Frequently Asked Questions

On this page:

Questions about how to contribute to the Atlas Effort

Is the Maine Bird Atlas only for experienced birdwatchers that can identify all Maine birds?
NO. Everyone participating in the Maine Bird Atlas is somewhere on the learning curve in identifying Maine birds. Observers of all skill levels can make valuable contributions to the Atlas. We want to involve as many people as possible, including younger generations, in the Maine Bird Atlas. Whether you spend many hours surveying or report just a single nest you discover in your backyard, your contribution will help to build the Maine Bird Atlas.

Are there tools available online to review the songs and calls of birds in my region?
Yes, there are numerous websites available, and YouTube has some helpful information as well. A particularly useful site is the USGS Dendroica where you can review photos of each species as well as hear multiple recordings and variations of each species’ song. Helpful links are provided on the right-hand side of the Resources and Materials page.

Are there other ways that I can support the Atlas project?
Yes. A great and fun way to support this landmark project is to Sponsor a Species. Over 250 of Maine’s breeding and wintering bird species have been divided into sponsorship levels ranging from $30-$2,000 and are available to sponsor for each year of the project. Visit our Support the Project page and find your favorite.  
If you have time, we are also looking for a network of volunteers to help birders with technical issues and enter data off paper forms. To volunteer for this "Birds and Nerds" group, please email our project coordinator at mainebirdatlas AT gmail DOT com

Back to top

General Questions about how to Atlas

The Atlas guidelines seem complex, how important is it to follow all guidelines?

The Atlas guidelines seem complex, how important is it to follow all guidelines?
The Maine Bird Atlas is a large project involving hundreds of volunteers. Our goal with this project is to set down a high-quality baseline of information on the status and distribution of birds in Maine that can be trusted by the next generations of ornithologists and naturalists. To maintain quality of the data collected, we ask all volunteers to follow the guidelines as written. A team of scientists have worked hard to compile them and other states have contributed by field testing the methods.

Can I participate in the Maine Bird Atlas without adopting an Atlas Block?
Yes, absolutely! Incidental observations of breeding or wintering birds anywhere in Maine, even in Blocks adopted by others, are a welcome and an important source of information. They could be records for habitats or species that may otherwise receive less survey coverage. We welcome and encourage volunteers to submit all incidental observations from any Block, even if visited only briefly. Nevertheless, we do strongly encourage volunteers to adopt and commit to completing a Block.

I have heard that Maine will be conducting a wintering bird atlas as well as a breeding bird atlas - is this true? 
YES. The winter observation period is from 14 December – 15 March. Individuals should submit any bird observations during this time through the Maine ebird portal ( During the winter of 2018-19, we refined methods and protocols for the Maine wintering bird atlas and officially launched it in December 2019. While a few species with early or late fall migration or early breeding periods may overlap our winter survey period, the majority of birds present will strictly be wintering. We will deal with the outliers on a case-by-case basis at the completion of the Atlas project.

Back to top

Questions about Adopting an Atlas Block

What is the sampling unit for the atlas and what are the sampling goals?
Since the Atlas Block (each Block is approximately 3.0 x 2.9 miles) system is the basic unit for contributing data for the Maine Bird Atlas, it is important to understand how the Atlas Blocks are set up.  All observations of birds submitted to the Atlas must be attributed to the appropriate Atlas Block.
As is the standard for many other state atlases, Maine is following the U.S. Geological Survey 7.5-minute topo quads as the base grid. Each quad has then been subdivided into 6 Atlas Blocks for a total of 4,080 Blocks.  Each Block has a unique name based on the name of the corresponding topo quad map name plus a 2-letter cardinal direction code (e.g., NW, SE, CE) based on its position within the topo quad. While we would ideally like to survey the entire state for breeding birds, given the remoteness of many of the Atlas Blocks and variation in distribution and number of observers, this will be very difficult.  Therefore, we have identified 974 "Priority Blocks" and the remaining 3,106 Blocks are termed "Regular Blocks". Our goal is to survey all 974 Priority Blocks in Maine over the 5-year duration of the Atlas and then as many Regular Blocks as time and effort allows.

Does an Atlas Block that I adopt need to be surveyed each year?
No. It is important to devote sufficient time (approximately 20 hours total for the breeding season, 6 hours total for the wintering season) to survey an Atlas Block adequately and to confirm evidence of breeding, but you technically have all five years of the project to complete that for your adopted block. Though, we hope volunteers will strive to complete their block in a year or two so they can redirect their efforts to other blocks in need of surveying.

Back to top

Questions about Birds near Block Boundaries

How do I handle Atlas Blocks bordering other states or provinces?

Because we are only mapping Maine birds, we will not include observations from adjacent states or provinces. Only document birds within Maine borders.

How do I record birds observed on or crossing block boundaries? 
The best way to treat birds near or crossing Block boundaries is to record exactly what you observe in each Block. A Canada Goose with goslings in a lake can easily cross from one Block into another and this observation should get recorded for both Blocks. The best advice is to record exactly what you observed in each Block.  If, however, you are sure that the birds you observed nested in an adjacent block, then record them as nesting only in the adjacent block. 

