|Birds & Mammals
Bird Atlas Introduction
Incidental (Breeding Season)
Daily (Breeding Season)
What happens after I volunteer to cover a square?
What happens after I volunteer to cover a square?
We will send you a participant's packet that includes several essential items:
You will need to supply your own
Your assignment, now that you have accepted it, is to find out what species of birds are breeding and wintering in that square, and to make an order-of-magnitude estimate of their abundance. Of course, as the laws of physics tell us, exhaustiveness is an unattainable goal. Therefore, adapting the guidelines of some other atlases, we've established some criteria for a uniform minimum threshold for all squares. For the breeding-bird phase, the threshold is met when all of the following are true...
For the winter-bird phase, the threshold is met when all of the following are true...
Please do not hesitate to contact Phil or any of the atlas' advisory group if you have questions, need further information, or encounter problems.
How should I schedule my field work?
Some planning ahead will make your effort in the field more efficient and enjoyable. Figure on making a minimum of five half-day field trips to your square for each of the breeding-bird and winter-bird phases of the project, to achieve the minimum 25-hour goal for each.
Allow two or three weeks between field trips to each square, because different species breed and migrate at different times, and breeding for different species is most easily confirmed at different phases of the nesting cycle. Use the information in this handbook and other references listed in the bibliography at the end to schedule your field trips to maximize your likelihood of confirming breeding for your target species.
For the breeding-bird phase of the atlas, for a square in the Anza - Borrego Desert, you might want to figure at least one visit in March, two in April, and two in May (the minimum needed), as well as possibly one in early June. In the coastal lowland, you might plan at least one visit in April, two in May, two in June (the minimum), and one in July. In the mountains, one visit in May, two in June, and two in July might be most appropriate. If your square includes significant riparian woodland habitat, even at low elevations, an extra visit in late June or early July will probably be worthwhile. And if you have water birds nesting in your square, a couple of visits in July and even one in early August are appropriate, since many water birds nest later than many land birds.
There is no need for a square to be covered in a single year; in fact, because of year-to-year variability, spreading the coverage over multiple years has its advantages. For the breeding-bird phase, it is up to your discretion whether you wish to concentrate your effort on a square in one year or spread it over five. You could volunteer for several squares and cover them all simultaneously over the 5-year life of the atlas field work. Just please keep Phil and advisors informed of your progress and work with them in moving the project smoothly to completion. We don't want to be panicked with the prospect of half of the squares being only halfway toward the minimum threshold in the fifth year of the project.
Because weather and bird occurrence are more variable in winter than in spring and summer, our goal for the winter-bird phase of the atlas is to identify squares where a species winters annually and distinguish them from squares where it winters only irregularly or not at all. That's why spreading coverage over at least 3 years is a goal of the winter phase. Thus, for the winter phase, we urge you to volunteer for multiple squares early in the project and cover them on a revolving basis.
You are welcome to spend more time in your square than the 25-hour minimum, and for some it may be necessary to clear the threshold on the basis of the other criteria. But if it looks like you are coming up against the law of diminishing returns, please consider taking on another square instead. Remember, county-wide coverage is one of the most important goals of the atlas.
How do I tell whether a species is breeding?
The wonderful variety of birds is reflected in the wonderful variety of their sex lives. Because different types of evidence have to be interpreted differently for different species, your primary responsibility is to report what you actually observe, using the various categories defined below, listed on your daily field forms, and tabulated on your block summary form. Please familiarize yourself with these definitions.
For each species, the criteria for confirmed, probable, and possible breeding have to be defined individually and are specified on your block summary form. Good judgment and common sense on your part are essential. When in doubt, describe carefully what you actually observed, and together we will interpret your observations as best we can.
How do I fill out the daily field form?
The daily field forms for the breeding-bird phase of the project list the regularly breeding species of San Diego County along with two columns for entering data. In the first column put your count or best estimate of the number of individuals of each species seen that day. Your best estimate is fine; it's more important for the atlas that you locate as many species as possible and observe their behavior than to count every bird.
