Putting Birds on the Map
From dawn to dusk, armies of volunteers are fanning out across America, pinpointing the places most critical to birds' survival.
At 6:05 a.m. in a remote corner of a state forest in central Pennsylvania,
it takes Deuane Hoffman just three minutes to learn what's awake in
these woods besides him and John Zwierzyna, his survey partner, who
is standing a few paces to the side. Arms folded across his chest, Hoffman
gazes upward into the dark woods, listening intently to the sporadic
birdsong. "Two red-eyed vireos," he whispers. "One junco."
A slight orange tint is breaking across the early-morning sky, providing
just enough light for Zwierzyna to scribble the names on his clipboard.
Ten seconds later Hoffman picks up the tsik tsik call of a chipping
sparrow. He cups his right ear and tilts his head to the side as a burst
of different melodies ricochet off the treetops. "One pewee, one
rose-breasted grosbeak, and another red-eyed vireo," he says in
quick succession. At 6:08and two more red-eyed vireos, one ovenbird,
and one mourning dove laterZwierzyna consults his stopwatch and
calls out, "Time!"
If you could spend a weekend morning doing anything you wanted, you might not choose to get up at an ungodly hour and count birdsespecially if you couldn't see them. But don't tell that to Hoffman and Zwierzyna, or to the 18 other volunteers who have spread out across the southern part of the Sproul State Forest on this Saturday morning in mid-June. They all came to count birds. "What we want to do," says Hoffman, 32, who has been an avid birder since he was 10, "is really scour the area at a minute level to find out what's here." Zwierzyna, 52, a museum curator and an Appalachian Audubon member, has been "birding casually" for the past 30 years; Hoffman, who sports a goatee and a hoop earring in his right ear, is a pharmacist. Both men drove three hours the night before, from their homes in Harrisburg. Among the others conducting separate counts elsewhere in the oak-maple forest are a high school student, a dentist, and the owner of a software company. Although they share an affinity for birding, what brought them together on this weekend is the Important Bird Areas (IBA) program, a burgeoning worldwide conservation initiative that applies science-based criteria to identify and protect essential habitat for feeding, breeding, and migrating birds.
Audubon is leading the charge across the United States, marshaling a cadre of volunteers to help identify, conserve, and monitor IBA sites, from Arizona to Alaska. To date, Audubon has programs up and running in 46 states, in which more than 1,500 IBAs have been selected, and it expects to have state-level IBA programs in all 50 states by next year. "There are many tools for the conservation of birds," says Steve Hoffman (no relation to Deuane), Audubon Pennsylvania's director of bird conservation. "But the IBA is a very important one, because it identifies a place on the mapon the groundthat says, 'This place is special for birds.' "
Instead of being regulatory-driven, the program's aim
is to protect birds and habitat by building alliances with landowners,
state and federal agencies, and land trusts. The conservation prescription
differs from site to site, depending on the existing land uses and the
bird species that rely on the habitat. Audubon North Carolina's IBA
program, for example, has forged a partnership with state officials
and land trusts to acquire a barrier island's sensitive tracts, which
support nesting seabirds, shorebirds, and sea turtles. Audubon New York,
an early IBA program leader, has successfully teamed up with the state
to protect close to 200,000 acres of critical habitat, from "the
high peaks of the Catskills and Adirondacks for Bicknell's thrush habitat
to the wetlands of Montezuma for cerulean warblers," says David
J. Miller, Audubon New York's executive director. In Pennsylvania, the
southern part of the Sproul State Forest has already been named an IBA
for its concentration of breeding migratory songbirds, including scarlet
tanagers and blue-headed vireos. Audubon Pennsylvania would like to
have a voice in the management of this landscape, which has already
been scarred by logging, mining, and natural gas development. Volunteers
know how valuable they are to the effort. "Our surveys will help
provide a database that can be used to make any recommendations to state
officials," says Zwierzyna, "which will enhance the habitat
Even more important, says Bob Perciasepe, Audubon's senior vice-president of public policy, the IBA program will become "a guiding blueprint we can use to focus our advocacy for the conservation of bird habitat and to make sure that state and federal programs benefiting IBAs are adequately funded." A big part of this strategy will include using existing environmental statutes, such as the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as a means to strengthen the protection of IBAs. "In a sense," Perciasepe adds, "the IBAs will be used as tools to advocate how those laws should be implemented to better protect birds."
The IBA program started in Europe in 1989, when biologists from BirdLife International, a British-based global coalition of more than 100 groups, identified 2,444 sites in 32 countries, from Greenland to the Soviet Union. Growing concern over the continuing fragmentation and loss of bird habitat sparked them to establish a network of vital areas that would protect not only birds but a wider swath of biodiversity as well.
To qualify as an IBA, a site must meet at last one of four criteria,
each associated with a different type of vulnerability. It must support
endangered or threatened species; species that are not widely distributed;
species that are restricted to a single extensive habitat or biome;
or high densities of congregating species, such as waterfowl or shorebirds.
