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Meet Garrett Rhyne, a Jack-of-all-Atlas-trades

By Ashley Peele June 9, 2017
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One of the overarching goals and hopes of the second Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas is to foster an appreciation for birds in new or young birders.  While the success of this project depends greatly on the participation of experienced, often retired volunteers, the larger goal of promoting a sustainable and long-term bird conservation ethic within Virginia depends greatly on each generation.  Over the next couple of weeks, we will be sharing the stories of several of our ‘young’ Atlas volunteers.  These are students and recent graduates whose love of birds and wildlife conservation has led them to volunteer for the VABBA2 and pursue careers in this field.

This week, I’d like to share the story of Garrett Rhyne, a rising junior at Virginia Tech, who has the unique position of being both an Atlas volunteer and this summer, a field technician for the project.  Before we dive into his current birding adventures, let’s flash back to how he got his start in this field…

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on nest (Garrett Rhyne)

Some birders are fortunate enough to discover their love of birds at a very young age.  Garrett is one such lucky fellow.  His love of the outdoors began as a young boy scout who spent much of his time in the woods near his home.  As he tells it, he decided quite intentionally to become a self-taught birder because he knew no one to ask for help and mentoring.  Instead, armed with his tiny binoculars and a new Kaufman guide, he set to teaching himself the birds that dwelt in his backyard.

The Eastern Bluebird quickly became his first favorite backyard species and led him to begin building nest boxes, tracking the breeding efforts of countless chickadees, titmice, and bluebirds that fledged young from his boxes.  Being able to closely observe the success of these boxes greatly contributed to his applying to and entering Virginia Tech’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife as a Wildlife Conservation major.  At that point, Garrett threw himself into serious birding.  He started tracking his life list, taking and leading birding trips, finally ‘learning those darn (and eventually favorite) warblers and their songs.”  Additionally, Garrett took advantage of other research and experience opportunities at VT, including minoring in forestry and undertaking an independent research project on freshwater mussels.

Singing Chestnut-Sided Warbler (Garrett Rhyne)

Now, after two years of work to develop his birding eye and ear, Garrett began volunteering with the Atlas this Spring and working for the VA Breeding Bird Point-Count project(VABB-PC), a complimentary effort to the VABBA2, which is also being coordinated by researchers at VT’s Conservation Management Institute.  The citizen-science based Atlas project focuses on collecting breeding distribution and behavioral data, while the VABB-PC uses a different set of survey methods to document abundance of breeding bird species around the state.  Like many of our other point-count technicians, Garrett works full-time conducting point-counts, while still contributing breeding behavior observations in his free-time.  In his case, most of his work is based in southwest Virginia, where the project is in great need of more breeding observations.  His volunteer contributions are adding breeding information to very under-birded blocks and counties.

I asked Garrett when he started using eBird and I was pleased to hear that getting involved with the Atlas project motivated him to really start using this great system, “eBird and the VABBA2 data has been the best tool a birder could ask for. I have used it to find certain species, to find where to go birding, and to keep track of migrations.”  As many volunteers have found, the Atlas eBird portal, and eBird generally, are not only a place to log your breeding bird observations, but also a great way to learn more about Virginia’s bird communities.

Blue-headed Vireo on nest (Garrett Rhyne)

Similarly, the Atlas project is not only a way to contribute data to an important conservation effort, but also a way to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of birds.  Garrett shared some of his thoughts with me on this topic…

“Best of all, being part of the VABBA2 community has furthered my interest in breeding behavior.  It’s a great transition for a birder to go from, ‘Hey look, it’s a Northern Parula!’ to ‘Hey, that Northern Parula is singing a weird, aggressive song and keeps flying back to the same thickets. Do you think there’s a nest back there? Let’s keep watching to see what else it does!’  Observing breeding behavior makes birding much more insightful and meaningful, and so VABBA2 is a great way for citizen scientists to relay those cool behaviors we see in the field. Because of this, I plan to further develop my interest in breeding behavior, using it to study habitat management implications and help determine the most productive conservation practices for birds and other wildlife.”

Hearing those words makes the teacher inside of me, and I venture inside many of us, do a little happy-dancing.  If the Atlas can serve to not only gather important data about Virginia’s breeding bird populations, but also excite and motivate students, young and old, then we will have done our job well.  Let Garrett’s story be a good example for us all to stay excited about learning and to do what we can to uplift the next generation of young conservationists.

~Ashley Peele, PhD – State Coordinator of the VA Breeding Bird Atlas

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