The second column is for the types of breeding activity you observe each species engaging in. You can use the two-letter codes listed on the form and explained in more detail in this handbook. Specify multiple categories whenever you see multiple types of breeding behavior. For example, if you find three pairs of Killdeers, and find the nest with eggs of one pair, see another pair distracting you with its broken-wing act, and see the third with a downy chick, you would list "DD," "NE," and "FL" next to "Killdeer" on the form. After confirming a species breeding by one type of behavior, however, it may be more worth your while to concentrate on other species.
The data at the top of the form are simple but important, for multiple reasons. Your name, the square you're covering, and the date are self-evident. The difference between the times of starting and finishing in the field give your total time in the field, which is essential to monitoring your progress toward the 25-hour minimum threshold of coverage for each square.
The difference between the times of departing and arriving back at home give you the total time volunteered for this project, which we will want to track as a record of the community's support for this project. Your contribution toward the San Diego County Bird Atlas will be recorded and recognized just like that of the Natural History Museum's hundreds of other volunteers.
Finally, your total mileage driven for this project can be deducted from your income tax in accordance with federal and California law, as a contribution to a recognized nonprofit organization, the San Diego Natural History Museum. You can claim $0.12 per mile or the actual costs of gas and oil for vehicle use, as well as your actual costs for tolls, lodging, parking, etc. The form thus serves as the "contemporaneous record" which the rules call for you to keep to be able to claim the deduction. We will return a copy of your forms to you at the end of the season, far in advance of tax time.
How do I interpret the maps?
For each square for which you've taken responsibility, you will receive a color map illustrating the habitats and roads in the square, as far as the habitat data have been computerized. (Some parts of the Anza - Borrego Desert still have not been covered.) The habitat types are all keyed on the map itself.
Also on the map you will see two-letter codes for species that are in the MSCP data base. Use these as a guide to help you find critical species of conservation concern. Be aware, however, that these data have not been verified and contain mistakes and misidentifications. The sites plotted are far from complete for most species. Some species may have already been extirpated from the sites represented. Sites of resident pairs or populations and migrants, nonbreeding visitors, and vagrants are not distinguished. Therefore, do not be surprised if you do not find a species at a site illustrated and find some of these species at sites not illustrated. These data are helpful as a guide only!
You see that the list includes species that occur only as migrants, a few common as well as sensitive and endangered species, and species ranging so widely that plotting them as points is misleading. Again, do not take these data at face value; use them as a guide only!
The map is on the same scale as a USGS 7.5-minute topo map, so you can overlay them for comparison. USGS topo maps are widely available; one source in San Diego is the Map Centre at 2611 University Avenue, phone 291-3830. The Natural History Museum's library has a complete set for San Diego County which you are welcome to use and copy as needed; please call our librarian at 232-3821 ext. 225 for an appointment.
What do I do with the extra copies of the maps?
Use one black and white copy of your map per day, just as you use one daily field form per day. On the map, outline the areas you covered on that day.
For some rare or highly localized species, or species of conservation concern, we will want to record locations more precisely. For species indicated with single asterisks on the daily field form, please plot all observations; for those indicated with double asterisks (for which observations of actual breeding behavior only are relevant), please plot sites of breeding behavior only.
What do I do with the block summary form?
This form lets you keep track of your progress toward clearing the minimum threshold. It is customized for your square in that it specifies the number of species on the target list for your square and lists the habitats known for your square. Please update this form after every field trip to your square.
The form has two parts. The first has spaces for you to write the date and number of hours spent in the field on each trip. It also lists the habitats of San Diego County as depicted on the maps of the individual squares. Those known, on the basis of existing maps and vegetation surveys, to occur in your square are highlighted. Complete one line of this form for each field trip. If you visit a habitat during a field trip, check off the box for that habitat for that day. You've cleared three of the criteria for the minimum threshold with a total of 25 hours in the field, at least one visit to each habitat known in your square, and two visits to the square in June (for the coastal slope) or May (for the Anza - Borrego Desert).
