by Lindsay Townsend

The Delaware Museum of Natural History welcomed its first Howard and Dede Brokaw Ornithology Fellow, Alex Johnson, to the museum this summer. Johnson spent the summer helping the museum’s Curator of Birds and Director of Collections, Dr. Jean Woods, write up the results of Delaware’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas project.

Delaware’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas project surveyed the state from 2008 to 2012 to determine which bird species were breeding in the state and where.

“The data will allow state planners, land managers, and conservationists to have a better idea which birds are declining,” said Woods. However, anyone, including amateur bird watchers, could use the atlas as well to learn more about birds breeding in Delaware.

The Howard and Dede Brokaw Ornithology Fellowship honors Howard Pyle Brokaw, a founding museum patron and honorary trustee, and his wife Dede Brokaw. Howard Brokaw was an avid bird watcher and served on the committee that compiled Delaware’s First Breeding Bird Atlas in the text Birds of Delaware. Woods thought it was fitting that the first Brokaw fellow should continue his work by helping with the second atlas.

Conservation is a particular interest of Johnson’s. She is a graduate of State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry with a degree in conservation biology. She plans to continue her studies in conservation by applying to graduate schools this fall for the 2019 fall term. She is interested in what she describes as “efficient conservation, or how to support the greatest number of species in the smallest space with the least amount of resources.”

Johnson has always had a love for birds and nature. “I grew up with a big backyard,” she said. “And my mom liked to go walking and hiking, so I’d go with her a lot when I was little.” Today she still likes to go for nature walks.

“My favorite time to walk is around May because that’s when all the birds are coming back,” she said. “You can see all the species migrating.”

Working on the Breeding Bird Atlas has offered Johnson an opportunity to gain more experience with scientific writing and conservation research, two things that will help her as she continues her studies.

As part of her work on the atlas project, Johnson has written species accounts, which summarize and interpret the data collected for each bird species. A major point the accounts address is whether there are any differences in a bird species’ distribution or breeding activity between the first and second atlases. These differences could indicate whether a species is becoming more or less abundant in Delaware.

Both Johnson and Woods have been surprised by some of the data.

“Eastern Phoebe was a bird I thought was really common, but it went down,” said Woods.

Johnson was surprised to find that a quarter of the goldfinches observed for this atlas bred earlier in the year than other research reported.

Observations like these can prompt further study. The atlas observations don’t provide exact population numbers for a bird species but can show where a species is generally present and breeding throughout the state. This information coupled with population numbers collected through the North American Breeding Bird Survey can provide conservationists and wildlife managers with a more complete picture of how well a bird species is doing.

Johnson said she and Woods don’t know why eastern phoebes weren’t observed as widely for this atlas. She hopes the atlas observations will encourage additional exploration of data like this.

The Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, the Delaware Museum of Natural History, the Delaware Nature Society, the Delmarva Ornithological Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are all organizations involved with Delaware’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas Project.