Undergraduate Field Ornithology course aided by the Atlas of Breeding Birds of British Columbia

by Dr. John G. Woods, Sessional Instructor, UBC Okanagan

The Atlas framework provided an ideal instructional base for the University of British Columbia’s 10-day field ornithology course based out of the Okanagan campus at Kelowna.

When the university launched this course in 2012 as an elective in the third-year biology program, the students were able to use the growing Atlas dataset online and to contribute to a real-life citizen science project. Most importantly, Atlas field protocols (ethics, species and breeding codes, habitat classification, survey procedures) provided a present-day glimpse of what it is like to be part of an actual field ornithology project. This helped to quickly transform that first group of students from a class into a team.

Imagine a university course that starts at a different time each day depending on local sunrise and requires you to be field-ready at a research site hours before most of your fellow students have had breakfast. Early-bird starts give the students their best opportunity to see and hear birds during the height of daily bird activity, and were a key part of the Atlas point count protocol used to estimate species abundance.

Although the Atlas data collection window (2008-12) is over, the Atlas standards of field ethics, coding systems, and field protocols continue to form the basic premise for class collaboration each spring. About 20 students a year (the class maximum) learn to identify bird species by sight and sound, recognize specific bird behaviours, and appreciate the importance of standardized field research and safety protocols.

Easily accessible online, the Atlas continues to provide students with a rich source of information on breeding bird distribution in British Columbia to learn from and enquire, and illustrates the educational power of citizen science.

Figure 1. Field Ornithology Class May 2014, Robert Lake, Central Okanagan © UBC John G. Woods

Undergraduate Projects and Studies

The Atlas dataset is ideally suited to i) exploratory analyses by undergraduates, some of which could lead to MSc or PhD level studies, and ii) undergraduate courses in ecology and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with a focus on how to take raw data and turn it into relevant information with which to test a hypothesis.

Students at British Columbian universities in particular, but also in other North American provinces/states, have used the database to explore a range of different topics, including:

  • Temporal change in bird distributions in Metro Vancouver in relation to urban development and expansion.
  • Creating density surfaces for bird species in defined areas.
  • Assessing suitability of possible wind farm locations with respect to biological risk (GIS).
  • Assessing levels of spatial autocorrelation with different biodiversity counting techniques.
  • Suitability of current protected areas in British Columbia for biodiversity conservation.
  • Multi-year analysis of terrestrial breeding bird populations in Yoho and Kootenay National Parks, British Columbia.
  • Writing policy briefs: Recommendations for Species At Risk in British Columbia.
  • Effects of waterfowl vs. geographic processes in nutrient loading and eutrophication of freshwater lakes.


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