The other part charts the list of species against the various types of breeding evidence. The types of evidence are grouped by what represents confirmed, probable, and possible breeding for each species. After each field trip, check off what types of evidence you observe for each species. Keep a running tally of the number of confirmed species and the combined number of confirmed, probable, and possible species. When the total of the confirmed species exceeds 50% of the target list, and when the total of the species at least possibly breeding exceeds 90% of the target list, you've cleared the other two criteria for the minimum threshold.
This part of the block summary form also has spaces for your estimates of the species' population in that square. Remember, this is just an order-of-magnitude estimate. Fill out this part of the form only when you have completed your field work for the square. If you estimate the population of the species in the square is 1 to 10, enter E1; for 10 to 100, enter E2; for 100 to 1000, enter E3; for 1000 to 10,000, enter E4. If you know the population more exactly, as may be possible in the case of some water birds, birds of prey, or highly restricted species, by all means give your more precise estimates or counts. But for most species, just the order-of-magnitude estimate is all that's necessary or appropriate.
You don't need to have confirmed breeding for every species whose population you estimate. An extrapolation based on the number of birds observed and the extent of habitat you covered is fine. For example, if the riparian corridors in your square extend for two linear miles, you actually covered one-half mile during your field surveys (one fourth of the total), and you observed 10 Common Yellowthroats, you might estimate that the actual population of Yellowthroats is about 40 (between 10 and 100) and so enter E2 for the abundance level of the Common Yellowthroat on the block summary form. If you actually covered 20% of the pine/oak woodland in your square and you observed 75 Mountain Chickadees, you might estimate that the population is 75 x (20/100) = 75 x 5 = 375 and so enter E3 for the abundance level of the Mountain Chickadee on the block summary form. If you're uncertain on how to estimate some species, don't panic. Use your best judgment, ask questions, and we'll work it out together best we can. It's inevitable that uncertainties will remain. If the atlas project doesn't generate as many questions as it answers, it isn't science.
What if I notice birds outside my squares?
Many interesting discoveries are serendipitous. You will get a supply of incidental-observation forms to record observations you make on your way to or from your square, while you're doing other things, or around your home. The form asks for your name, address, phone number, the square where you made the observation (leave blank if unknown), date of the observation, and species. Please describe the location as exactly as possible, so we can assign it to the proper square. So describe the distance and direction from road intersections or physical features named on maps and within 3 miles of the site. Or, with the help of a USGS, Cleveland National Forest, or Thomas Brothers map, specify township, range, and section. A photocopy of one of these maps with the location marked would be ideal. Please send the form to atlas central at the Natural History Museum promptly.
When other people report incidental observations in your squares, we will send you copies of those forms. Observations reported incidentally count toward the minimum threshold for coverage of your square. Also, if the species is unexpected or one that you haven't yet encountered, you may want to check it out independently yourself.
If you run low on incidental-observations forms, ask for more, copy them ad libitum, or use our online incidental-observation form. Please, give them away to anyone who expresses an interest in the project. They are great for public relations as well as for recording information. Be especially generous with suspicious neighbors or landowners. We want these people to feel they are a part of our team, not against us.
I can't commit to taking responsibility for a whole square. Can I still participate?
Absolutely. Please, ask for and fill out as many incidental-observation forms as you can use, or use our online incidental-observation form. If you prefer to cover only your own property, neighborhood, or favorite birding site, we will send you a supply of daily field forms, which can contribute substantially toward the data for that square even if someone else is taking primary responsibility for covering it.
Also, you may wish to team with the observer(s) taking responsibility for a square. Most people will be glad to have some company in the field and help in sharing the expenses of the field trip. Birding alone often isn't advisable anyway. If you would like just to help in a square, please ask for the name and number of the responsible observer (remember, many squares won't be assigned immediately). Being part of such a crew is a great way to gain experience and enhance your birding skills. With a year or two of experience as a helper early in the project, you may feel ready to take on your own squares later.
