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: Volunteers needed for the 2015 Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz  ( 13887 )

Nick Sly

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Hi everyone,

This year's Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz is from March 1st to April 15th. I’m one of the Illinois State Coordinators for the Blitz. I will soon be advertising the Blitz to birders across the state via other venues, but I wanted to post first here on IBF where I can talk at more length about the Blitz, review some results from last season, and explain in detail the project goals in Illinois for 2015. I hope I can convince as many birders in the state as possible to help with the Blitz – it’s quite easy and little different from your normal birding activities!

Rusty Blackbird (photo by Shawn Billerman)

What is the Blitz?

   Rusty Blackbirds have an unfortunate distinction - this species has experienced one of the most precipitous declines of any once-common landbird, losing up to 95% of its population in just 40 years. Until the late 1990s, this unexplained decline went unappreciated, but now Rusty Blackbirds are recognized as an unusual conservation challenge. Focused study on the breeding and wintering grounds is allowing scientists to form conservation strategies for this species at both ends of its migratory range. However, we still know little about Rusty Blackbird migration ecology, a critical element to ensure that the species is protected throughout its full annual cycle.
   To identify migratory hotspots, understand migration timing, and inspire the public to support Rusty Blackbird conservation, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group, in partnership with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and dozens of state and local partners, launched a three-year Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz in 2014 that challenged birders to search for and report Rusty Blackbirds during this species’ northward migration. Birders participate by scouring the landscape for Rusties and submitting their data to eBird, allowing the Blitz to tap into an existing network of citizen scientists and to encourage new supporters to use a broad-based conservation tool. These data will be used to identify Rusty Blackbird hotspots across the landscape and assess whether critical stopover areas are adequately protected.

2014 Results

   The goal during the inaugural year of the Blitz was simple: get more birders to search for Rusty Blackbirds, anywhere and everywhere. In this goal it was quite successful: 4750 birders submitted 13,400 checklists containing Rusty Blackbird observations into eBird between March 1st and June 15th, 2014, a 61% increase in submissions over the same period in 2013. The Blitz was also successful here in Illinois: birders submitted more checklists containing Rusty Blackbirds (742 checklists, an increase of 43% over the previous year), and had greater geographic coverage of Rusty reports across the state than ever before. Illinois ranked 8th among all states and provinces in Rusty checklists submitted, although our growth was modest compared to other states. While the first season was great, we have room to improve and we hope to make the next one even better!

A comparison of 2014 to 2013 Rusty Blackbird eBird reports in Illinois

This successful first season is already providing new data on Rusty Blackbird migratory hotspots, habitat use, and potential migratory pathways, and some preliminary results were presented at the American Ornithologists' Union meeting last fall. Using data on flock size and repeated observations, Blitz researchers have generated a map of Areas of Interest to help visualize where the most Rusty Blackbirds occur during migration. These areas potentially represent the most important habitats or stopover sites for Rusties during migration, and some preliminary observations are apparent.

Rusty Blackbird hotspots in Eastern North America

Rusty Blackbirds wintering in the southeastern states migrate up the east coast, avoiding Appalachia. Rusty Blackbirds west of the Mississippi seem more dispersed and not concentrated in particular migration pathways. Most importantly for Illinois birders, a major migration corridor appears to extend from wintering grounds in the central southern states up the eastern Mississippi River valley before branching out through its tributaries and spreading through the Great Lakes. With Illinois centered on this route, it is vitally important for the Blitz that we continue to expand our coverage in this state.

How and when to participate in 2015

We hope you’ll consider participating in Year 2 of the Blitz this spring! There are several ways to participate, but all of them are easy. From March 1st to April 15th, simply bird as you normally do, but search especially carefully for Rusty Blackbirds in appropriate habitat. Then, report your results to eBird under the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” observation type, even if you don’t find a Rusty Blackbird.

