Unitt, whose job is to oversee that collection today, will be the author of the forthcoming volume. But having recruited a core of 200 consistent long-term data collectors like the Keenans, he has been able to be much more ambitious than anyone at any previous time, including his younger self. In fact, the new project is acknowledged by some experts to be one of the most ambitious bird-atlas projects in the world. That’s because it will include birds that winter here as well as birds that breed here. There’s a good reason to include them: more species spend winters in San Diego than breed here. The latest British studies have included winter birds, and a few other places around the world are starting to do the same. But the winter portion of the San Diego project is among the first for North America. It is definitely the first for California — and is likely to be precedent setting.
Not every good birder in San Diego has been involved. “A certain number of people with adequate birding skills flunked the paperwork,” Unitt said. Reams of it have been required. A couple who, like the Keenans, have been among the most loyal participants showed me the biggest, thickest three-ring binders I had ever seen when I interviewed them at their home. The binders were filled over the five-year period with copies of their bird-atlas forms.
I looked at some of those forms that volunteers were required to submit to the project. They made it clear that bird-atlas work was no mere walk in the woods. The Winter Record Form (which isn’t even as complicated as the form required during breeding season) lists six columns of bird species, about 300 in all. “Specify a single date” for your sighting, the instructions say. “Enter count or estimate of number observed in square in one day. Enter a specific number, even if just an estimate, rather than a range or order of abundance level. Estimate the abundance level only when you have achieved the threshold criteria for covering the square. Abundance level: E1, 1–10; E2, 10–100; E3, 100–1000; E4, 1000–10,000. If a more accurate estimate or count is possible, enter it without the ‘E’ prefix.” Some of the species have asterisks after their names. For those one must plot the precise location of the sighting on another form, the Daily Field Map.
To be committed participants, birders needed something else besides tolerance for tedium. They needed to be free from their own long-term birding goals and interests — rare-bird sightings, for example.
(Even if some of the county’s great birders didn’t adopt a square and weren’t working specifically for the bird atlas, they were constantly feeding data into it. In addition, the last five years of Christmas bird counts, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, have been folded into the bird-atlas data. Same goes for the Breeding Bird Survey, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey and conducted by volunteers.)
Those who signed on for the full term of the project also had to believe in its usefulness as a conservation “tool.” That tool would logically take the form of maps, because any bird that gets listed as an endangered species is put into geographical context: the area considered essential to its survival must be listed along with it, as a critical habitat.
“San Diego’s Multiple Species Conservation Program advertises itself as being able to preserve species while at the same time it alleviates the conflict between development and conservation,” said Unitt. “It will consign substantial areas to development all at once as well as to conservation all at once.” Whether it will actually accomplish these goals won’t be known for some time. “What it amounts to is a big experiment. Well, with an experiment you need a control group.”
Portraying the bird atlas as that control group was, he said, one of his primary means of marketing the project to both funding sources and volunteers. “Other monitoring programs have been proposed, and I’m not sure what has been decided, because a lot goes on inside the bureaucracy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which I’m not privy to. But we were fortunate that many people bought into the bird-atlas idea and saw the value of its approach.”
It was “bought” literally, since the project is being paid for by more than $600,000 of grants and contracts as well as cooperative agreements from the Cleveland National Forest, California State Parks, California Department of Transportation, Zoological Society of San Diego, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Department of the Navy, California Department of Fish and Game, San Diego Unified Port District, and San Diego Foundation. Another $30,000 came from individual donations and from local groups, including the Palomar Audubon Society and the San Diego Audubon Society. The estimated worth of the fieldwork by the volunteers is more than $700,000. Another $100,000 is being sought for publication expenses.
The three- by three-mile square is standard for bird atlases. The fine scale was essential for San Diego, Unitt said, because of the diversity of its habitat and its endemism, an ecological term meaning native to or confined to a certain region. “A hundred and fifty years ago, when the first naturalists were starting to visit the West, it was like ‘Location: California.’ They didn’t yet know that one mountain or one river could be different from the next. That knowledge took decades to accumulate. A plant example is one species of yucca relative, Nolina interrata. It grows on something like five peaks in central San Diego County in a certain soil type. If there’s going to be effective conservation, obviously you want to emphasize the peaks that are relevant. So for the bird atlas we set up our grid and tried to sample each cell to some minimum threshold. That’s the fundamental principle behind our project.”
Birding is acknowledged to be a mental challenge. “It’s an intellectual exercise,” Ann Keenan told me while we were in V17. “You have to put a lot of information together to make the identifications.” But a project of this scope — designed to cover the whole county, the remotest and most rugged parts of which few people had ever seen and no ornithologists had ever studied — has also been an extraordinary physical challenge for many volunteers.