Minn. birders work on breeding atlas

This spring and summer, volunteers from around the state will be on the prowl for singing males. But they wonâÄôt be scouting out the next American Idol. These citizen scientists will be on the lookout for telltale signs and songs of mating birds as they begin collecting data for the stateâÄôs first breeding bird atlas, which will be used for both conservation and academic research. About 17 birders gathered Wednesday evening at the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Bell Museum of Natural History to learn how to survey and record breeding indicators. Project leaders estimate it will take 1,000 or more citizen scientist volunteers, $1.4 million and six years to complete the atlas, which will survey part of each of MinnesotaâÄôs 2,250 townships. The atlas has been a long time coming: Despite MinnesotansâÄô long-standing interest in birds, itâÄôs one of the last states to undertake a comprehensive breeding bird survey and the only state in the Mississippi River bird migration path without one. Leading the effort is Bird Conservation Minnesota, a 175 -group consortium that took the project on because it was too big for any single organization to undertake by itself, consortium chair Scott Lanyon said. The atlas project isnâÄôt aiming to survey the entire state this year, Lanyon said. TheyâÄôll start by recruiting experienced birders and hope to invite and train new birders into the project later this year or next. Bonnie Sample, who coordinates the atlas project, said they have at least 100 interested volunteers right now and expect at least 250 before breeding season ends in late summer. She said she didnâÄôt know how many townships volunteers would be able to survey this year, but estimated at least 300. An experienced citizen scientist herself, Sample said itâÄôs inspiring for people to make significant personal contributions to things that really matter to them. âÄúCitizen science gives people a chance to do something that comes from the heart,âÄù she said. Clay Christensen, Park Bugle birding columnist and retired business analyst, was at WednesdayâÄôs training. A birder of over 20 years, he said he sees volunteering to work on the atlas as a way to give back to the hobby. He expects to spend between three and five full days surveying his area this year. He added he enjoys going back to the same place, seeing it change and âÄúthe serendipity of finding something you had no idea was going to be there.âÄù Bird Conservation Minnesota has secured $415,000 to fund the projectâÄôs first two years, Audubon Minnesota âÄôs Director of Bird Conservation Mark Martell said. Money is coming from a two-year grant of state lottery funds allocated by the Legislative-CitizensâÄô Commission on MinnesotaâÄôs Resources , and through partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and private bird conservation organizations. Martell said, despite the economic downturn, he hopes funding from current partners will continue because they understand the state needs the atlas information. The atlas could be used for conservation by providing a basis for protecting certain areas where birds are abundant or rarities reside, fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology professor and department head Francie Cuthbert said. âÄúYou essentially canâÄôt conserve what you donâÄôt know,âÄù she said. Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas Director Bettie Harriman said the project, based on data collected between 1995 and 2000, has helped determine which Wisconsin areas should be pinpointed for protection. Wisconsin atlas data manager Jennifer Davis said developers rely on the data to keep their projects in line with environmental laws, which prevent things like building bridges through migratory pathways. Researchers also request data to get a heads-up about where certain species are breeding, she said. Lanyon, a University professor who heads the ecology, evolution and behavior department, said the atlas data will facilitate University research. Harriman said she is pleased Minnesota will be filling in the regionâÄôs breeding bird picture, as bird research often goes beyond state boundaries. A starting point for measuring climate change effects in Minnesota, Cuthbert said this benchmark breeding census could be compared with future surveys to find out how the changing climate and landscape affect where birds go to breed. Breeding distribution patterns revealed by the atlas will likely spur further research, Cuthbert added. âÄúThis will definitely uncover some interesting questions,âÄù she said.