For birders who are interested in helping out just a little bit more, there are two other ways you can participate. This year we are expanding the ‘bird anywhere’ approach and are focusing on two specific objectives: resurveying areas of interest, and expanding coverage in poorly sampled areas.

Areas of Interest

The Blitz has identified a set of Areas of Interest (AOI) that were used by large flocks of Rusty Blackbirds during the 2014 Blitz Period. A major priority this year will be to periodically re-survey these same AOIs. This will evaluate whether Rusties re-use the same areas annually and are consistent in their habitat use and migratory timing. Below is the map of Illinois AOIs (the full interactive map of Areas of Interest map for 2015 can be found at: http://rustyblackbird.org/outreach/migration-blitz/2015-areas-of-interest/ )

Areas of Interest in Illinois

Illinois has about 50 Areas of Interest across the state. We would like to make sure that each hotspot gets covered at least once and preferably several times during this year’s Blitz period. We are looking for volunteers to help with these surveys – if you see hotspots that you already regularly bird, or that are near your regular birding areas, please let us know if you think you can bird this location one or more times during the Blitz period. Then report your observations to eBird (with or without Rusty Blackbirds – remember, negative data is still data!).

The Illinois AOIs are listed below in table format, organized by region and county for ease of reference. Many of these locations already exist as eBird hotspots – the table includes a link to the hotspot page to aid you in learning more about these localities and in submitted data for them. The remaining hotspots are personal locations in eBird with coordinates given. If you are surveying these personal locations, please make sure to submit your observations using the same location name and coordinates that are as close to the original as possible. Please note that some personal eBird locations may involve private property: please respect private property and do not bird private lands without permission.

A table of Illinois Areas of Interest to survey in 2015. Anyone can feel free to email me for an excel version of this table.

Low Coverage Areas

The second priority focus in the 2015 Blitz season will be filling in sampling gaps on the map. Are the patterns we see in Rusty Blackbird distribution during migration real, or are blank regions on the map actually caused by low observer coverage? Here in Illinois, there were several surprising gaps in Rusty Blackbird coverage – very few were reported along the entire length of the Mississippi River (outside of the St. Louis area), along the Illinois River downstream of Peoria, and in most of southeastern Illinois, including along the Wabash River. Surely Rusty Blackbirds could make use of the floodplain forest and agricultural land along these rivers? Their apparent absence is perhaps due to some combination of low observer coverage (being mostly rural under-birded areas) and a large amount of habitat to search. The only way to know for sure is to direct addition survey efforts to fill in these gaps. I am seeking volunteers willing to make trips to these areas and to make dedicated searches for Rusty Blackbirds. Please contact me if you are willing to do so.

General regions around the Mississippi, Illinois, and Wabash rivers that are a focus of the Blitz in 2015

Additional Resources

The main Blitz website contains additional information on Blitz objectives, along with Rusty Blackbird identification tips, data collection instructions, data reporting information, and more:

Check out the Blitz Facebook page to hear about Rusty sightings, see Rusty pictures, and get the latest Blitz news:

Rusty Blackbirds can be challenging to identify even for more experienced birders.  To ensure that the Spring Migration Blitz collects high-quality data, we ask that birders brush up on their Rusty Blackbird identification skills before participating in the Blitz. The Blitz has published a short identification guide to aid birders in discriminating between Rusties and look-alike species, such as Brewer’s Blackbird, Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and European Starlings:

Thanks so much! We hope you see many Rusty Blackbirds this spring!

If you have any questions or would like volunteer, please send me an email to the address below. I also welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions here on IBF.

Your state coordinators,

Nicholas Sly, Illinois Ornithological Society

Drew Becker, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Note – this post includes information and writing adapted from Blitz  publicity materials originally authored by the overall Blitz coordinator, Judith Scarl
« : February 03, 2015, 08:16:12 AM Nick Sly »
Nicholas Sly
Urbana, IL


  • Matt Fraker
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Great info, Nick -- thanks for the post!
"Temperance, like chastity, is its own punishment"
Pliny the Elder

Fran Morel

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HI Nick,
Can you please explain how this works (I'm quoting you from your initial post)?
     "Then, report your results to eBird under the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” observation type, even if you don’t find a Rusty Blackbird."

