Volunteers Needed to Count Pennsylvania’s Birds

Those birds you see in the backyard, around camp, while hiking or otherwise outside? They’re more important than you think.

Reporting your observations of them is, too.

The Game Commission, together with Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, is conducting the third Pennsylvania Bird Atlas in state history. Between now and February 2029, it will document what birds live in Pennsylvania, where and in what numbers.

“The atlas will provide a snapshot of the population status and distribution of birds in the Commonwealth,” said Game Commission Ornithologist Sean Murphy. “No other bird surveys are as comprehensive, and for that reason, the results are critical to the establishment of conservation priorities for Pennsylvania birds.”

But getting those results takes people. Lots and lots of them in lots and lots of places.

So, the Game Commission and Hawk Mountain are asking volunteers to look for birds, note those they see and report those details at eBird (https://ebird.org/atlaspa). Step one to getting started is visiting the site and creating an account. Then, volunteers can access all the necessary information and tools to participate, including a volunteer handbook and other printable handouts, and track what others are seeing in real time (click the “explore” tab).

There’s no particular level of expertise needed.

The atlas has a full-time coordinator, Amber Wiewel of Hawk Mountain. There are paid bird counters, as well.

But most atlas data come from volunteers ranging from hard-core birders to more casual lovers of wildlife. Without them – all of them – no atlas can succeed, said Stefan Karkuff, the Game Commission’s Avian Recovery Biologist.

“The results of this atlas are only useful if the data is robust, meaning the more checklists the better,” he said. “So it’s really an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation. We need contributors from all corners of the state, especially people who live in the more remote parts where there are fewer birders. Their data is valuable because it helps fill in holes on the map where birds would otherwise go unreported.”

The state’s northern tier is one such place, Murphy said. With its big chunks of public land, portions of it sometimes get comparatively less attention than urban and suburban areas. The interior portions of state game lands in particular can be hard to access and so sometimes are a challenge to survey.

But anyone anywhere can participate. That’s the power of the atlas, Murphy said. Every observation recorded helps lay the groundwork for bird conservation now and in the future.

History shows that. Pennsylvania did its first bird atlas in the 1980s. The second followed in the early 2000s. Those revealed news good and bad.

On the plus side, Murphy said they showed catbirds are doing well – 12% of the world’s population lives in Pennsylvania – as are woodpeckers of all sorts, likely due to the recovery of Pennsylvania’s forests and appropriate management. On the negative, they revealed the extent to which American goshawks and northern harriers are struggling. The former has since been listed as a state-endangered species, the latter as a state-threatened one.

This latest atlas could – and likely will – similarly highlight areas of promise and concern, which in turn could lead to new or changing wildlife management strategies.

Breeding birds are again a focus of the atlas, to allow for historical, apples-to-apples comparisons in population trends and range use for individual species. But unlike the first two atlases, this third one also involves looking for birds overwintering in the state.

“I contend that we have much to learn about the distribution and abundance of birds in Pennsylvania in winter, and that a winter atlas effort, as part of a third Pennsylvania Bird Atlas, could set an important baseline for repeating winter atlas efforts in decades to come,” Murphy said. “It will be a new type of survey that will come with challenges, but the added value will be worth the work.”

This atlas also features some other innovations.

Special surveys meant to focus attention on hard-to-detect species including marsh birds like bitterns and rails, nightjars including common nighthawks and whip-poor-wills, and owls and other nocturnal species is one. Expanded “point counts,” or tallies of birds detected at fixed positions during a specified time, are another.

“First-generation atlases focused primarily on distribution, where a species exists,” Murphy added. “Over time the value of abundance – how many individuals there are – has become increasingly important, so second-generation atlases and beyond have often included standardized surveys, such as point counts.”

Add everything up and there’s a lot of information to collect, Murphy said. That’s why the atlas requires an army of volunteers.

“Whether an observer submits data for one nesting species or 100, it all goes toward the atlas,” Murphy said. “If you get on eBird, whether the smartphone app or the desktop version, and enter a record with breeding codes, you’re an official atlaser!”