Handbook for Participants
Welcome to the 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas!
It’s true, the 2nd PBBA is for the birds…
For the nearly 200 kinds of breeding birds in the state, that is!
Did you know that at least five kinds of wrens, six species of sandpipers, seven owls,
eight blackbirds, nine herons, ten flycatchers, eleven sparrows, twelve ducks and geese,
thirteen raptors, 28 wood warblers, and 80 other species of birds nest in Pennsylvania? Like
the first PBBA, the 2nd PBBA will give us a very complete list of all the birds found nesting in
the state over the next five years, and detailed maps showing the ten square mile Atlas
“blocks” in which each species was found. In the first Atlas, American Robin was the most
frequently reported species, being found in 99% of nearly 5,000 blocks in the state. At the
other extreme, the Black-necked Stilt and Eurasian Jackdaw, neither species known to breed
in Pennsylvania prior to the first Atlas, were found nesting in just one block each!
The 2nd PBBA also is for the bird watchers…
Regardless of one’s beginning level of experience, interest, or ability at bird watching,
the 2 PBBA will provide many opportunities to enjoy and learn more about birds, including
the interesting details of their varied breeding behaviors.
Did you know that from 1984-1989, during the first Pennsylvania Breeding Bird
Atlas project, more than 2,000 volunteers collectively spent over 83,000 hours watching and
listing birds in every Atlas block and submitted some 320,000 observations (an average of 65
species per survey block) that provided the most detailed and comprehensive assessment
ever of the occurrence and distribution of nesting species in the state?
Did you know that a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey ranks Pennsylvania as the
eastern state with the highest number of resident bird watchers, estimated at more than
2.5 million! If we can invite and attract the participation of just a small fraction of that
number, perhaps 10,000 or more volunteers, for the 2nd PBBA, it will serve to showcase
birds, bird watching, and bird habitats in Pennsylvania to more people than ever before.
To achieve this participation goal, volunteers for the 2nd PBBA will have to include not
only the state’s most serious and skilled birders, although their contributions will, of course,
be essential, but also the state’s beginning and intermediate bird watchers, its students and
teachers at all grade levels, its scout groups and boys and girls clubs, its garden clubs and
bluebird societies, its hikers and mountain bikers, its hunters and fishermen, its kayakers and
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 2
canoers, its wildlife conservation officers and service foresters, its park mangers and
environmental educators. Simply put, the 2nd PBBA is a great way for people from all walks of
life to enjoy, share, and increase their interest in birds, and, at the same time, to accomplish
the very important task of “Monitoring Pennsylavian Biodiversity,” by updating and comparing
the distribution and status of Pennsylvania’s breeding birds with the landmark results of the
first PBBA, done twenty years ago.
We will appreciate any level of assistance that you feel your interest, time, and ability will
allow you to contribute in any or all of the planned five years of the 2nd PBBA (2004-2008).
Every single breeding bird observation, whether of a common species by a beginning bird
watcher or of a real rarity by an expert birder, will put another one of our state birds “on
the map,” in the process adding measurably to our knowledge of the occurrence, status, and
distribution of Pennsylvania’s birdlife. If you have more than a passing interest in birds, and
if you know or can identify some, most, or all of Pennsylvania’s breeding species that you see
or hear, then we want and need your help in undertaking and completing this important and
ambitious (also fun!) project! Last, but not least,
The 2nd PBBA is for the habitats birds call home in Pennsylvania!
Availability of suitable and sufficient habitat for maintaining viable populations is the
single most important factor determining the status and future of our state’s overall bird
diversity (what we’re calling Pennsylavian biodiversity). The results of the first Atlas were
used to examine relationships between land cover and breeding bird distributions and helped
to point out the importance of habitat diversity and habitat quality to fostering that
diversity. The 2nd PBBA will go several steps further, using technologies, like GPS and GIS,
not widely available during the first Atlas, to help us greatly improve our knowledge of the
distributions of birds in relation to habitats in Pennsylvania.
Did you know that the hemlock woolly adelgid, an introduced forest insect pest, is
weakening and killing Pennsylvania’s state tree, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis),
across much of the southeastern half of the state and is spreading farther west and north
year by year? Hemlock is an important forest tree for many reasons, including for nesting
habitat and nesting sites for several specialized breeding bird species. Loss of this
ecologically unique component of Penn’s Woods may negatively affect bird diversity in many
areas. This is one of several possible changes in Pennsylavian biodiversity that you and the
2nd PBBA will help to document.
