Have you seen it? Snowy Owl? Nope. The Northern Hawk Owl? No, no. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont-it's a beauty. Expertly edited by Roz Renfrew from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the Atlas is a birder's tour de force. This book represents the work of over 350 volunteers over the five year time span from 2003-2008, making it the largest citizen-science initiative ever attempted in Vermont. At 548 pages and 5 1/2 pounds the Atlas contains a treasure trove of information that will delight birders and conservationists alike. For my money the Atlas is the best book written about Vermont's birds in over twenty-five years, that is since the First Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont was published in 1985.
The introductory chapters cover the methods used to obtain the data, an introduction to Vermont's biogeology, and a description of the changes in Vermont's landscape during the past century that have affected Vermont's bird life. A must read chapter entitled Bird Conservation in Vermont identifies the primary threats aimed at Vermont's birds and discusses the strategies that might be implemented to ameliorate these threats. Invasive species, habitat loss, predators, and, of course, climate change are among the threats that will challenge Vermont's birds in the future.
But the heart of the book resides in the 200 plus species accounts that appear in the Atlas. Written by local experts, including the editor herself, the species accounts provide a detailed snapshot of the status of every breeding bird in Vermont. Each article contains text, easy to interpret graphs and tables, a map showing the population distribution of each bird, and gorgeous photographs. The photographs themselves are worth the price of the book. These summaries are not intended to be read through in one sitting. Rather, they are intended to be savored one-by-one as Vermont's birds return to their breeding grounds.
So what do the results show? What's up and what's down? The first question is "How many birds breed in Vermont, anyway?". The short answer is 202 confirmed breeders give or take a species or two. In general, woodland warblers, wetland species, and raptor populations are holding their own. Reforestation, active habitat management, and elimination of the use of avicidal pesticides have stabilized these bird populations or in some cases allowed them to flourish. Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Osprey (not to mention Common Terns) all have benefited from intensive interventional management.
On the other hand grassland and shrubland bird populations have decreased due in part to the loss of abandoned pastures and early succession forests that have steadily reverted to more mature woodlands. Grasshopper Sparrows, for example, are listed as Threatened in Vermont and Upland Sandpipers are Endangered. Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Golden-winged Warblers are Species of Special Concern in Vermont, whose populations have steadily declined.
Likewise, aerial insectivores such as Purple Martin and Common Nighthawk (Endangered), and Eastern Whip-poor-will (Threatened) have all shown significant population declines. In fact, data from the Breeding Bird Survey were instrumental in providing the documentation necessary to list these birds as Threatened or Endangered.
Special mention should be made of the boreal bird species in Vermont. Boreal forest represents only a tiny sliver of Vermont's habitat found mainly in the Northeast Kingdom. Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse, and Black-backed woodpecker-the NEK Grand Slam-all showed population declines since the previous survey. Similarly, Bicknell's Thrushes, breeding in the rugged habitat atop Vermont's highest mountain peaks, are under pressure as the spruce-fir habitat that they prefer disappears as a result of climate change.
This summary does not do justice to the detailed information assembled in the Atlas. To learn more you will have to buy this handsome book. The editor, Roz Renfrew, is to be commended for driving this complex project to completion. Likewise the volunteers who contributed thousands of hours to the survey and the authors of the species accounts deserve kudos. The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont is a triumph of citizen-science that will serve as the ultimate reference book for Vermont's birds for many years to come. The Atlas takes its place along side other regional and national breeding bird surveys to give us the most detailed picture yet of the status of our nation's bird life.