Please remember, however, that large groups of birders won't generate the best results. Especially for breeding birds, quiet, stealth, and patience are essential. Groups of two or three, working in a loose team, are far better than a horde.
We may try organizing "task forces" to take on more remote areas or groups of squares requiring special access. A group of us could travel together to areas like Camp Pendleton, Hot Springs Mountain, or Otay Mountain, then divide up into teams of two or three to tackle individual squares in the area.
What about private landowners?As we all know, many landowners take their private property rights very seriously. It's essential for your own safety and the public relations of the atlas project and its supporting organizations that you not enter private property uninvited. Fortunately, almost every square has some public property representing a variety of habitats, even if the public property is simply the roads traversing the square. Nevertheless, access to private and restricted property will enhance our results greatly, and facilitating such access is one of the coordinator's prime tasks.
Access to private property is possible only on a voluntary basis. We will try to arrange access to critical habitat in each square as necessary. Please understand that this may take time, if it's possible at all, and may not be available on a schedule you specify. Please try to be flexible and understanding of this delicate matter. We will be advertising the project in as many local community newspapers as possible, trying to elicit interested landowners to contact us first. Please, if you know a landowner that may be willing, if approached properly, to grant us access to their property, give us their names, addresses, and phone numbers so we can follow through.
You are welcome, indeed urged, to make arrangements with property owners yourself. Often a good strategy is to write a brief letter first. Plagiarize from this handbook and other advertisements about the project liberally, and include copies of announcements or articles in newspapers (especially from the local community) or the newsletters of our supporting organizations. We'll give you a form letter you can adapt, if you like. Include a copy of section 846 of the California civil code, which specifies that landowners who allow access to their property for certain "recreational purposes," including "nature study," are free from liability for doing so. Stress that even though the project is supported by some government agencies, it originates from an independent nonprofit organization, carries no governmental authority, and depends entirely on the voluntary cooperation of individuals.
Two or three days after sending the letter, follow up with a phone call during normal business hours, if possible. Be cheerful and polite. Say, for example, "My name is Al Bumen, and I'm the volunteer with the San Diego County Bird Atlas who wrote you recently. Is this a convenient time to talk?" Ask for an appointment at the landowner's convenience, suggesting a couple of dates that would fit with your ideal schedule. If you want access to the property for the sake of a specific habitat or site within it, say so. Assure the landowner that you will follow whatever rules or procedures he or she specifies. Show up for your appointment on time. And be prepared for rejection, to accept it gracefully. Above all be courteous, since a favorable encounter will open more opportunities for us, and unfavorable ones will close them.
The atlas project is an opportunity for us all to be ambassadors of good will. Expect many landowners to be positively interested in the project. Chat them up, show them some birds, and give them incidental-observation forms, to help them feel like they're working with us. Ask them for introductions to their neighbors who may also have habitats you wish to cover. Many people want to feel that their property is special, so find appropriate examples for using their property to illustrate our county's magnificent biological diversity.
Despite our best efforts, it's inevitable that certain tracts, even important ones, of private property will remain inaccessible to us. There is no point in agonizing over this. We will cover the accessible areas best we can, use gentle persuasion to open as many areas as possible, and not worry about the rest. Remember, even in squares that are entirely in public ownership, many areas won't get covered. The atlas project can only sample each square. Exhaustiveness is an unattainable ideal.
How do I report my results?Please send in your incidental-observation forms as soon as you complete them. You can send in your daily field forms and accompanying maps as soon as you complete them, or keep them until the end of the breeding or winter season to which they apply. But please send them in at the end of the appropriate season for each year, even if you're continuing to survey the square in succeeding years, so we can keep track of our progress. Even if you're not finished with the square, please send in your block summary form as well. We'll copy it and send it back to you, along with copies of your daily field forms (useful for your tax records, remember). It's best to make copies before you send them in, in case disaster should befall them in the mail.