So, here’s how you’ll be helping and how to get started>>
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 3
1. REGISTER as an Atlas volunteer—we need to maintain complete and accurate records in
order to credit everyone who contributes data to the 2 nd PBBA.
a. Go to the website, http://bird.atlasing.org/PA, or if you don’t have access to a
computer or to the internet,
b. Contact a regional coordinator or the project coordinators—any RC or PC can take your
contact information, register you for the Atlas project, and send you the necessary
materials for participating (e.g., maps, field cards, volunteer I.D. cards)
c. Sign up for one or more blocks to become the “owner,” or contribute incidental records
to any block in the state (e.g., the block containing your own backyard or a favorite
park where you walk your dog).
2. NOTE THE LOCATION for any breeding birds you observe—any observations of
breeding birds (whether simply “observed,” “possible,” “probable,” or “confirmed”—see below)
in Pennsylvania in the next five years qualifies as a possible addition to the 2 nd PBBA database,
provided that observation can be attributed, at a minimum, to a specific Atlas block (there are
4,937 blocks covering all of PA).
a. Determine the 10-square mile Atlas survey block where you made (or plan to make) your
breeding bird observations using DeLorme’s Pennsylvania Atlas & Gazetteer, a USGS
topographic map (one topo quad map comprises six equal-sized Atlas blocks), or the
block locator on the http://bird.atlasing.org/PA website.
b. For selected bird sightings, e.g,., statewide or regionally rare species, species of special
concern, or species of general conservation interest (see Appendix 1), try to record
precise GPS coordinates (for consistency, we recommend setting your GPS to record
locations in decimal degrees using the NAD 83 datum), or reference your sightings to a
copy of a detailed topo map of your block, printable from our website (see Using the
Website below) which can be used later to precisely locate the coordinates of your
sighting when you enter it on the website. A clearly dated copy of your block map with
hand-drawn points corresponding to the numbered entries on your field card for the
same date will work well.
c. If you don’t have a detailed topo map or a GPS unit, but know that you are birding
within a particular land stewardship category within an Atlas block, such as a state park
or a National Audubon Society designated “Important Bird Area,” you may want to
attribute your record to that location (within the Atlas block) by noting it in the
comments (this additional information can be included when the data for your Atlas
block are entered).
d. Keep separate field cards for each block that you “own” or may regularly make
e. For occasional or incidental observations from multiple blocks, one field card can be
used, provided that an accurate location is included in the comments for every
observation so that none is misattributed to the wrong location/block.
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 4
f. Each entered record on you field card also should include under “Hab” the presence and
relative abundance of hemlock trees at the point of the observation (0 = none; 1 =
single or scattered few trees; 2 = mixed hemlock forest, up to 50%; 3 = predominantly
hemlock forest, >50%).
3. OBSERVE the behavior of birds to determine if they are possible, probable, or confirmed
breeding species at any given location.
a. “Observed” or “Possible” breeding birds are those seen within the so-called safe dates
(Appendix 2) for the species (dates were selected not to define the nesting season,
but rather to exclude observations of migrants or other non-breeding individuals of the
species, which often overlap in their occurrence in Pennsylvania with true nesting
The difference between “Observed” and “Possible” has to do with whether or not the
observation was made in suitable breeding habitat for the species (see Appendix 2).
b. “Probable” breeding birds are those observed displaying behaviors coded in Appendix 3
with single-letter codes other than “O” or “X”, e.g., “T” for territorial behavior
c. “Confirmed” breeding species are those for which your observations fit one of the
double-letter codes in Appendix 3, e.g., NB for nest building observed.
d. Upgrading an Atlas observation for a species within a block means moving the level of
evidence of actual breeding from Possible to Probable or Probable to Confirmed.
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 5
Importantly, upgrading to Probable or Confirmed is encouraged primarily for
species of general conservation interest, regional rarities, statewide rarities, or
Pennsylvania species of special concern (Appendix 1). Many species do not fall in any
of these categories, and no special effort is suggested for confirming these as
breeding within Atlas blocks (see next section). Importantly, all your observations of
birds may be entered as Atlas records, even the possible and probable records leading
up to a confirmed breeding record of a species within a block.
