Loudoun County Bird Atlas Soars to Great Heights
Vol. 18 Issue 2, Summer 2013
By Spring Ligi
Birds provide an easy and powerful way to connect to our natural world. From a park bench in a busy city, to a feeder in a suburban yard and rural country farm, birds are everywhere! In 2009, the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy launched a project that took bird watching to a whole new level. The 2009-2013 Loudoun County Bird Atlas challenges even experienced birders to carefully observe and listen to the birds around us, documenting their full range of behaviors and vocalizations. This level of observation often changes your outlook on birds and their connection to the natural world around them.
What exactly is the Loudoun County Bird Atlas? The atlas is a five-year citizen science project to establish a comprehensive list of breeding and non-breeding birds in Loudoun County, including their distribution throughout the county. Most bird atlases are conducted at the state level and collect data only on breeding birds. The Loudoun County Bird Atlas is unique (and even cutting edge!) in that the project is focused on a single county and collects data year-round for both breeding and non-breeding birds. The results of this project, organized and funded by Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, will indicate important bird areas throughout the county and help us design conservation strategies to preserve these areas. Thanks to the efforts and skill of over 60 enthusiastic atlasers, we have recorded more than 250 species in Loudoun County, with 103 of these species having a confirmed nesting status. The atlasers have spent over 5,000 hours in the field documenting 56,400 sightings.
Thanks to our partners at USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, current atlas results can be viewed from the atlas website . The final results and conclusions will be published both electronically and conventionally and will be readily available to Loudoun County residents.
The Bird Atlas has met with great success, allowing us to draw comparisons between our current data and data collected during the 1985-1989 Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA). We are beginning to note changes in a few of our bird populations over the past 25 years. Some species have benefited from the environmental and habitat changes that have occurred, while others have not fared as well. One shining example of a species that has thrived is our national bird, the Bald Eagle. The 1985-1989 Virginia BBA did not document any evidence of breeding Bald Eagles in Loudoun County. Our 2009-2013 Bird Atlas has reported this species in almost every part of the county with breeding behaviors noted in 9 of 75 blocks.
Other Bird Atlas highlights include reports of breeding for Hooded Merganser, Loggerhead Shrike, Dickcissel, Cerulean and Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Bobwhite, Horned Lark, and Savannah Sparrow. Many rarities have been documented, including Black Rail, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common Redpoll, Alder and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadee, and Rusty Blackbird.
The atlasers are the heart and soul of this project; it is their hard work and dedication that have made the atlas such a success. A complete picture of the Bird Atlas cannot be painted without their stories and insights. Here are a few personal highlights:
- Christine Perdue’s favorite atlas sightings include “a nest of Kentucky Warblers with chicks, observing a new Bald Eagle nest with two chicks, and finding species of special interest — Cerulean Warbler and Black-billed Cuckoo — in areas where they had not been noted before.”
- “Confirming breeding for the Prothonotary Warbler, seeing an Osprey nest-building, and finding a Red Phalarope” are high points for John Williamson.
- Karin MacDowell enjoyed “watching a mature Bald Eagle ying over our house for several days — time was almost dot on at 5:30 pm. He probably had been fishing in Catoctin Creek and went home north for the night.”
- Clarice Dieter fondly recalls “a White-breasted Nuthatch edgling who followed his Dad into the feeder tree, and then cried mournfully when the adult took off for a minute or two. (He did come back.)”
- Along with several remarkable sightings, Kathy Calvert also notes “talking with home-owners who were very welcoming to me when they realized I was for conservation and habitat preservation and was documenting birds and nesting behavior.”
Atlasing has touched the lives of many atlasers, with a few of their insights as follows:
- Joanne Bradbury notes that “Gathering data for the atlas requires you to pay close attention to bird behavior and this has allowed me to learn so much more about individual traits of each species. It has given me the opportunity to view remarkable and delightful things about birds that I would normally miss if I weren’t watching so closely. Now I appreciate these special treasures and wonders of nature even more than before.”