IBAs vary in habitat and sizesites range from a few acres to several
thousand. Today IBAs are being designated in 156 countries, with more
than 4,000 sites now identified in Europe. According to BirdLife International,
official IBA designation has led to better conservation at thousands
of these sites.
As a starting point, Pennsylvania dug up an atlas of breeding birds
that was compiled in the 1980s with the help of 2,000 birders across
the state. "Then we went out to Audubon chapters, bird clubs, and
the general public, and asked for their input," says Audubon's
Steve Hoffman. "Most birders bird in their backyards and in their
local area, so they know where the best habitats are. One of the exciting
aspects of the IBAs is reaching out to local communities and getting
them behind the protection of these sites."
With Pennsylvania's program in full swing, IBA nomination forms were made available over the Internet, and site suggestions were solicited for a couple of years. Out of 160 nominations, 73 sites were eventually picked by an ornithological committee of 15 scientists in the state. Most states with IBA programs have adopted a version of this process. Some rely more on Audubon chapters; others, more on official data and scientists.
But when it comes to harnessing the grassroots to help with the actual
surveying, Pennsylvania is the model that other states are looking to
emulate. "We're at the cutting edge of citizen science, in terms
of developing long-term monitoring programs of the IBAs and keeping
track of how the birds are doing," says Hoffman. "The only
way to do this is in June, when the birds are breeding and singing."
And since the only way to count birds in the woods is when they're singing,
he trains volunteers at daylong workshops to identify different birdcalls
and songs. After the volunteers become proficient enough to distinguish
between warblers, thrushes, vireos, and other assorted songbirds ("You
gotta study your tapes!" he says), Hoffman organizes weekend surveying
trips to various IBAs around the state.
Last summer 70 people participated in 17 IBA inventories, though not
all came straight from the workshop. Deuane Hoffman already had an expert's
ear. "Most people worry too much about what they're seeing,"
he says, "but when it comes to being a really good birder, it's
hearing that puts you over the top." Then again, not many people
regularly bird at least 20 hours a week as he does, crisscrossing Pennsylvania
so much that he estimates he has logged 45,000 miles on state roads
in some years. Hoffman even plans his vacations around three passions:
birding, beer, and the blues. Last year he combined all three on a trip
out West with his wife, Carolyn, and his "best bird crony, Dick
Colyer." The trio traveled through California, Nevada, and Utah;
they would bird in the morning, stop at a microbrewery for lunch, bird
some more, and then catch some blues acts at night. "In a 10-day
trip, we hit 18 brew pubs and saw 250 species," Hoffman says.
Since Pennsylvania Audubon is the first state IBA program in the United
States to train volunteers how to do a "point" counta
standardized surveying methodbirders like Deuane Hoffman, who
come equipped with a finely developed sense of hearing, are much appreciated.
The counts are conducted for three minutes, carried out by two-person
teams (one person records the birds, and the other counts) at specific
"points" along walking trails. Because most surveys can't
possibly cover the entire acreage of an IBA, volunteers are assigned
(or choose) different types of habitatmaybe second-growth forest
or streamside areas or upland terrain.
When survey volunteers return home, they enter the data online and beam it to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where it is combined with any preexisting species data for the same area. Using the results, Audubon's Steve Hoffman can begin to draw up a preliminary management plan to safeguard the habitat. (In the Sproul forest, one of the biggest concerns is pending access roads for logging and natural gas wells.) But even Hoffman admits that doing this for all of Pennsylvania's IBAs is an unrealistic goal. "We can't do on-the-ground conservation work for 73 IBAs," he says. "But we can get the word out, put the partners together, and make it work on a local scale."
By 7:00 a.m. Deuane Hoffman and John Zwierzyna have hiked from a mixed
oak-hickory woodland to rolling grasslandsthe site of a reclaimed
strip mine. "This was a wasteland 15 years ago," Hoffman says,
looking around, awestruck by the transformation. Still, black shards
of coal on the side of the road attest to an ugly legacy. The grasslands,
planted by the coal company (the restoration was mandated by state law),
will eventually revert to forest. The two IBA volunteers are fascinated
by the changeover. "We don't normally see this kind of habitat
in Pennsylvania," says Zwierzyna.
Overhead, a Cooper's hawk is spotted chasing a red-tail down a ridge. "He probably has a nest over by those trees," Hoffman says of the Cooper's hawk, pointing to a copse of black locust. It's time for another point count, but for the moment, Hoffman and Zwierzyna are transfixed by their surroundings. In the past hour they've done six point counts (with six more to go) and have catalogued dozens of breeding neotropical migrants that make the forest their home. "There's an incredible diversity and concentration of species up here," Hoffman marvels, ready to turn back to the business at hand. "We need to know what the crucial areas are if they're going to be saved and protected."
Keith Kloor is a senior editor at Audubon.
The print version of this story has a pullout map on Audubon's Important Bird Area program, including illustrations by contributing editor David Allen Sibley.