All eyes on the birds

An indigo Bunting is spotted by members of the Green Lake Bird Club. submitted photo

by Ariana Hones

It is 4 a.m. and Tom Schultz is already heading out the door.

A birder of more than 40 years, he knows the best times to hear the birds of Wisconsin singing.

“You go outside early enough and all the males are singing.” Schultz said.

Most people would probably just hear bird chatter, but Schultz’s well-trained ear is able to distinguish which birds are in the area.

This is essential because Schultz is conducting research for the second edition of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.

“This is our second go around,” he said. “This is a project that gets repeated about every 20 years. The first was between 1995 to 2000 and it resulted in a two-page spread of each species of bird in Wisconsin, as well as a range map produced so that species could be properly located based on the geographical area.”

Ideally, this process takes five years of field work, although for the first edition six years were necessary.

For the second edition of the atlas, volunteers are on their fourth year of research.

Their goal?

To go out and look for evidence of breeding based on four categories: observed, possible, probable and confirmed.

Within each category is a set of criteria that must be present; birders are constantly trying to get to a higher level of proof of breeding.

For example, Schultz said “Hearing a singing male some place in the woods would be marked as ‘possible,’ but if you came back a week later and heard the singing male again it would be marked ‘probable.’”

“Finding a nest with eggs or nest with young would be marked ‘confirmed,’” he said.

The best part of this research?

Anyone can do it.

In fact, the creation of the atlas relies mostly on the work of volunteers.

There are parts of Wisconsin where there are not a lot of bird watchers, so atlasers are hired to go into blocks or areas without coverage, such as swamps, to survey.

Each county is broken down into multiple blocks to make surveying easier and more accurate.

Green Lake County is comprised of 13 blocks. It also contains some speciality habitats such as the White River Marsh.

This research will give birders, scientists and Wisconsin communities alike an idea of how climate change is affecting species, as it measures how the populations are increasing or decreasing.

Schultz described these population changes as “dependent both on habitat loss in Wisconsin as well as where many of the birds winter in South America.”

Thus, the guiding question for both Schultz and the atlas is, “how are the birds doing?”

People interested in contributing to this research simply need to step outside and start observing.

Volunteers record their bird sightings or breeding criteria on field cards that contain information about where and when they saw each species of bird.

Surveying also is enhanced by the use of the online bird data base called “eBird,” which was started by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and is now worldwide.

This database enables participants to submit checklists of birds wherever they happen to be, keep track of personal bird data and use GPS-driven mapping for increased accuracy.

Wisconsin’s newest atlas edition especially is exciting as Schultz noted it will be “the proving ground for eBird, as it is the first atlas to use it.”

For Schultz, this research not only serves to help the breeding atlas and improve Wisconsin birds’ well-being, but it also acts as a continued commitment to creating more education about, and hospitable environments for, birds in the local area.

Green Lake is an official “Bird City of Wisconsin” and celebrates this recognition with an annual bird festival in April for the past six years, five in which it has been a designated “Bird City.”

Green Lake also is home to the Bird Club led by Schultz and his wife Wendy.

“You can go birding on your own, but if you want to learn at a faster rate, go with someone who knows a bit more,” Tom said. “People on their own, they would watch and see the birds in their yard, but now by starting a bird club here, they are mutually encouraged by others and it encourages camaraderie and socialization and it builds people up.”

Although the early morning gathering times for bird club outdoor expeditions can seem daunting to the novice birder, all birders regardless of experience can benefit from sharing knowledge, stories and photos with each other.

Schultz’s advice for people who want to experience the world of birding?

Get outside. “Learn a few of the common bird songs. Learn what a cardinal sings like. There are so many online references and apps to help you learn,” he said.

When you are outside, especially driving, look on the power lines for Schultz’s local favorite, the American Kestrel — a small colorful falcon that often is passed by.

Those who want to make more of an adventure out of their birding experience may trek down to the Town Square bird club room to find plentiful resources and a community of birders who are working hard to promote and care for the birds of Wisconsin.