Halfway through the second field season of the VABBA2 project, many volunteers are turning their thoughts toward completing their Atlas blocks. Unlike many other breeding bird surveys, the Atlas project methods focus on completing a given block then moving on to others. There is no repeat-survey of the same block once completed, thus allowing volunteers to cover more areas over the five years of the project. Until recently, few Atlas blocks were surveyed sufficiently to be classified as complete, but efforts by our dedicated volunteers have now pushed many into this category.
Knowing how to gauge whether a block has sufficient coverage and effort to be ‘complete’ is an eternal challenge of breeding bird atlases. Some blocks will only have one or two habitat types and perhaps 30-40 potential breeding species. Others may be very diverse and have over 100 species present. Such variation makes it difficult to set benchmarks that apply to every Atlas block and situation. For this reason, we established a set of general criteria that Atlas volunteers can use to guide their survey efforts and assess whether they have sufficiently surveyed their Atlas block(s). However! Meeting all of these criteria is challenging. At times, compromises must be made for the sake of efficiency. With that in mind, let’s review the various completion guidelines and answer some commonly asked questions…
1. Surveys in a block should total at least 20 hours spread over multiple visits.
2. All habitat types present in a block have been visited (if accessible). Realistically, covering every square meter of your block is neither feasible nor productive. Instead, strive for thorough coverage of each available habitat type.
3. Surveys should be spread out over different times of the year. It is very important not to limit field observation time to peak months (late May – July).
4. At least 2 night visits should be conducted. Simply put, most nocturnal species will only be detected on nocturnal visits. Such visits are critical for documenting owls, nighthawks, Chuck-Wills-Widow, etc.
5. At least 50% of species detected are confirmed as breeding. The overarching goal is always to upgrade as many species to ‘Confirmed’ breeders as possible. For example, if you have 50 species detected in your block, strive to confirm breeding in 25 (50%) of those species.
6. Species detected in a block should equal at least 80% of confirmed breeding species documented in that same block in the first Atlas. Because the number of species will vary widely between blocks, atlasers should not focus on documenting an absolute number as a goal.
These parameters represent the cumulative effort that volunteers should attempt to achieve for block completion. However! Meeting all of these criteria will be a challenge. The guidelines above are listed in order of importance. Strive to meet at least the first four criteria, then assess where you stand relative to your effort and criteria 5 and 6.
Remember that you can use the Block Summary Card (available on the Atlas website) to keep track of the species total and effort in your Atlas block. Additionally, eBird can be used to track your progress in a given block. When you believe that you have completed a block, notify your regional coordinator. A statewide review effort will begin this Fall to verify current block completions.
Lastly, a block should be completed within one or two years of sign up. We need to cover many, many blocks in Virginia over the remaining 3 years of the Atlas project (2018-2020), so make the most of your time in the field. Please sign up for blocks that you intend to survey within 1-2 years. When these are completed within the project parameters and a block has been reviewed by your Regional and Atlas coordinator, consider signing up and surveying other priority blocks. This will the most efficient use of the time you are donating to the VABBA2.
On this final note, thank you so much for striving to be informed Atlas volunteers. The project leadership appreciates all of the folks working hard to complete Atlas blocks and increase coverage in their respective regions.
Links to web tools mentioned above:
Atlas website: www.vabba2.org
Atlas Block Explorer and Mapping Tool: http://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/BBA2/BlockExplorer/ (Also where volunteers can sign up for blocks)
Downloadable PDF of Atlas Handbook: http://amjv.org/resources_vabba2/VABBA2_Handbook_Draft_Final_2017.pdf
~ Dr. Ashley Peele, State Coordinator, 2nd VA Breeding Bird Atlas (VABBA2)