocalizations and other sounds that are used exclusively for breeding. The sounds we are familiar with for Blue Jays are given year-round. Blue Jays do sing though. They give what is called a whisper song. Listen on All about Birds.

If we see Brown Creeper repeatedly going to flap of bark with food can that be coded nest with young?

Yes, particularly if you can hear the nestlings begging.

How do you code American Bittern doing their “gulunk gulunk”?

The characteristic sound of American Bittern is used to attract mates and for territorial display and should be coded as singing. Courtship is rare to see and is the only time you will see the white plumes on the shoulders of males.

Is the “grunt grunt grunt” of Virginia Rail considered courtship display?

The “grunt” calls are usually given by a pair in a duet, in which case they should be considered courtship. The “tick-it” call is given by males only for a short time in the spring and should be counted as singing. Listen on All About Birds.

I saw two juncos come flying up from the side of a path and continuing to hang around acting agitated, is that a distraction display?

Distraction displays usually involve an adult bird acting as if it is injured and trying to lure a potential threat away from its nest or young. The behavior here sounds more like a territorial dispute between two neighboring juncos.

Am I correct that an owl heard “hooting” is considered song, but hawks calling are not coded as singing?

Singing should only be used for vocalizations and other sounds that are used primarily for breeding. Owls giving vocalizations should be recorded as singing (duets should be recorded as courtship). The typical calls of our three Buteo species, Red-shouldered, Broad-winged, and Red-tailed, can be recorded as singing, but the other raptors should not.

How do you code woodpeckers?

Woodpeckers excavating cavities should be coded with the species “B” code for woodpeckers and wrens. The long calls given by Pileated Woodpecker and Northern Flicker can be coded as singing, but other vocalizations should not be coded. The most common confirmed codes for woodpeckers are NY (woodpecker nestlings are loud and incessant!), FS, FY, CF, and FL.

Should I use the B code for chickadees or nuthatches excavating nest cavities?

B is specifically for woodpeckers and wrens. Chickadees can rarely make dummy nests, but it’s uncommon enough that you can code it as NB. The same goes for nuthatches; use NB.

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Block Boundaries and Location Issues

See the Blocks page for additional information on blocks.

How are blocks named?

Blocks are named according to the US Geological Survey naming system for topographic quadrangles. See this diagram.

How are blocks assigned to counties?

The geographic center point of each atlas block determines the county a block is assigned to.

What are priority blocks and what purpose do they serve?

Roughly a third of atlas blocks are “priority blocks” and these blocks are where you should focus your atlasing effort if possible. Read more.

Are you interested in breeding data from non-priority blocks?

Yes! Even though our focus is on the priority blocks, you won’t always be birding in a priority block. If you are birding in a non-priority block, please submit your data to the Atlas, especially if it is for a rare species. All the data will be used in analyses, but we need at least the priority blocks complete to get the full picture of where birds are breeding statewide.

Can you recommend a good strategy for completing a block?

If you want to make sure a block is complete, you need to plan trips across the breeding season and visit different habitats in the block. Read about strategies here.

The blocks I’m working on have 90-100 species with breeding codes. Does that mean I need  to confirm 45-50 species?

The target is to end up with 50% of breeding species confirmed. The total number of birds in a block may be higher than the number of breeding species if migrants were recorded (e.g., a Blackpoll Warbler was recorded as singing when it moved through in May). If you remove the non-breeders from your list, half the remaining species should be confirmed.

Is there a way of seeing the map with block boundaries on the eBird mobile app before starting a checklist?

This is not currently possible. You can try one of these other tools to see your location with respect to block boundaries while in the field. https://ebird.org/atlasny/about/maps-and-knowing-your-location-in-the-field

How do I prevent crossing block boundaries in areas where I don’t have cell service?

If you are using the mobile eBird app to navigate in the field, you can still see the block boundaries without cell service. The block boundaries show up as long as you have satellite signal, but the map will appear black since the imagery is downloaded through your cell service.

If I am at the boundary of one block and record a bird, then the bird moves into the neighboring block, should I record the bird in both blocks?

Read here for details on what to do in this situation.

What’s the best way to handle an existing hotspot that is in more than one block?

You should create a new checklist whenever you cross a block boundary. If you are birding at a hotspot, don’t rely on the hotspot being located in the correct block. Read more here.

How do I document a new observation location when I’m no longer there, e.g., to record a species seen while out for a walk in another block without my phone?

Enter your observation using the eBird.org website. One of the options for setting the location allows you to use Google Maps. You should be able to roughly locate where you were on the map.

Can you upload a track (collected from a GPS unit) via the website?

That is not currently possible. You can only enter by hand the total distance traveled.

I sometimes forget to start a new checklist when I go into another block when using eBird mobile. Is there a way to fix the map in eBird?

If you haven’t submitted your checklist, you can edit the track. On the map screen there is a slider that allows you to go back in time and edit the track so that it ends at the border. Be sure to also update your species list! If you have already submitted your checklist, you can go to “My Checklists” and edit the length of your checklist, but you can no longer adjust the track.

Why don’t the block borders display as ending at state boundaries?

You should only atlas in NY! The same block system is used across the entire Northeast and much of the US. Even though the official block boundary may straddle two states, you should only survey in NY. The other states survey the other portion of border blocks when they run their atlases.