What if I don't know the Atlas Block that corresponds to where I observed a bird? 
The Block is the basic unit of the Maine Bird Atlas, and it is important to determine the block where your observation occurred. We have an interactive map of the whole state showing block boundaries with a topographic or aerial imagery basemap, and often you can quickly determine which block your observation came from. You can also download a file of the Maine Bird Atlas Blocks that you can view in Google Earth to determine the block where you make your observation.  If you cannot determine the block where your observation occurred with these tools, PLEASE DON’T GUESS. A better option is to retrace your steps and go back to your original observation spot with some Atlas Block maps as reference.

Back to top

Questions related to Timing of Surveys

When is the best time to survey a Block and how often should I go?
Generally speaking, June and July are the best months to look for breeding evidence of birds. Early mornings and early evenings are often the best times to survey as bird are usually most active then.  For certain species, it is helpful to start fieldwork in April or May. Ideally, you should plan to visit your block several times throughout the spring and summer, once every other week if possible.
For the wintering period, anything goes, provided it’s between 14 December and 15 March. Of course, it is possible to also get records with breeding evidence (e.g., for species like owls, eagles, etc. that initiate nesting early), so just be sure to keep entries for each component (breeding vs. wintering) separate.

What are breeding bird safe dates, and how should I use them?
The breeding bird safe dates (appendix 4 of the Volunteer Handbook) delineate the time period in Maine when most migrants are not present and individuals present in appropriate breeding habitat may be nesting.  These dates are not nesting or egg dates.  For many species, breeding occurs outside of these dates, but migrant individuals may also be present. Safe dates offer only general guidance and your observations take precedence over any safe dates we give. Remember that spring can be early or late in a given year and that breeding may begin weeks earlier in southern Maine than in northern Maine.  If you confirm breeding evidence outside of the safe dates for any given species, your observation takes precedence over the safe dates.
There are no safe dates for the wintering season.

When do I consider my Atlas Block "complete" and direct my survey efforts to another Block?
Breeding Season: As a rule of thumb, we consider an Atlas Block complete for the breeding component when at least 20 hours (15 hours in remote, difficult to access regions) of active surveying has been conducted throughout the breeding season. This time should be representative of each habitat type present in the Block, at least 50% of the bird species detected should be categorized as "confirmed breeders", and ideally, but optional, are two visits to listen for nocturnal birds.  Note, the ultimate goal for each block is to confirm breeding for any species observed. Once this has been accomplished for a species, you can focus your efforts on getting confirmations for other species in your block.
If you are investing a substantial amount of survey effort in a Block, but are adding few new species to your list, your Block should probably be considered complete. At this point, your additional effort will be more helpful if you invested it in another Block that is receiving little or no survey effort. You will not be prevented from re-visiting completed Blocks and adding additional records and new species at any point during the 5-year duration of the Maine Bird Atlas. Returning to Blocks to seek out missed species is a good thing, but you should be careful not to spend a great deal of time doing so…your time is likely better spent working in a new Block.

Wintering Season: The requirements for the wintering component are much simpler. Three hours of survey time during the first Period (14 Dec. – 31 Jan.) and three hours of survey time during the second Period (1 Feb. – 15 Mar.). As with the breeding component, we are looking for those surveys to be representative of each habitat type present in the Block as much as possible.

Back to top

Specific Breeding Code Questions

A bird behavior I observed could fit into two different breeding codes; how important is it to accurately record the exact breeding code?
Determining which breeding code to assign to your bird observations can cause much confusion.  Similar to other atlas efforts, breeding behavior in the Maine Bird Atlas is classified into one of four categories (Confirmed, Probable, Possible, or Observed with no evidence of breeding). Within each of these four categories are multiple breeding codes that classifies bird behaviors into discrete categories and allows us to determine the evidence you observed and, based on this, whether or not the species may have been breeding in an Atlas Block. Sometimes determining how to assign a breeding code to one of your observations is simple and obvious, and other times an observation could get classified into multiple breeding codes. 
Despite these challenges, accurately choosing the correct breeding code is very important. The best general rule of thumb we can give you is to enter additional details in the comments field in eBird (or on your datasheets) for any observations where you are unsure about how best to categorize what you observed.  When in doubt, include a "Comment" in eBird. That way, our Atlas Records Review Team will have all the information they need to interpret what you observed.

What qualifies as the same "general location" for an S7 breeding code?
Ideally, this code would be used for birds singing from the same territory 7 or more days apart. Singing birds documented 7 or more days apart in appropriate breeding habitat with observations less than ~1 mile apart should be categorized as S7, BUT only if they occur in a single atlas block. This code is the lowest documentation for the "Probable Breeding" category.

If I already confirmed breeding for a species in my block, should I attempt to find the nest with young, which is the highest code in this category?
NO. Your goal during field work is to confirm breeding for as many species as possible without unnecessary disturbance to the birds and without approaching a bird’s nest. Similarly, once you have confirmed a species breeding in your block, you can redirect your attention to other species still needing confirmed in your block.

Back to top