We will have events at the beginning and end of every atlas season so we can get together, share our experiences, address problems, and discuss questions. These will be convenient times to bring in your data, too.
How will I stay informed?You will receive a quarterly newsletter about the atlas and its progress. The newsletter will keep you up to date on new discoveries, have suggestions on finding problem species, and address problems that may arise over the life of the project. Please, write articles, make suggestions, and ask questions that we can include in the newsletter. If you have a question or a problem, likely other participants have it too.
Information will also be available on the Natural History Museum's website.
We will have meetings and events at various sites around the county. Please attend these whenever you can. Not only educational and scientific, the atlas project is fun too!
Expect the unexpected!The atlas is guaranteed to generate unexpected observations that advance our knowledge of bird distribution and biology in San Diego County. That's one of the main reasons for doing it in the first place. But the atlas is science, which demands critical observation and verification. If you find a bird out of its expected range and season, let other participants, the advisory group, or Phil know right away. Describe your observation very carefully on the daily field form. Take a picture if you can. We will use our best judgment to decide whether it needs to be checked out and verified independently. Understand that, as always, caution will be essential in accepting bird identifications. Every one of us has made mistakes in the past; every one of us (including Guy) has had records rejected, whether by a Christmas Bird Count compiler, Guy McCaskie as regional editor for Audubon Field Notes, etc., or the California Bird Records Committee. Even if you're convinced you're right and the rest of the world is wrong, please don't take questioning of your observations personally. It's an unavoidable part of our goal of generating the highest-quality product possible.
Please, be carefulAs always when you are in the field, use caution and common sense. As a volunteer participant, you are fully responsible for your own safety and financially responsible for your own injuries. You are not an employee of the San Diego Bird Atlas, the Natural History Museum, or other cooperating organizations. We do not carry insurance to cover you if you are injured. Do not let the excitement of the chase lead you to take chances in hazardous situations. Obviously, your vehicle must be insured.
As mentioned above under "What about private landowners," California civil code section 846 provides a special liability exemption for property owners who grant access to their property for certain "recreational purposes," including "nature study." Such a landowner "does not thereby ... assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to person or property" as a result of granting permission to enter. Rather, if you cause damage to the landowner's property or livestock, it is you who may be liable. So please exercise utmost caution. Be polite to everyone you encounter.
On public land too, follow all relevant regulations. Keep your vehicle on established roads, and camp only as permitted. Not all areas will be open to the general public, and we may have to make special arrangements in advance to get you through locked gates.
Treat the birds and their habitat with thoughtfulness, too. Approach a nest only close enough to identify the species, and retreat when you have the information you need. Excessive disturbance may cause the adults to desert the nest, especially early in incubation. Lingering around a nest or breaking branches around it may betray it to predators. Playing taped recordings of certain species can elicit responses and generate critical information quickly, but use the tape judiciously, switching it off as soon as a response gives you the data you need. Under no circumstances harass endangered species. Avoid trampling marshes, meadows, vernal pools, and other delicate habitats. Use discretion in divulging information on the nests of raptors or endangered species, or nests in fragile habitats.
Especially if you are hiking in remote areas, please carry adequate survival gear with you: adequate clothes, hat, ample water, some food, a first-aid kit including a snakebite kit, flashlight, map, and compass. Travel in groups of two or preferably three (a few extra eyes enhance your ability to find birds too). Let someone at home know your itinerary and estimated time of return. Watch the weather report, and avoid days when winter storms or serious Santa Ana conditions are expected. Keep your vehicle running reliably.
Learn how to identify poison oak if you don't already know. Avoid beehives, now that "killer bees" have been reported in the Anza-Borrego Desert. Beware of rattlesnakes; don't put your hands or feet anywhere you can not see. Should you encounter a mountain lion, look big and act aggressive before the cat does.
At night and in remote areas of the Anza-Borrego Desert, the need for preparedness and caution is especially acute. Please, let's make all our adventures on this project pleasant ones.