Also, how are you using eBird to determine hotspots or significant sightings?  For example, Matthew Cvetas, his son Jake, and I, saw approx 200 Rusty Blackbirds on April 21, 2013 at Bartel Grasslands, which was submitted to eBird.  This seems like a nice count, yet I don't see Bartel included.

Thanks for your help!


Nick Sly

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Great info, Nick -- thanks for the post!

Thanks, Matt!

Can you please explain how this works (I'm quoting you from your initial post)?
     "Then, report your results to eBird under the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” observation type, even if you don’t find a Rusty Blackbird."

Fran, that's a great point - I should elaborate more on data submission for everyone. First, sightings for the Blitz take the form of a standard eBird traveling count checklist - you need a location on the map (as specific as reasonably possible - the point on the map should generally be in or near the habitat you actually saw the bird in. Please avoid using overly broad county-level checklists), you need effort data (the amount of time you spent looking and the distance you traveled; eBird recommends keeping traveling counts under 5 miles in length), and finally, you need a complete list of all the bird species you saw (preferably with numbers, use Xs if you don't have counts for each species). If you're not already familiar with ebird, you can review eBird's quick start guide here:

The special Blitz observation protocol is an additional ebird observation type available when you submit data. Instead of selecting the usual "Traveling", "Stationary", or "Incidental" checklist, click "Other" and look for the Rusty Blackbird protocol. This option will only be available during the Blitz dates. It will help Rusty Blackbird researchers collate the data from eBird.

I say you should report a checklist even if you found no Rusty Blackbirds because of the value of negative data - learning where Rusty Blackbirds do not occur is an important part of learning about where they do occur. So, keep complete checklists of the birds you see in any habitat where you think you might find Rusty Blackbirds, and submit them to eBird under the Rusty Blackbird observation type even if you didn't see any that day.

Also, how are you using eBird to determine hotspots or significant sightings?  For example, Matthew Cvetas, his son Jake, and I, saw approx 200 Rusty Blackbirds on April 21, 2013 at Bartel Grasslands, which was submitted to eBird.  This seems like a nice count, yet I don't see Bartel included.

That certainly is an excellent count - thank you for bringing it to my attention. Currently, the Blitz period in Illinois is March 1st to April 15th, so your observation fell outside those dates and was thus not included in the analysis of Rusty Blackbird Areas of Interest. However, a flock that size would have qualified as a high priority area to resurvey. I will go take a look at RUBL data for late April and see how common large flocks are that late in April. It may be worth extending the Blitz dates, at least for Northern Illinois, if they are still commonly reported in numbers that late. In either case, I encourage you to look again for Rusty Blackbirds at that location this spring.

More information on how the Areas of Interest were calculated can be found on the Blitz website below. It's mostly determined by flock size.

Thanks for your comments!

Nicholas Sly
Urbana, IL

Nick Sly

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The Blitz has begun! It may have been a snow-filled weekend (at least here in Champaign-Urbana), but already there are a few Rusty Blackbird reports from the southern portions of the state and more in the broader region:

Here are a few more resources for Blitz participants. The International Coordinator, Judith Scarl, has posted two youtube videos on how to submit data:

A beginner video: targeted at birders who are new to eBird and want to
be walked through the entire data submission process (7.5 minutes)

An advanced video: targeted at birders who are comfortable with eBird
but who want more information about how, when, and what to submit to the
Blitz (4 minutes)

In addition to these videos, I am attached a two-page pdf fact sheet about Rusty Blackbirds. If you have a local organization or nature center, please consider sharing this fact sheet with visitors to promote Rusty Blackbird conservation.

Good luck out there,
Nicholas Sly
Urbana, IL


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