4. RECORD your observations on an Atlas field card or summary field card (the latter form
of the field card is not currently available but is being developed). For every observation
logged on your 2nd PBBA Field card, fill in:
a. Species (4-letter code; be careful to use the codes provided on the field card insert)
b. Date—include for all records on your field card, not just the first observation or
observation leading to the the highest breeding confirmation level.
c. Breeding Code—for any observation, more than one code may apply—choose the one
that seems most appropriate; resist the temptation to select a higher breeding code
just because your feel sure a species is breeding in a given block. Record only what you
actually observe; when in doubt, choose the more conservative of two or more possibe
breeding codes. Preserving the accuracy of the 2 nd PBBA data is of paramount
d. Habitat (Hab)—record the presence and relative abundance of our native hemlock,
Pennsylvania’s state tree, at the place where each bird observation you record on your
field card is made, e.g., can you see a hemlock from the spot where you recorded a pair
(P) of Magnolia Warblers? If so, is it a single or few scattered trees, mixed hemlock
forest (up to 50%) or predominantly hemlock (>50%)?
e. Comments—especially, as mentioned above, the exact location of selected of your
observations, recorded as points referenced to a dated copy of the topo map for your
block, as GPS coordinates, or as named sites within an Atlas block, such as a state park.
i. In the case of state or regional rarities, and especially in the case of “species
of special concern,” review and verification of all records will occur to insure
the accuracy and credibility of the 2nd PBBA database. Keep good notes for
your observations of these species, document with photos if possible, and
inform your regional coordinator as soon as possible, in case your record can
also be verified by them. Atlas records for the “species of special concern,”
in particular, will be important as additions to Pennsylvania’s Natural Diversity
Inventory database, which helps to conserve species and their habitats in the
ii. Importantly, as stated above, within any Atlas block, a single observation
within safe dates of common or widespread species (species coded “0” in
Appendix 1) is all that is necessary, and little or no extra effort needs to be
expended in trying to upgrade the observed breeding evidence for these
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 6
5. KEEP TRACK of your effort.
a. For each Atlas block you make observations in, note the dates and hours that you are
in the field actively making observations. This is important for determining the overall
level or completeness of coverage for that block and also for quantifying your very
significant volunteer contribution to the project.
b. For incidental records, such as those made while your are moving through several Atlas
blocks during other travel, we ask that you assign an “effort” of 10 minutes per record
as an estimate of the time it may have taken you to make, record, and enter the
c. Importantly, in addition to keeping track of the time actually spent looking for birds in
your Atlas blocks, please try to keep track of time spent driving to and from their
Atlas block(s), preparing for Atlas field trips, entering and editing Atlas observations
on the computer, as well as any out of pocket expenses, including car mileage traveling
to, from, and within Atlas blocks. This information will be useful to you if you wish to
claim these expenses as charitable contributions on their tax returns This will also
enable us to more accurately estimate and credit the value of the collective
contribution of the 2nd PBBA’s many volunteers. Eventually, there will be a place to
enter this information on the Atlas data entry website, but, until then, please keep
careful track of your effort and enter this when it becomes possible to do so.
6. COMPLETING A BLOCK—when, where, and how much to atlas
When is a block finished?—it is possible, of course, to keep adding records to a single Atlas
block, perhaps finding new species, upgrading others to confirmed breeding, or documenting
new locations for conservation interest species, during all five years of the 2 nd PBBA. It is
important, though, for making comparisons with the 1st PBBA that we obtain reasonably
“complete” coverage for all 4,937 Atlas blocks.
Accordingly, we have set the following guidelines/criteria for gauging block completeness.
a. First, block owners should try to spend 25 hours at a minimum within their blocks
actively engaged in searching for breeding birds.
b. This effort should be spread out over the course of the season (e.g., March through
August), with most of the effort expended during the peak breeding time for most
species (June-July; see figure below).
c. Effort also should include time spent in the block at different times of day, to insure
that dawn and dusk active species (e.g., American Woodcock, rails) and nocturnal
species (owls, whip-poor-wills) have a good chance of being detected. Of course,
birders know that early morning usually is the best time for observing birds, and this is
especially true in summer, when birds may become much less active during the heat of
the day (and when it is less comfortable to be out birding anyway!)
