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Bird’s eye view of birds

THE canary in the coalmine is an apt phrase for the goal of a nationwide bird census.

As climate change, urban, agricultural and industrial encroachment, and conservation measures impact on the distribution of bird species, the updated New Zealand Bird Atlas will map changes to the distribution and population density of all birds in the country.

“Birds are one of the best indicators of the health of the environment,” says Birds New Zealand Gisborne/Wairoa regional representative Geoff Foreman, who was involved with the first atlases.

The previous two atlas projects were done in the 1970s and 1990s.

Birds New Zealand’s new five-year atlas project involves the help of “citizen scientists” to collect bird observations from all over New Zealand.

The updated atlas will not only provide a detailed picture of the state of New Zealand’s birds but also allow Birds New Zealand to look at how distribution has changed in this country over the past 50 years. The atlas is unique in its scope, says Wildlife International Management senior ecologist Nikki McArthur.

“This is a concerted five-year effort to get thousands of bird watchers out to collect bird observations and record their observations in a particular way.”

The project is different from citizen scientist initiatives such as the kereru count or garden bird surveys, particularly in terms of scale.

“The New Zealand Bird Atlas covers all birds across all habitats across the country.”

Birds New Zealand hopes to involve as many New Zealanders as possible in spotting, counting and recording birds.

Grid systemBirds New Zealand has mapped out New Zealand into 3229 10-kilometre squares. The Gisborne-Wairoa area covers 99 squares on the grid.

“The aim is to record observations of all bird species present in each grid square,” says Mr McArthur.

“Participants will choose a grid square to record sightings. They explore the grid square in a way that enables them to encounter species.”

An app is available to enable citizen scientists to view maps of their survey area and to submit their bird observations directly into the New Zealand Bird Atlas database.

Birds New Zealand has technology that can use raw data and a statistical, predictive model to help check incoming data for errors, fill the gaps and to account for gaps in survey coverage.

The information will be constantly updated so participants will be able to see what species have been identified at various locations.

There are two ways to take part, says Mr McArthur.

One is to actively target a grid square.

“You could print off a map of that square and systematically survey that square.”

To do this, participants need to visit all of the major habitats in that square. These include farmland, native forest, rivers, towns and coastal habitats.

“A list of birds in your garden is just as important as on a remote island or national park.”

The updated atlas means scientists, ecologists, researchers and the general public will be able to see what species are doing well and which are doing badly.

“This will help inform conservation policy and decision-making by local and central government agencies such as councils, the Department of Conservation (DoC) and the Ministry for the Environment who have a responsibility to manage birds and their habitats.

“This is a key dataset these organisations will use over the next few decades to improve the status of native, endemic and introduced birds.”

Although climate change is not the sole factor in driving changes to native and introduced bird species distribution, it has resulted in gradual warming of forests.

Predator populations in these forests have increased as a consequence and forest birds such as kaka and rifleman are becoming increasingly confined to colder, high altitude forests.

“This is a pattern we have seen between these two last atlas projects.

“Landcare Research scientists have reanalysed earlier atlas data and have shown for the first time the number of our endemic forest birds that have suffered from the impact of climate change,” says Mr McArthur.

Urgent efforts will be needed to turn this around.

“We wouldn’t have been able to sound this warning had it not been for the existence of the atlas datasets and the efforts of hundreds of citizen scientists that helped us to build this dataset.”

TrendsNew Zealand has become a world leader in rescuing critically endangered species from extinction, says Mr McArthur.

Species such as the kakapo and black robin, that were formerly on the brink of extinction, are increasing in numbers.

On the other hand, dozens of other native bird species are declining in numbers and distribution. The atlas project will help inform conservation work by showing which species are declining and where.

“The atlas will also enable us to track the establishment and spread of introduced bird species across the country.”

Birds such as the eastern rosella — a brightly coloured, broad-tailed parakeet native to south-eastern Australia — was introduced to New Zealand in the early 1900s. It is an invasive species the 1999-2004 atlas showed had already colonised broad swathes of the North Island but had not reached Hawke’s Bay and the East Cape . . . yet.

The atlas project will be conducted in partnership with the Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology in New York.

A free app called eBird is available for participants to download to their mobile phones and tablets. The app can be used to record and submit bird observations to the atlas project in real time.

Citizen scientists can use the app in conjunction with Google Earth to grid up a specific area and examine its topography before venturing out. Checklists will be submitted directly into the eBird app or eBird website.

“New Zealand is the first country in the world to conduct a national bird atlas using the cutting-edge technology built into the eBird app and database,” says Mr McArthur.

Other countries planning their own national atlas projects are watching New Zealand closely to see how it goes.

As the turnout to the New Zealand Bird Atlas workshops at the Tairawhiti Environment Centre recently indicated, organisations such as Forest and Bird, DoC, Gisborne District Council and the QEII National Trust, as well members of the public, are on board with the project.

A book and tie-in interactive website will be produced when the project is completed.

For full information and resources, visit www.birdatlas.co.nz

BIRD ATLAS PROJECT: Wildlife International Management (WMIL) senior ecologist Nikki McArthur recently outlined in a workshop in Gisborne a Birds New Zealand (formerly the Ornithological Society) project to engage “citizen scientists” in a five-year project that involves recording and mapping the distribution of all bird species around the country. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
WHERE ARE THE MOREPORK?: SIghtings of native birds, endemic and introduced birds are welcomed as part of the New Zealand Bird Atlas. File picture