Breeding evidence can take many forms, such as seeing a bird carry nesting materials—like sticks, grass, or mud—or seeing a bird schlep food—grubs, worms, insects, etc.—back to a nest to feed its young. On the official atlas checklist there are 20 observation codes, ranging from a lowly “observed” (meaning you saw a bird but no evidence of breeding activity), to “possible,” “probable,” and “confirmed.” As a surveyor, “confirmed” breeding activity is what you’re after; everything else is just data that needs to be “upgraded.”
It’s fairly easy to identify the 15 or 20 most common birds in a territory. After that the game soon turns to finding new species that haven’t been recorded yet.
LAGGING BEHIND OTHER STATES
The offices of Audubon Minnesota are located at the back of an industrial park in Woodbury, disconcertingly close to 494. From her cubicle there, the director of the MNBBA project, Bonnie Sample, manages dozens of regional coordinators who in turn supervise more than 800 volunteers throughout the state.
An energetic silver-haired woman who talks fast and smart about the project that has consumed the past four years of her life, Sample is no slouch of a birder herself.
On a steamy afternoon in June, she agreed to accompany me on a nature walk through nearby Ojibway Park. But first, she wanted to show me something. She pulled from her shelf a fat yellow book titled Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.
“This is what we’re working toward,” she said. “Essentially, it’s a great big book that describes the species in the state, with data that displays where a species of bird was found and how strong the evidence was for breeding.”
The fact that she was holding up Wisconsin’s atlas is a sensitive, somewhat shameful subject in birding circles. Minnesota may be ahead of the curve in many things, but it is one of the last states in the country to get an official breeding bird atlas, and it’s the only state along the Mississippi River flyway—the migratory superhighway used by hundreds of bird species each year—not to have one.
There are all sorts of reasons why Minnesota has fallen behind in the atlas race. “The problem is that Minnesota is an enormous state, both geographically and relative to the population. It’s huge,” Sample explains. “We have only a few major population centers—the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester—and then there’s greater Minnesota. Greater Minnesota is really, really big.”
In terms of habitat and terrain, Minnesota isn’t a monochrome state like Kansas or Nebraska, either. “We have the northern bogs, coniferous forests, prairies and parklands, agriculture in the southwest, blufflands in the southeast, and everything in between,” says Sample. “Our great diversity of habitat leads us to have lots of birds, as well as many different kinds of birds”—which makes counting them exponentially more difficult.
Officially, 422 species of birds have been observed in Minnesota over the years. To count the ones that nest here, Audubon Minnesota carved the state into thousands of nine-square-mile blocks, separated by township. Volunteers take responsibility for one or more blocks, and a special team of professionals fills in the gaps. Until I got involved in the project, my idea of a bird-watcher was a boot-wearing octogenarian with oversized binoculars around his neck. That was before I discovered how difficult it is to count little creatures that know how to fly away from you—and how amazing professional birders are at finding them.
Within three minutes of arriving at Ojibway Park, Sample, who calls herself “a decent birder,” had identified a black-capped chickadee, a yellow warbler, a cowbird, a wood thrush, an egret, a cardinal, and a chipping sparrow. Dozens of robins and grackles were raiding a soccer field for seeds, and Sample remarked, “I’ve never seen so many robins in June.”
Then she stopped and said, “Hear that?” The sound she was referring to was a weird nasal wheeze that had a regular in/out rhythm to it. “Those are crow hatchlings calling for their mother,” she said. “You can tell by the insistence of it. It never stops.” A minute or so later, a large crow flew into the thicket of trees we were watching, and suddenly the noise stopped. “Mama brought lunch,” Sample smiled.
One crow’s nest confirmed.
WHY BIRD COUNTS COUNT
The project I volunteered for isn’t the only bird count to which members of the public contribute data. The best-known are the annual Christmas Bird Count, held nationally every year in the last two weeks of December, as well as the Great Backyard Bird Count, held in the United States and Canada over four days in mid-February. Cornell University’s Project Feederwatch is a winter-long tabulation of backyard bird sightings logged by residents of the United States and Canada, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does its own breeding bird survey every year, which targets specific areas in the state, mainly along roadways and in well-known bird habitats.
Most of these counts are done during wintertime, however, excluding migratory birds that spend the winter in Central and South America. None of them is as comprehensive or thorough as the MNBBA is going to be.
“The atlas will give us the big picture for birds in Minnesota,” says Carrol Henderson, non-game wildlife program supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources. “It will have broad conservancy applications. When we can compare our results to other state maps and see what’s happening in various habitats, we’ll be better able to identify vulnerable species that need to be protected, or ones that can be de-listed [from the endangered species list]. We’ll also have much more information for land-management decisions.”