SDGFP’s new online tool is for the birds

New interactive atlas helps avid birders learn about state's breeding bird population — By Andrew Johnson

Bird enthusiasts mights recognize this bird as an adult least bittern, the smalles member of the heron family. There were two confirmed breeding pairs recorded — one southeast of Claremont, the other just outside of Hecla — during the survey for the state's second Breeding Bird Atlas. Photo courtesy of Doug Backlund

In early August the state Game, Fish and Parks Department unveiled its updated, online version of the Breeding Bird Atlas.

In a news release, GFP noted the online tool includes the results of a five-year field project about breeding birds found in South Dakota, but the final project actually took much longer to come together, said Eileen Dowd Stukel, senior wildlife biologist.

“It was five years of field work, but there were a couple years of prep work and a couple years after the field work for analysis and report writing,” she said. “It was more like a 10-year commitment to do it right.”

Dowd Stukel said the atlas is simply a survey method to document as many breeding birds as possible at the highest level possible, and it was a repeat effort of the state’s first Breeding Bird Atlas from 20 years ago to see what changes have occurred in the bird population over time.

“The data for this second atlas were collected from 2008 though 2012, exactly 20 years after the first atlas, where data were collected from 1988 through 1992,” said Dowd Stukel, a 30-year GFP staff member who also helped organize the first atlas. “We were really excited to go back and see what changes we could detect in those 20 years.”

The biggest difference between the two atlas surveys was the most recent had a dedicated budget that allowed GFP to enlist help from the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, a Colorado-based conservation organization dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats.

“They were our major partner in this,” Dowd Stukel said. “They coordinated it to an extent that we could not have done out of our agency.”

Funds for the atlas came from a state wildlife grant that’s allocated by Congress each year. Those federal funds were then matched by state Division of Wildlife dollars, Dowd Stukel said.

“For this to be a valuable tool in monitoring change, it needed to have credibility and quality control,” she said. “That’s what the funding, dedicated staff and BCR helped us accomplish.”

Breeding Birds

While the primary focus was to record breeding birds found in the state, nonbreeding birds were also documented to a lesser degree, Dowd Stukel said.

“For example, you might see a particular species in April, but that individual species may not breed until May or June, so it was observed and not confirmed,” she said. “There were parameters in place, and everyone who participated had to bring a certain level of skill to ensure the records were reliable for breeding species.”

GFP staff, conservancy-contracted staff and volunteers were assigned survey blocks to visit and collect data on breeding birds.

“The building block, literally, of the atlas is a 3-mile-by-3-mile block — that’s your atlas block,” Dowd Stukel said. “People would volunteer for those if they lived near the block or if it was an area they’ve birded before and were familiar with the habitat.”

Within the five-year survey span, she said surveyors were asked to cover all the habitats — everything from shelerbelts to wetlands to prairie — in a block throughout a series of repeat visits. They needed to visit the block a minimum of three times for at least 15 hours, and they also needed to conduct an “owl” visit at night to document nocturnal bird activity.

When data started flowing for the survey, Dowd Stukel said questions were then raised to establish various levels of confirmation for breeding species.

“For instance, let’s say I find a nest and there are young in there, or I find two adults carrying nesting material. Those are confirmed breeding reports,” she said. “If you just simply saw a pair of birds, then that’s a probable, not a confirmation.”

In addition to quality control, the funding also helped expand the total coverage area for the second atlas.

“The first atlas had 125 random blocks and a few special blocks, but in the second one we had 425 random blocks and eight special blocks,” she said. “We dedicated funds to this because we wanted coverage for more blocks, and that’s what BCR could do is hire people to go to blocks that were not as desirable or interesting or too far away.”

Using the online tool

Streamlining all of the information into a user-friendly format took almost five years after the final block was surveyed. Dowd Stukel said building an interactive, online map on GFP’s website offered the best way to interface with avid birding enthusiasts or casual backyard bird watchers.

“We worked with our Bureau of Information Technology people to design and build a site to host the information,” she said. “It presents what we learned in an interactive map system so that you could go to your particular area of the state and learn more about what’s happening around you by using a map instead of just reading text. It can be static, if that’s what you want, but it is interactive so you can select specific data points and get more details around those points if you’re interested.”

Dowd Stukel said the online atlas can essentially be broken down into two main portions — species accounts and block information.

“If someone wanted to learn about a particular species they could click on the ‘species accounts’ link and search by species or select from the pre-populated list,” she said. “When you select a species, below it is a habitat summary that shows where it was found on the map and some general info about the species.”

At the bottom of the species-accounts map is a legend for level of breeding confirmation, for which there are four categories: confirmed, probably, possibly and observed, but not breeding. Each dot on the map is color-coded to match the confirmation level found in the legend.

For each species there is also a detailed report that includes an individual block or statewide summary.

Dowd Stukel said the second general option to search the atlas is by clicking on the “block information” link, which populates the map with the locations of all 433 blocks. On the map, you can then click on a specific block, or click on a county link in the map’s sidebar.

In Brown County, for example, there were six survey blocks. Clicking on the link to the Putney Slough block reveals that its number of confirmed breeding species was 14, probable species was 28, possibles were 33 and observed species was five. Add them all up and there are 80 species.

There is also a summary report that can be downloaded for each individual block. The reports include detailed accounts of bird species along with their corresponding confirmation levels.

The atlas is complemented by plenty of photos of both the individual species and some of the habitats surveyed in different blocks.

“A lot of the species photos are credited to Doug Backlund,” Dowd Stukel said. “When he knew we were going to do this he really made an effort to fill in the list. We’re really proud of the photo end of the atlas, which really adds to the public enjoyment of this.”

At first blush, the amount of information contained in the Breeding Bird Atlas is overwhelming, but Dowd Stukel had some simple advice for people interested in discovering what birds can be found outside their kitchen window or even on the other side of the state.

“Just pick a species you’re interested in and start hitting buttons to see what you get,” she said. “I think when you spend a little time on it, it won’t be as intimidating as it is at first. For someone starting out, go to your home county and pick a block that’s close to where you live. Pull it up and see all the species you never knew about.”

Although the online atlas has been a decade in the making, Dowd Stukel said GFP is not quite done yet.

“We are working on a hard-copy version, because some people still like to have something in hand,” she said. “The website was our priority to get the information out, but the printed version will be coming in the future. It’ll be a monster.”

South Dakota Breeding Bird Atlas II

The state’s first breeding bird atlas from 20 years ago documented 219 bird species. However, major habitat changes in the state justified the need for a second atlas to document how birds responded.

Second-atlas highlights:

• 252 species recorded.

• 239 confirmed breeding species.

• 13 new species confirmed.

• 433 blocks surveyed.

• 2,586 block visits.

• 7,532 total hours spent.

• 57 species, on average, found per survey block.

• 81 species is highest individual survey block total.

For more information or to visit the online atlas, go to

Source: South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department

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