Assessing changes in the natural world – including COVID-19 incidence – is difficult without solid baseline data. If you don’t know where you were, how can you measure how far you have traveled?

We know that human memory is often faulty. Our memories fade. We are often selective in our memory retention. We may remember the snowy winters of our youth but not the mild ones, asserting that winters now aren’t what they used to be. Without data, impressions guided only by our memories are suspect.

Establishing a baseline for the distribution of birds of Maine is a major goal of the Maine Bird Atlas project. The third of five years is now under way. The project has two arms, the Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA) to document nesting across the state and the Winter Atlas to map our wintering birds.

For purposes of the BBA, the state is divided into over 4,000 blocks, each a square roughly 3 miles on a side; 974 of these blocks are designated as Priority Blocks. These randomly chosen priority blocks, when completed, will insure a thorough coverage of Maine. A minimum goal of the BBA is to complete surveys in all the priority blocks.

Birders with the time and energy to devote to a priority block may adopt it on the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas ( These birders commit to spending 20 hours censusing the block during the nesting season for evidence of nesting (e.g., gathering nesting material, eggs in a nest, nestlings in a nest, dependent fledged young). A priority block is not complete until 20 hours have been spent and at least half of the species have been assigned a confirmed breeding code.

To get all the priority blocks covered, the BBA team is relaxing its requirements for unclaimed blocks that have received little coverage to date. To complete these blocks, 15 hours of birding are required and 60% of the species have to have either a confirmed breeding code or a probable breeding code. Documenting probable breeding is often fairly easy. Two criteria are the presence of seven or more singing males within the block on a given day and singing by a territorial male on two days, separated by at least a week.


So, here’s where you come in. Even if you do not want to take on the responsibility of adopting a priority block, you can still devote time to helping complete a block. Visiting the block a couple of times this summer will certainly provide many probable and confirmed breeding records. In the last two summers of the atlas, the coordinators of the project will make sure that someone gets that block up to the minimum 15 hours of coverage.

Here’s how to get started. Go to: and zoom in on your area of interest in the state. The priority blocks are outlined with thick black marks. The light-colored ones have received little or no coverage. Just click on a block and a pop-up will give you information on the number of hours that have been devoted to that block, the number of species and other information. Since only 347 of the 974 priority blocks have been adopted, I daresay that you can find a priority block near you that would benefit from your participation.

The state has been divided up into 31 super regions, each of which has a regional coordinator. You can find the name and email address of the coordinator in your area at:

She or he will be glad to suggest blocks near you that need help.

Of course, you may observe breeding behavior in your yard, which may not be in a priority block. By all means, submit the record to the BBA at However, if you have some time to devote to the BBA, choose a priority block near you.

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

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