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 7
Distribution of 2nd PBBA "Safe Dates"
BEGIN SAFE DATES
No. Species (N = 214)
END SAFE DATES
d. Block owners should try to visit as many of the habitats represented in their blocks as
possible, including trying to obtain permission to gain access to posted private land
where additional habitats might be found.
e. In addition to time spent in a block, the number of species detected also will be used to
gauge the completeness of coverage. Although lists of birds from the 1 st PBBA
certainly can be used as a guide to what might be present in a block during the 2 nd
PBBA, they are not always going to serve as an accurate measure of completeness due
to differences in the coverage of blocks in the 1 st PBBA. Because about 100 species
were believed to possibly breed in most Atlas blocks in the state, an arbitrary target
of observing three-quarters of these (i.e., 75 species) was set during the 1st PBBA.
f. For the 2nd PBBA, computer models will be used that will determine from land cover
data for every block in the state which breeding bird species could possibly be present
in those blocks. A goal of 75% of this block-specific total (not 100 across all blocks)
will be set for all non-priority blocks, and 90% will be the goal for priority blocks (block
#6 in each quadrangle, as in the 1st PBBA). The hypothetical species total for your
block will be listed eventually on the website—until then, assume 100 species until the
new estimates become available, making the temporary goal 75 species for regular
blocks and 90 species for priority blocks. Importantly, this is just a rough guideline—if
you have spent 25 hours or more, feel you have explored most of the available habitats,
and still have observed fewer than the target number of species, confer with your
regional coordinator who may suggest that you move to a new block.
g. In addition to measures of completeness related to volunteer time in a block and
number of species observed, a block will not be set as “completed” until appropriate
special surveys have been done (e.g., nocturnal tape playback surveys in all priority
block #6’s, wetland tape playback surveys in blocks containing emergent marshes >0.5
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 8
hectares, point counts for estimating abundance in all non-border blocks). Importantly,
these special surveys usually will not be the responsibility of block owners, but rather
will be done at various times during the course of the Atlas project (but just once in
each block) by field staff working throughout the state.
7. Finish a block and go on to another—although it sometimes may be tempting to keep working
in a block to add species and upgrade breeding evidence through all five years of the 2nd PBBA,
with so many blocks to cover, it will be very helpful if many blocks can be completed in less
than five years and if volunteers will sign up for new blocks lacking coverage.
A Suggested Strategy for Atlassing
1. Making one or two trips in early to mid-June that include numerous brief stops to look and
listen for birds associated with various habitats found alongside any accessible roads or trails
within the block likely will result in simple detections (i.e., “Possible” breeding evidence) of
many of the species listed as common or widespread in the state. Don’t forget to record
presence and amount of hemlock habitat for all your Atlas records.
2. Subsequent visits can be planned for obtaining the additional locations and upgraded breeding
evidence desired for general conservation interest species, for searching more diligently for
habitats that may harbor regional or statewide rarities, and for insuring that many of the more
difficult to detect species, such as owls, rails, and diurnal raptors, are found if they occur in
the block (see below).
a. For bird species of general conservation concern (coded “1” in Appendix 1; in italics on
your field card insert), Atlas volunteers are encouraged (but not required) to try and
obtain multiple observations and associated precise locations within atlas blocks,
especially for any “confirmed” observations.
b. For bird species that are regional rarities (coded “2” in the region in which your atlas
block is located; see Appendix 1; asterisked species on your field card insert)
volunteers will need to provide additional details to their regional coordinator as soon
as possible, including directions to the location where the bird was observed, so that
timely verification of these potentially important records can be made. Precise
locations, verification and, if possible, confirmation of breeding for these species is
important, because, by definition, they are unexpected where they were observed. To
insure the accuracy and, therefore, the credibility of the 2 nd PBBA database, there will
be a process of review of all records of regionally rare species, which is why careful,
thorough details for all these records is so important.
c. For birds that are “species of special concern,” i.e,, endangered or threatened
conservation status, in Pennsylvania, or which are statewide rarities (coded “3” in
Appendix 1; in boldface type on your field card insert), precise locations and
verification will be required if the records are to be accepted as part of the Atlas.
These records are especially significant for bird conservation in the state and,
therefore, should be given high priority in terms of careful, thorough, accurate, and
timely record-keeping. Similar to regional rarity records, but even more importantly,
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 9
please notify your regional coordinator ASAP after making an observation of any one of
these species. Obviously, all occurrences of “species of special concern” should be very
thoroughly and carefully documented, as these will be incorporated, following official
review, into Pennsylvania’s Natural Diversity Inventory database, which, as mentioned
above, supports conservation of these birds and their habitats in Pennsylvania. The
locations of these rare species will not be made public—the species simply will be
indicated as having been found within the 10-square mile area encompassing your Atlas
block. For extremely sensitive species, even this level of geographic detail may be
masked in presenting the public results by randomly shifting observations to an
d. Finally, in the off-season, explore your block(s) to find additional habitats that might
produce some different birds. This is also a good time to identify private property
owners and to arrange for access to those sites (see next section). Incorporate these
additional habitats and sites into the next season’s atlassing.