- Nancy Reaves agrees, saying “Working with the Loudoun County Bird Atlas has helped me become a better observer and listener. I began atlasing as a relatively new birder. Looking back on myself I feel like there was a curtain drawn over my eyes and cotton in my ears. Working with the atlas has drawn those aside. When I step outside now I hear and see individual birds calling all around me. How could I not have heard and seen these before? It amazes me.”
- Christine Perdue points out another aspect of the atlas, adding, “The atlas has a built-in competitive incentive, i.e., trying to meet and better the findings for the last atlas in the 1980s. This is also a quick way to isolate changes in habitat and species dispersal. In western Loudoun, where my atlas efforts have focused, it is disheartening to realize that some species like the Bobwhite, which were breeding 25 years ago in all sectors of atlas Region 6, have largely disappeared. At the same time, other species which were not identified at all in the 1980s — Bald Eagles, Fish Crows, Ravens, and Red-headed Woodpeckers, for example — are now relatively abundant. We tend to focus on the negatives of habitat change, so it is useful to recognize that there have been some changes for the better.”
- Mary Ann Good found the atlas building her appreciation not just of birds but also of Loudoun County itself: “One of my favorite parts of atlasing was doing several mini-route abundance surveys. These involve going out in the fresh early morning when the birds are at their most active and, covering as much of an atlas block as possible on a driving route, stopping every half mile and spending a few minutes listening and looking for every species. It gave me a heightened appreciation for the beauty to be found in the hidden nooks and crannies of our still-mostly-rural county, and an increased determination to conserve them for both us and the birds and wildlife we share them with.”
- Donna Quinn recalls, “There are moments observing breeding behaviors we will never forget. One day in the Dulles Wetlands we heard a pitiful crying, the kind of crying that urgently announces something terrible is happening. When our group neared the water we observed a female Wood Duck frantically trying to protect her ducklings from a Cooper’s Hawk. The hawk was in the water and the duck was wailing and wailing, attempting to protect her young. Wood Ducks are small birds and it was deeply moving to see her so fearlessly defending her little ones against a much larger and stronger opponent. As brutal as the scene was, I had to remind myself the Coop was probably trying to feed her young and their survival depended on her ability to feed them. This heartbreaking battle forced me to think about the struggles wild creatures face every moment of their lives. Whether from natural causes or man-made threats, their lives are a continuous fight to survive. And while we can’t save every duckling from predation, we can preserve wild places for them to exist and fulfill whatever their destiny is.”
- Bruce Hill remarks, “To do an Atlas survey justice, you can’t just see a bird briefly, or hear it call, then check a list and move on. Watching a bird court a mate, build a nest, care for young, or establish its territory not only solidifies its place on the list as an Atlas breeding species, it is fundamental to really understanding that bird’s behavior and life-cycle. By taking the time to do it right, we build a deeper intimacy with the birds we see. And this intimacy makes the value of conservation and habitat protection that much more urgent and tangible… The Atlas provides a great excuse to spend more time close to home, in our own backyards, small local open spaces, parks, and other niche habitats that we might otherwise ignore. What we find there refreshes our understanding that birds are an integral part of our local environment, whether urban, suburban or rural, wild or tame. Hopefully, this rediscovery renews our commitment to protecting them everywhere.”
It’s not too late to join in the fun and help with this important project. As we enter our fifth and final breeding season, there are still atlas blocks in need of coverage. Experienced atlasers will be leading small groups on blockbusting surveys throughout the county. If you are interested in joining one of these groups or otherwise helping with the Bird Atlas, please contact Atlas Coordinator, Spring Ligi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And remember, the next time you see a bird in your backyard or soaring through the sky, take some time to really observe and listen to it. You may be rewarded with an inside glimpse of its personal life. Get to know the birds around you. Happy Birding!