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Portal and Data Entry

See the Atlas Portal and Data Entry page for more details.

Do I have to submit data through eBird?

Yes. We will only accept data through eBird. However, if you are not computer savvy, we can help pair you up with someone to help you enter your sightings. Having all the data in one place makes it easier to see what species are recorded in each block as well as determine when a block has been sufficiently surveyed. The only rare exception is if you cannot use the internet for a religious reason or you have a handicap. All other atlasers should create a free eBird account to participate in the project.

Do I have to submit complete eBird checklists?

No, but we prefer complete checklists with accurate counts of each species. We will be using the data you collect for some modern statistical analyses that rely on having a complete checklist. However, sometimes you will be driving, hiking, gardening, etc., and observe a breeding bird. We still want to know that, too, and you should submit this as an incidental observation. What is a complete checklist?

If I see or hear something while I am out walking my dog and birding is not my intent, how do I report my observation?

Create what eBird calls an incidental checklist. You may only have one or two species on your checklist, but it’s useful information, especially if that species has not already been documented in that block.

If I submit an observation of a sensitive species in eBird, won’t that expose the birds to harassment?

An increasing concern for birders is the potential risk of harassment by non-birder photographers and the general public. We take this risk seriously and there are several ways to prevent harassment.

If someone is a good birder but doesn’t use eBird, how do I enter data for them?

Only enter your personal observations in your eBird account! If you know someone who cannot use eBird for some reason, please contact nybba3@gmail.com or your regional coordinator.

How do you change a checklist from one portal to another?

Directions for switching portals can be found here.

I sometimes report birds as present but do not attempt to count the number of each species. Are such lists of interest to the Atlas?

Any estimate of bird numbers, even a poor one, is better than an X. However, even X’s tell us that a bird is present and will be useful when analyzing for presence/absence.

Is there such a thing as submitting too many checklists in a block?

Technically, no. But we do hope that as you gain experience you will venture further afield and cover additional blocks. We need to cover all the priority blocks to call the atlas a success.

When covering a block, do I put it all on one checklist?

We encourage people to submit checklists that cover short distances and time periods. Short distance checklists provide better spatial resolution, so your observations can be associated with specific habitat types. The cool eBird animated maps are possible because of short, complete checklists. eBird also has some best practices. At a minimum, keep traveling checklists under 5 miles and stationary counts under 3 hours.

Is it better to do an out-and-back checklist or two separate checklists?

It’s better to do two separate checklists, one for your way out and one for your return. This is for the same reason it’s better to keep shorter checklists. If you do put it all on one checklist, be sure not to double-count the birds (only add new species on the return) and halve your distance.

If you pause a checklist to cross a block boundary and start a different checklist, it seems to stop the track for the first checklist. When you go back to the first checklist, is there a way to restart the track?

No. The best practice is to stop one checklist completely and start a new one. When you go back to the first checklist area, start a third checklist.

Can you delete a submitted checklist?

Yes, you can always delete a checklist by going to “My Checklists” on eBird.org. But be careful–once you delete a checklist, it is gone for good.

Is there a way to flag an Atlas checklist that I know is incorrect?

There is no built-in way to do this in eBird. What you can do is email your regional coordinator or the project coordinator. See the Atlas Team page for emails.

Is there a place where I can find MY list of confirmed species?

Not easily. You can use Excel following these instructions.

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General eBird Questions

See the eBird Help pages for additional eBird questions.

How do you get back to regular ebird when you are in the portal?

The key to knowing and navigating between portals, is to look at the web address or URL. If you see “/atlasny,” you are in the atlas portal, if not, you are in core eBird. To get from one to the other, type or delete “/atlasny” after ebird.org.

Does eBird need to track my location on my phone?

You can choose whether you allow the eBird app to track your location while you are working on a checklist. If you do record your track, a precise measure of the distance you traveled is recorded, otherwise you need to estimate the distance. In addition, if you record your track the route you traveled will show up on your checklist so you can see where you went if you ever want to refer back.

Can I go back in time and enter data in eBird?

Yes, on the eBird website you can enter a checklist for any point in time as far back as 1800!

In eBird mobile, what does the red dot “Unreported” mean? Why does it come up for fairly common birds in my area?

eBird presents you with the list of birds you are likely to see at a location based on other eBird checklists. If there are not many people in the area reporting their observations on eBird, it will show up as uncommon (the half-filled orange circle) or unreported (filled-in red circle).

When do eBird filters get updated?

eBird relies on a network of regional reviewers to ensure data quality. Regional reviewers are highly knowledgeable about the birds in their region. Not only do they email you when you report something unusual, they also maintain all the filters for that region. They set the date cutoffs and number of individuals that should get flagged. These filters are maintained continuously. What most people don’t realize is that each region is usually at the county or multi-county level. So even if Cerulean Warblers are known to breed at one location in a region, the reviewer must decide if reports from that one location get flagged or if no reports of Ceruleans from the rest of the region get flagged. It’s a tricky balancing act. If you feel that a filter really should be changed, you should discuss this with the local reviewer. There is no public list of reviewers, but someone in your local birding community will know who to contact.

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