Some Atlassing Ethics
1. Most of your atlassing probably will be done from public roads and on public lands. Permission
to enter posted private land must be obtained from the property owner. Tell the owner about
the Atlas project and what you are trying to accomplish, how long and how often you would like
to visit the property. It would be courteous and create goodwill to say thank you and report on
your findings before you leave and/or at the end of the breeding season. Never pass up an
opportunity to involve someone you meet in becoming an Atlas volunteer—attractive
informational brochures that you can hand out to people you meet, including land owners whose
properties you are asking to gain access to, will be made available at some point (in the
meantime, feel free to improvise a letter of introduction or simple one-page flyer of your own).
Be sure to have your 2nd PBBA Atlas Volunteer I.D. card with you, and place the car placard in
your windshield to allay concerns of anyone who sees your car parked along the road while you
are away from it atlassing.
2. It is best if you can establish evidence of breeding birds by unobtrusive observation. Disturb
the birds as little as possible. Do not approach nests too closely or flush nesting birds
repeatedly. Simply make your observations, then move away from the area to make your notes.
Do not knowingly keep birds from moving freely to and from their nests to feed young or
incubate eggs, especially when it is cool or rainy. “Pishing” can be used to confirm species
whose songs or calls you are unsure of. Playing of tapes may be done judiciously in order to
determine the presence of selected, otherwise difficult to detect species (e.g., nocturnal,
wetland, some rare or local conservation interest birds, such as Golden-winged Warbler) at a
site within an Atlas block that you own. Tapes should not be played for longer than 10 minutes
and should not be played in the same place more than once. Do not use tapes to make repeated
observations of the same bird or to get better looks at a bird that you already have detected
by more conventional (less disturbing) means. Do not use tapes to detect species in blocks you
are contributing incidental records to, as the block owner may already have used tape playback
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 10
there. Remember, when birding for the Atlas, you are trying to observe birds that are
actively breeding, and undue disturbance at this time of their annual cycle could lead
inadvertently to nesting failures. Obviously, the greatest care of all should be taken when
making observations of very rare, endangered, or threatened species—contact your regional
coordinator or the project coordinators to determine how to proceed if you suspect nesting by
one of these species but are having difficulty in confirming it.
Using the Website
Note: The 2nd PBBA website still is under development, so what is written
below is subject to change.
1. Go to : http://bird.atlasing.org/PA
The choices you will see on the file tabs are:
a. Home – this will link you to the Carnegie Museum’s Atlas page, where you will find
i. Species List with safe dates and breeding habitats (useful for checking
viability of observations)
ii. Breeding codes (listed here in detail, but also briefly described on the back
of the field cards)
iii. Special Species/Efforts (list of species for which detailed records and
reports are needed)
iv. Regional Coordinator Contact Information
v. General Information about the Atlas
b. Enter observations – (currently inactive)
c. Enter effort – (currently inactive)
d. View regions and blocks
i. When you click on this tab, a map of PA from the DeLorme Pennsylvania Atlas
& Gazeteer will appear with an overlay of numbered pages (i.e., 2nd PBBA
ii. Click on a region (page number from the Gazeteer) for a map of that region.
iii. Click on a block for a closer view of that block and the other five blocks
making up the USGS 7.5-minute topo map in which the selected block is
1. The tabs on this page are:
a. General information—this is what is showing.
b. 1984-1989 results—this gives the list of species and highest
observed breeding status found in this block during the first
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 11
atlas. Importantly, do not use this list as a checklist for the
same block in the 2nd PBBA. Coverage may not have been as
extensive for many blocks during the first PBBA, and bird
distributions are dynamic (one of the reasons why we’re
repeating the Atlas after 20 years!)
c. 2004-2008 results—Entered data from the 2nd PBBA will be
displayed here (currently inactive).
d. Block map—click on this tab to download a map. The picture
that will appear on your screen is a black and white aerial photo.
If you wish to download and print a full-size aerial or topo map
of the block, simply click on “download aerial” or “download
topo.” Downloading may take a few minutes, depending on the
speed of your internet connection, but the quality of the maps
you download for printing is excellent and worth the wait. You
may want to print out several copies of a map for blocks that
you own, so that you can take a new one into the field each time
and plot your bird observations on them.
iv. If the block you wish to own is not shaded blue, you can click on “Request to
own block,” and your request will be relayed automatically to the appropriate
regional coordinator, who will then approve or deny the request. Once
approved, the block will show up as being owned by you.
e. View results (currently inactive)
2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas Handbook for Participants 12