Atlaser Spotlight: Zoe Finney

By Carrie Becker December 9, 2015

This year, over 700 volunteer Atlasers documented an extraordinary array of birds breeding in Wisconsin, including eight species that weren’t found 15 years ago. In 2015 alone, Atlasers documented the location and breeding activity of more than 1.7 million birds.

Who are these incredible volunteers? It turns out that once you get past the binoculars, our hundreds of Atlasers are as varied as the bird species they observe. This series turns the spotlight on a few of the many dedicated men and women who have helped the Atlas achieve such tremendous success during its first season.

Name: Zoe Finney

Age: 28

I’m from Hamilton, Ohio, but I’ve lived in Milwaukee for over 5 years.

Number of Years Birdwatching:
I’ve been a birder for 1.5 years.

Past Citizen Science Experience:
I participated in a BioBlitz (an intensive 24-hour identification effort on one area of land) at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center on the birding team. I actually work at Schlitz Audubon as the graphic designer. My love of birds has definitely been cultivated in my time at the Center.


Blackburnian warbler, photo by Nick Anich.

Favorite bird:
I love the color orange, so my favorite bird is a three-way tie: Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart, and the Baltimore Oriole.

Motivation to Atlas:
I’ve had some wonderful teachers/mentors out on the trails. Marilyn Bontly and Norma Zehner (two experienced Atlasers in my block) were talking about the Atlas and invited me to the first organizational / intro meeting at the beginning of the season. I was nervous to sign up, since I am a newer birder, but I knew that I would have their help along the way. I atlased in the Thiensville CE block, primarily birding at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

Most Memorable Atlas Experience:
My most memorable Atlas experience was following a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher family from nest-building to fledging. This family built their nest in a tree in the parking lot at Schlitz Audubon, so I was able to check on them periodically. I got to see the parents carrying nesting material and building the nest, the female incubating, the furious feeding shifts from the parents once the young had hatched, and the highlight was seeing one of the parents remove a fecal sac from the nest. Gnatcatchers are apparently one of the species where the young will actually stick their rump out of the nest and the parents bravely remove the fecal sac directly from the bird. And finally, I saw at least two of the young fledge and test out their wings, moving from branch to branch in the same tree. It was amazing to see everything unfold in the course of a month or so.

Most Rewarding Part of Atlasing:
Atlasing was a great way to become more confident in my birding, helping me to be a better birder. Just the number of hours I spent in the field helped my birding. I was out in my block almost every day during spring migration and into the breeding months. I am still learning a ton, but it taught me to watch even more carefully, pay attention to the tiniest details and quirks of birds, and showed me what great work goes into these beautiful creatures making their homes and families. They are tireless workers, architects, food service, garbage removal, a “police” force—all in one tiny package! I already loved birds, but this gave me experiences that I may have missed otherwise.

Advice to Someone Interested in Atlasing:
I say go for it! You are helping citizen science, and you are going to see birds in a new light. If you’re on the fence because you don’t feel like you have enough experience, find a mentor, and bird with them. This is not a project that is meant to be done by yourself. There are birders all over the state that would love to take a new birder under their wing. The experiences and knowledge that I’ve gained in one season of atlasing is unparalleled. Grab your binoculars and get out there!