Like most organisms, birds vary in abundance in space and time. To protect our wildlife and manage our natural resources, we have to have an accurate inventory.

Preparing an atlas of distribution is an important tool for environmental managers.

An atlas establishes a baseline for gauging changes in the distribution and abundance of organisms. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife recently conducted atlas projects for dragonflies and damselflies, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies and currently bumblebees. IFW also spearheaded a breeding bird atlas for Maine based on field work between 1978 and 1983. It’s time for a new and more ambitious one.

IFW recently kicked off the second Maine Breeding Bird Atlas project. Under the direction of Adrienne Leppold, the new atlas will be a five-year project beginning this year. The project is a cooperative one with important partners in Maine Audubon, the Biodiversity Research Institute and the Maine Natural History Observatory. Hundreds of citizen scientists are needed as well.

Here’s the way it works. The state has been gridded up into 706 quadrangles based on the U.S. Geological Survey 7.5-minute maps. In turn, each quadrangle is divided into six equal blocks, each 3 miles by 2.9 miles in area. The state has 4,082 blocks. IFW has identified 974 “priority blocks,” equally spread across the state, that will be sampled. The remaining blocks will be sampled as time and person-power permit.

Within each block, volunteers seek evidence of breeding. Three levels of evidence are acceptable. “Possible breeding” is indicated by the presence of a singing bird or sighting of birds in suitable nesting habitat during the breeding season.

“Probable breeding” is indicated by various behaviors including seven or more singing birds, a bird singing at the same site for at least seven days, courtship behavior or visiting a probable nest site.

“Confirmed breeding” is indicated by such evidence as birds feeding young, birds carrying fecal sacs, distraction displays, nest building and parents feeding fledged young.

Anyone with an interest in birds can contribute records to the atlas. Perhaps you will have eastern phoebes nesting on your porch or see begging behavior by recently fledged black-capped chickadees at your feeder. You should report those records.

Volunteers are encouraged to adopt a block. A volunteer is expected to devote at least 20 hours of observations to surveying the block over the breeding season. You aren’t expected to sample all of the 8.7 square miles of the block but need to sample all the habitats.

Doing atlas work is great fun and a change of pace from typical birding. You focus on the behaviors of birds. Plus, 20 hours of birding spread out of two or three months is a modest commitment.

How do you sign up? Visit the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas website at maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/maine-bird-atlas/index.html

First, download and read the volunteer handbook. Once you are ready to adopt a block, go to the Explore & Adopt a Block link on the website. Navigate to your part of the state, find an unclaimed block and click.

You will be prompted for your name and other information. Once completed, the block will be marked with hatch marks and the block is yours.

If you would like to participate but don’t feel confident enough to adopt a block, you may wish to go in the field with a volunteer who has agreed to serve as a mentor. Contact the regional coordinator for your area (listed in the handbook) to see if any local block-owners are willing to mentor.

Data entry will be through a eBird portal (ebird.org/atlasme/home) although you can submit your data in written form.

IFW wants to have 2,000 volunteers in the project. Why not be one of them?

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at

[email protected]