Experts, conservation groups to embark on comprehensive Connecticut bird study

An American oystercatcher and a crow along the rocks off of Pequot Avenue in New London on Wednesday April 2, 2014. (Tim Cook/The Day)
An American oystercatcher and a crow along the rocks off of Pequot Avenue in New London on Wednesday April 2, 2014. (Tim Cook/The Day)

State officials, biologists and environmentalists are embarking on a multi-year study of bird populations and habitats in Connecticut in what they say is the first statewide assessment of bird life of its kind.

The last extensive study, or atlas, of birds and where they live happened more than two decades ago, and only collected data about bird species during their nesting seasons, according to Chris S. Elphick, a professor and biologist with the University of Connecticut's Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.

"To do something as comprehensive as what we're doing has never been done before," Elphick said.

The data collected in the 1980s was compiled in "The Handbook of the Connecticut Breeding Bird Atlas," which was published in 1994 and sits on Elphick's desk but has not been useful in many years, he said.

"It's pretty outdated at this point," he said.

Starting in the spring of 2018, volunteers will collect information about bird populations, nesting and breeding habits and migration in one or more 9-kilometer-square plots across Connecticut.

The new data will help conservation groups and scientists across the state determine where hard-won conservation money should be spent, said Connecticut Audubon Society Executive Director Patrick Comins.

"It's really going to help with prioritization," Comins said.

Conservation groups such as the Audubon Society frequently have to justify why a parcel of land should be conserved, he said, and having more data about which birds frequent those areas could help.

"(We have to say why) we want to protect this parcel or that parcel, and why is it important to birds," he said. "This might have wood thrush, or this might have cerulean warblers ... or prairie warblers. With the results of the atlas, we'll really have a much better idea of what the most important areas are. We'll be able to look at the map and say, these rare species were there ... in the greatest concentration."

The Connecticut Audubon Society dedicated its annual State of the Birds report to promoting the study, and Comins said he hopes to lead one of several scheduled training sessions for amateurs and ornithologists alike who might want to help.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and UConn are supporting the study with donations and funds from a federal excise taxes on the sales of firearms and ammunition. 

Bird experts and scientists have collected information about specific species or habitats in specific areas of the state for their own purposes, said Min T. Huang, a DEEP wildlife biologist, but a broader picture has never been accessible to the public, he said.

"A lot of people have been collecting data, but not at this kind of targeted intensity and scope," he said.

All the data the volunteers collect over the three-year study will be available on an interactive website at www.ctbirdatlas.org where anyone can access it, Huang said. It will not be published in book form, he said, saving money and allowing the database to be updated even after the study is officially over.

"This will be a really good comprehensive look at what's out there, how much is out there, and what types of habitats they're really associated with," he said.

Huang said he also hopes the effort will engage state officials, UConn scientists, bird enthusiasts and conservation groups such as the Connecticut Audubon Society and the Connecticut Ornithological Association in a way that allows them to push for conservation and research funding together.

"We have all these organizations, and trusts and other NGO's and state agencies that all care about our environment," he said. "Hopefully with that coalition in place, then really we can go out and lobby for and get what the conservation community really needs desperately in this state, which is dedicated funding."

m.shanahan@theday.com

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