Maximizing your Atlas Productivity in Mid-Summer

By Ashley Peele June 29, 2018
Pileated Woodpecker chick at Newport News VA

CO Bob Schamerhorn

July has arrived with some of our hottest and often driest weeks of the summer.  It is tempting to write off birding efforts at this time of year as many folks believe that birds are less active during these hot months.  Not so! While birds may sing less frequently, July is a very busy time for most breeding species.  The early breeders are working on their second clutches of the season, while late-breeding species are just beginning. For example, American Goldfinches have just begun to build nests and lay their first clutches of eggs.

However, it is hot out there and we want to consider how to best maximize our Atlas efforts, i.e. upgrading breeding statuses, for what remains of the summer.  To that end, here are some tips to consider…

  1. Review the block data before going out. Cornell continues to work with BBA projects to develop better and better tools.  Use the ‘Explore a Region’ tool OR the brand new Atlas Effort Maps to review a block’s summary data. This will allow you to focus on the species that need to be upgraded to Probable or Confirmed breeders. MANY atlas priority blocks only  need a handful of additional probable or confirmed codes to be completed.  Use these eBird tools to identify what species are your best targets.
  2. Get out early AND late. The mid-summer dawn chorus is nearly always accompanied by a flurry of activity, including carrying food, feeding young, or chasing after fledglings.  As the day warms, activity levels wane, but typically pick up once again in the late afternoon/early evening.  Adult birds often hurry to forage and feed chicks and fledglings as evening approaches. Have you ever noticed how busy your hummingbird feeders get as dusk falls?  Consider combining an evening birding walk with some nocturnal survey time.  If you do, don’t forget that you need to start a new checklist 30 minutes after sunset for it to be classified as nocturnal.
  3. Slow down!  Instead of trying to cover lots of ground, pick a smaller area within your block to slowly work through.  Pace is often correlated with # of breeding codes reported, so slow things down to cover less ground more thoroughly.
  4. Find the vantage points. Along with covering less ground, try to find productive locations for stationary counts. Productive locations typically provide a good field of view for some distance, as well as a mix of habitats (forest, edge, shrubs, and grasses).  Fledglings are often lurking on the edges of habitat within dense vegetation, where foraging parents can check on them.  Identifying such vantage points can prove surprisingly effective, especially in wooded landscapes.
  5. Be quiet. Once you’ve found your vantage points, sit quietly for a while.  Volunteers often share stories of the exciting behaviors they observed after sitting quietly in a location for anywhere from 15-45 minutes.  Birds will acclimate to your presence and return to their normal activities, giving you a peak into what is REALLY going on in that meadow or woodlot
  6. Narrow your focus. Instead of trying to track many different birds at once, focus in on one or two adult birds at a time.  If fledglings aren’t obvious, try to keep your eyes on potential parent birds and follow their activity.  This will often lead you to the location of hidden nests or fledglings.
  7. Stay alert for fledgling calls. While hatchling or fledgling calls are not typically distinctive enough to ID to species, detecting such sounds can lead you to young birds or nest sites. Last week while birding in dense rhododendron thickets in Patrick county, I found a group of Ovenbird and Black-and-White Warbler fledglings by following the high, squeaky chip notes to their respective locations in a rhododendron thicket. Young birds abound at this time of year and finding them provides a quick and easy confirmation.
  8. Confusing fledgling? Wait for the parents.  In the previous example, it was not readily obvious to me that the Ovenbird fledglings were in fact Ovenbirds!  They were brownish, fuzzy, streaky, with light bellies… that was about it!  After waiting around for a couple of minutes, a very agitated adult Ovenbird showed up and chipped loudly at me as it circled the fledglings.  Ding, ding! Here was mom or dad to provide the species ID.  When in doubt about the species of a young bird, wait for the parent to return.

    Barn Swallow Fledglings (CO Amy Johnson Venclik)

  9. Be alert for suspicious behavior. At other times, distinguishing between an adult and an older fledgling can be difficult. Here are some behaviors to watch out for:
    1. Are there more than 2 birds hanging out together? This can be a good tip-off in the breeding season.  Look for features like shorter tails, fleshy pale gapes at the corners of the mouth, and oddly smaller or shorter bills.
    2. Is a bird sitting really still? This isn’t a normal bird behavior, so examine more closely.  It might be a fledgling attempting to stay hidden or a female waiting to return to her nest.
  10. Caution! Be wary of older juveniles.  This is also the time of year when we need to use caution when applying the FL code.  If you see a bird, e.g. a cardinal, that fledged this year, but has no downy fluff, a full-length tail, is foraging on its own, and/or is flying well, then it may not have originated locally.  Many species of songbirds, hawks, etc. disperse far away from their nests after fully fledging.  So code with care.