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Getting the job done by canoe, by helicopter, by car and foot

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WILLMAR -- By helicopter, by canoe, but more often by car and foot, hundreds of Minnesota volunteers will soon be fanning out across the state.

They will be carrying binoculars and notebooks and participating in the state's first survey of its breeding bird population. It will be the start of a five-year endeavor that some consider long over-due. Some 41 other states have already completed breeding bird atlas counts of their own. Twelve of those states are working on or have completed their second surveys, something that is not undertaken until 15 years after the first.

Minnesota is the only state in the Mississippi fly way that has not yet completed a survey.

Minnesota is a Johnny-come-lately to this scientific mission, and the urgency couldn't be greater for a variety of reason. It is believed that some songbird populations in the state have declined by as much as 80 percent in the last 50 years. There is growing concern about the loss and fragmentation of habitat. And, a growing body of evidence is showing that many bird species are moving their ranges north as the climate warms.

The responsibility for finding out what bird species call Minnesota home by building nests and rearing their young here belongs to Bonnie Sample of Audubon Minnesota. She is the coordinator for the first Minnesota breeding bird atlas. She will soon be recruiting hundreds of volunteers to become citizen scientists for what she believes will be a truly fun endeavor.

All that really is required is a love for birding, said Sample.

The survey's goal is to send volunteers into the northeast quadrant of each township in the state over the next five years. There, the volunteers will record what bird species they see and hear, and jot down their observations on whether the birds are there to nest and raise young.

In most cases, the volunteers will need to devote about 25 hours of bird watching time to their roles, said Sample. They will be asked to make periodic visits to their areas during the breeding season, which can run into August for some bird species. The majority of the observing will be done in April, May and June.

The task in this part of the state should be relatively easy. Roadways and hiking trails- and landowner permission- are all that will usually be required for the citizen scientists to reach their destinations.

It gets a little trickier in other parts of the state, and that's where the helicopters and canoes will come into play, she said. Sample said they will be using helicopters to bring observers to some of the remote peat bogs in the state's north central region. Volunteers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area will rely on paddle power to reach their observation areas.

No one really knows what they will find. We know there are 430 species of birds that can be spotted in Minnesota at various times of the year, but there has never been an overall, coordinated effort to identify exactly which species rely on the state for raising their young. Some accounts suggest that over 300 species either nest or over-winter in Minnesota.

One thing is for certain: There will be surprises, said Sample. That's been the result in other states that have already conducted these surveys.

While it should be fun for the volunteers, the overall task of completing the survey is daunting. There are no fewer than 2,352 township areas mapped in the state. The goal is to assign a volunteer to every northeast quadrant measuring a full, eight square miles. In those areas where the quadrant is lacking in size due to water bodies or other features, the southeast quadrant will be visited instead.

Along with the volunteers, trained professionals will also be visiting selected, priority areas where they will be attempting to complete an accurate count of the birds and species found.

Sample came on board in her role only last October. Her goal is to have a website up and ready and to spread word about the project in the weeks ahead so that volunteers can be recruited.