The Atlas project began in 1997 under the leadership of Tim Nuttall, a graduate student at Mississippi State University. During the summers of 1997 and 1998, some test blocks were checked so that protocols could be field tested, volunteers lined up and evaluated, and priorities established. Chris Reynolds, another MSU graduate student, directed the project during the first two years (1999 and 2000). In 2001, Mark Goodman, a volunteer with experience on the Missouri Atlas Project, took over the project and narrowed the focus of the study.
Originally, the goal had been to survey blocks, run half-mile routes, survey surrounding areas, record nests, and conduct two winter census. By 2001, the study was narrowed to surveying blocks for breeding species and recording nesting sites within the blocks.
A small number of volunteers and the rural nature of Mississippi dictated some of the decisions. High priority blocks received the most attention. Moderate and low priority blocks were checked when volunteers were available, special habitat existed, or coverage required a broader base of blocks be checked.
Six habitat types were identified within the state. An identical number of high priority blocks were randomly selected for each habitat type. The six habitat types were: barrier islands, the Flatlands Coastal Plain, the Middle Coastal Plain, the Hilly Coastal Plain, Deep Loess Hills, and Mississippi Alluvial Valley.
The barrier islands are located about 50 miles from the mainland. The islands include Ship and Horn islands, which are designed as national seashores.
The flatlands coastal plain extends along the 90 miles of Mississippi coast on the Gulf of Mexico. These plains include areas where fresh and salt water mix. Areas are designated as breeding areas for least terns among the tourist attractions and nearby traffic of Highway 90. Being the smallest of the land-side habitats, this habitat type had the greatest amount of coverage. The Gulf Coast cities of Biloxi and Gulf Port included many birdwatchers. Plus, more than half of the blocks in the habitat were assigned high priority.
The middle coast plain extended from about Interstate 10 north to about the lower third of the state. This habitat area extended from the Alabama line across the state the deep loess hills or about 50 miles west of the Louisiana border.
The deep loess hills is a habitat formed by the loose, sandy soil left behind by glaciers. Deep, eroded valleys and heavily forested hills mark the habitat. Few people live in the hills because of the unstable soils and lack of economic opportunity. Accordingly, the habitat type is rich in bird life. Few blocks were exclusively of this habitat type.
The Mississippi Alluvial Valley is better known has the Delta. The delta extends from the loess hills on the east to the Mississippi River on the west; from the Tennessee line to the north and south to Natchez. Commercial farming operations and catfish ponds dominate this habitat type. When habitat diversity exists, the bird life improves dramatically from the red-winged blackbirds and dickcissels that dominate the farmed areas.
The Hilly Coastal Plain covers the northeast quarter of the state, extending from the state capital of Jackson to the very southern tip of the Smokey Mountains. This habitat type is mostly in timber less than 20 years old or 3- to 5-acre family homes. HCP also includes the black prairie, a belt of flat land running close to the Alabama border.
When possible, blocks were assigned to birdwatchers who would make multiple trips to the block in hopes of maximizing total species and achieving a higher level of confirmation than other methods. By 2001, it was clear that not all priority blocks would be checked relying on this procedure. Some blocks because of their remoteness from volunteers were assigned to the most experienced birders for block busting. The busted blocks were visited one time for about half of a day with the goal to maximize the number of species.
Finally, in 2004 some blocks were specifically chosen to improve coverage in the Hilly Coastal Plain, the least covered habitat type. Two routes were established. One ran north from Columbus to Paden Wildlife Area along the Alabama line. The second route began in Kemper County and ran northwest to Winona and then north to Oxford. These blocks were visited for 2 to 3 hours with the emphasis on checking what maps indicated would be the best habitat in the block. Both routes either had contiguous blocks or were contiguous to priority blocks. These super busted blocks provide a limited snapshot of species present in the HCP.
Each block was part of a USGS quad, which was divided into six equal parts by halving the block from north to south and by thirds from east to west. The decision was made to check Block 5 (east side, middle third) of each quad if possible. The only exceptions to the block 5 protocol occurred in the FCP habitat. In that habitat, lands owned by corporations were sometimes off limits and composed the entire block or the blocks were inaccessible because of water or the shape of the coast. In those cases, block 2 (west side, middle third) was the choice.
In some cases, data within a quad was collected by other researchers and provided to the Atlas editors. That data also may not be in a block 5.
Altogether, some results were collected for 5 barrier island blocks, 16 FCP (15 high priority, 1 medium priority), 31 MCP (30 high, 1 low priority), 31 DLO (28 high, 3 low), 38 MAV (30 high, 3 medium, 5 low) and 62 HCP (31 high, 28 medium, 3 low). As already mentioned, some DLO blocks included more than one habitat type.
The Mississippi Project followed the bird breeding block protocols.
Observed. O. Seen in the block, but not in a breeding context. This was usually reserved for herons, egrets, turkey vultures, and purple martins. We also recorded species as observed if the species was probably not breeding in Mississippi. We included these observations in our final report. I made that decision because the observed status still indicates population distribution. Also, I wanted to have a record of what birds were observed in the summer in Mississippi.
Possible. /. A male or female seen or heard in nesting habitat within its safe dates. X. Singing male present in breeding habitat within the safe dates.
Probable. S. Seven or more singing males in one day. A. Agitated behavior or anxiety calls from adults. P. Pair observed within safe dates. T. Bird holding territory. C. Courtship or copulation observed. N. Visiting a probably nest site. B. Nest building--wrens and woodpeckers.
Confirmed. CN. Adult carrying nexting material. NB. Nest building. DD. Distraction display. UN. Used nest found. CF. Cowbird fledgling. FL. Recently fledged young. PE. Physiological evidence of bird in hand. FS. Parent with fecal sac. FY. Adult carrying food for young. ON. Occupied nest. CE. Cowbird eggs or eggshells. CY. Cowbird young. NE. Nest eith eggs or eggshells. NY. Nest with young.
In the first two years of the project, volunteers were solicited through National Audubon Society chapters and from members of the Mississippi Ornithological Society. By 2001, most new volunteers were members of a news group of Mississippi birdwatchers, which was moderated by Marvin Davis of Oxford. Conducting field surveys for this project were:
Stephen J. Dinsmore
Colinda D. Green
Paul D. Kittle
Jackson Audubon Society
Nancy Clay Madden
William D. McGehee
Allan J. Mueller
W. Robert Peeples
J. & J. Petigrew
Marion H. Schiefer
For each block, atlasers received nesting cards asking for information if a nest was found, particularly if a neotropical species or a rare/unusual species. I retail possession of those cards until a situation repository is identified.
For each block, atlasers received copies of a rare bird form used for the project. The submitted forms are on file at the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Mississippi State University.
Atlasers were asked to submit forms on easily confused species (e.g., sharp-shinned hawk vs. cooper's hawk) or if a species not on the field card was found in breeding status. We stopped requiring forms on Canada goose, mallard duck, and Eurasian collared duck since all three species breed more widely than anticipated.
Mark Goodman, state project coordinator, determined which of the rarity forms needed to be submitted to the project coordinating board. A vote of the board members determined whether to include the species in the records. These records were not sent to the Mississippi state records committee.
The coordinating board after 2003 consisted of Francisco Vilella, the creator of the project; Mark Goodman, state project coordinator; Jenny Thompson, board chair; and Stephen H. Dinsmore, atlas editor.
Web page development
Mark Goodman developed the web site and serves as web masters. Sarah Morse and Amy Winberry assisted with web page development. Contributing photographers are noted, but special thanks to Judy Howle, Jerry Litton, Gene and Shannon Knight, and Skipper Anding.