Strategic Atlasing: How to Atlas Like a Pro

By Julie Hart February 27, 2021
Clapper Rail Rallus crepitans

No matter where or how you atlas, it helps to have a strategy. Strategic atlasing ends up being more fun for you, and helps collect more valuable information to complete the atlas project! Read on to take your atlasing to new heights.

Find where you can help the most

One of the fun parts of atlasing are the clear goals: for each of the 1815 priority blocks in NY we need to finish all the block completion elements over the next 4 years. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of ways to identify where you can help the most:

  • Time of year. Blocks need to be visited at 3+ different times of year: if you have a weekend to go atlasing, explore blocks using the Effort Map and click any block to “View all block data” to see when it’s been visited in the past.
  • Habitats. Each block needs to have every accessible habitat visited. For many habitats, there are key species that are good indicators. Search Savannah Sparrow on the Species Map to see what blocks have had grasslands covered, or check for Virginia Rail (marshes) or Scarlet Tanager (hardwood forest). If you see a block that doesn’t have one of those species, but has the habitat, this is where you come in!
  • Daytime effort. Each block needs 20+ hours of effort during the daytime to be covered. A quick check of the Effort Map can show which blocks haven’t yet met this, and where your visits are especially valuable!
  • Nocturnal effort. Each block needs 2+ hours of effort at night. This can be one of the biggest gaps, and any nocturnal birding is especially valuable. Check the Effort Map and choose “Nocturnal effort hours” from the drop-down to see what’s needed.
  • Species totalsThe number of breeding species in any given block is variable across the state, but looking at the Effort Map (choose coded species from the drop-down in the upper left) gives a good sense of where there’s been comprehensive effort so far. The less red, the more valuable your sightings generally are!
  • Confirmed speciesSame story as species totals, just choose “confirmed species” from the Effort Map, and work to get that Confirmed total to be 50% of the Coded total!

We recommend using the above criteria to select one or more blocks to focus on for your next atlasing endeavor.

As you’re browsing the above elements, you may notice three regions that are common themes for areas that need coverage: the Adirondacks, the Catskills, and the Allegany Plateau. These are the three regions that will need the most focus over the next four years, and any help there is incredibly valuable.

Focus your planning

So you’ve used the steps above to pick the block(s) you want to visit next time you go atlasing—now how can you focus your planning to have the best time atlasing?

The best thing to do is to go to the Explore section of the Atlas website, and search for your block(s) in the upper right corner of the page. These block summary pages give you the full picture of what’s already known for that block. This can be really valuable to check the species list for things like:

  • Early and late breeders
  • Nocturnal and crepuscular species
  • Wetland, grassland, shrub, and forest birds
  • Common species – don’t overlook Rock Pigeons, European Starlings, and House Sparrows!
  • Species that could be upgraded from no code or Possible breeding to Probable or Confirmed breeding

If you notice specific ‘holes’ in the species list, or opportunities to upgrade, then that’s a great way to focus your efforts. Use this guide for more details on how to determine when a block is finished.

One great way to approach things is by habitat. Habitats are key for breeding birds, and it can be really helpful to plan a route for your atlasing. Here are some resources to view and read block maps, and how to best access private property:

How to have the most fun atlasing

Okay, you’ve figured out where to go, you know what your targets are, and what your route is. Now, how can you have the most fun while you’re actually there?

First up, while you’re moving around the block on the route that you planned, it’s critical to know your location in the field. While you’re atlasing, make sure to keep a checklist for each location: a good rule of thumb is that if you get out of the car, start a new list, and stop that list when you get back in the car.

Once you’ve got the navigation down, it’s time to find birds! Perhaps the most single valuable tip for atlasing across seasons is to focus with your ears: keep track of songs and calls that you hear, and if something sounds unusual, track it down and it might be a fledgling or something unusual!

If you’re there in the early season, think about early nesters. Or explore hints on finding breeding birds throughout the state. Are you planning for July? Time to brush up on fledgling ID, or perhaps just learn how to confirm more species!

No matter what, have a great time, and enjoy your time birding. Thank you for helping us all better understand New York’s breeding birds.