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Pennsylvania birders twitch from arrival of second atlas

Penn State key partner in new breeding bird atlas
Indigo Bunting Photo credit: Robert Mulvihill

With the dedication of more than 2,000 volunteers, 52 authors, and a number of trained ornithologists, geographic information specialists, and other professionals, the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania was published in November 2012 by the Penn State University Press. Edited by Andrew M. Wilson, Daniel W. Brauning, and Robert S. Mulvihill, this collaborative statewide project brings our knowledge of Pennsylvania’s bird populations up to date, and birders, ornithologists, conservationists, and policymakers alike will benefit from the expansive yet meticulous information contained in this atlas.

Data collection took place from 2004 through 2009, roughly twenty years after the first official atlas project (1983 through 1989), and the data assembled document the distribution of each species and show changes in distribution since the publication of the first atlas.

The atlas begins with an overview of the geography, habitats and habitat change occurring in Pennsylvania, followed by an explanation of research methods and results, and a discussion on conservation implications. The atlas contains species accounts for the 190 birds that breed in the state, and includes a concise description of each breeding species, its geographic location, breeding behaviors, and population status. Also included are detailed maps of the distribution of the species, the change in distribution from the first atlas to the second, and often a third map of estimated abundance. 

Many Penn State researchers were involved in the project. Riparia, a research center focused on wetland science in the Department of Geography (formerly named the Cooperative Wetlands Center), was involved from the very beginning, and was tasked with designing the field surveys. Project partner Joe Bishop, currently the geospatial coordinator with Riparia, however, began his work with birds much earlier, when he began studying landscape change using data from the first atlas as response variables for his graduate research. “If a forest changes in any way, bird populations and species patterns will also change and are very telling as to the condition of the habitat’s ecological condition,” says Bishop. 

“The beauty of birds,” Bishop states, “is that there is a huge number of people who are dedicated to them.”

After the survey design was finalized, more than 2,000 volunteers, directed by 83 regional coordinators, compiled observations of bird species throughout the state, while a highly trained survey crew conducted bird counts at more than 34,000 sites to obtain estimates of the statewide populations for more than half of Pennsylvania’s 190 breeding species. “The beauty of birds,” Bishop states, “is that there is a huge number of people who are dedicated to them.”

Bishop refers to this atlas as “an awesome example of citizen science,” in which those dedicated birders, ornithologists, scientists, and others have collaborated tirelessly on a decade-long project.

Rob Brooks, professor of geography and ecology in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and director of Riparia, says, “The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania is a major achievement. The trends are most revealing when compared to the first atlas, but the second atlas stands alone as a window into the condition of bird communities as an ecological keystone of Pennsylvania’s ecosystems.”

Other Penn State faculty were integral to the project: Bernd Haupt, senior research associate in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ Earth and Environmental Sciences Institute, co-authored the chapter “The Geography of Pennsylvania,” and Margaret Brittingham, professor of wildlife resources in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and Joe Bishop co-authored the chapter “Habitats and Habitat Change.”

The Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access, known as PASDA, also contributed to the effort. Developed by Penn State in 1996 and supported by the Governor's Office of Administration, PASDA is the official public access geospatial information clearinghouse for the state and a partner with PSIEE. Maurie Kelly, who directs PASDA, says that they were “one cog in a vast wheel that made the atlas possible.” PASDA affiliates Ryan Baxter, information technology coordinator and Ph.D. candidate in geography, and James Spayd, data systems coordinator, created a mapping application that volunteers used to complete their surveys online, streamlining the data collection process. They also partnered with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to create a web application for volunteers to enter their observations into a database. PASDA also hosts the data from the first edition on their website. In the future, they will be able to conduct comparisons between the data from the first and the second atlases in order to assess changes in Pennsylvania’s bird populations, a task that will have important implications for bird conservation going forward.

Just as Bishop and Brooks articulate, Kelly calls this “a true community effort” and says that “the atlas is living proof that when people are focused on the same goal, they can successfully collaborate and make something great.”

The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania is available from the Penn State University Press. Visit online.


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