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The Washington Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA) took form in 1987 as the brainchild of Phil Mattocks, chair of the Seattle Audubon Society’s Bird Records Committee. Recognizing the value of BBA from the start, Seattle Audubon provided much of the “citizen science” leadership for the project over the ensuing years, along with funding and unflagging logistical support. Seattle Audubon published the bird volume of the Washington State Gap Analysis Final Report (Smith et al. 1997) that contains the data from the initial statewide atlas phase. The present four-county atlas is built atop the earlier effort and completes it for the four subject counties (see Table 1).

Year King Kittitas Kitsap Island
1987 160 70 110 10
1988 480 200 100 0
1989 380 220 150 20
1990 550 230 20 20
1991 100 80 50 0
1992 50 40 20 20
1993 110 30 90 0
1994 320 30 20 0
1995 470 10 10 0
1996 90 800 20 0
1997 40 800 0 0
1998 190 200 200 0
1999 360 290 10 0
2000 80 130 270 0
2001 0 0 0 400
2002 0 0 0 130
Table 1 — Party Hours per Year, Rounded to Nearest 10
First (Statewide) Phase
Second (County)Phase

Under Mattocks’s direction, the original BBA project divided the state into a grid of some 7,800 nine-square-mile “atlas blocks” along section survey lines (Mattocks 1988). The goal was to visit every block at least once during the five-year life of the project (1987-1991) and record evidence of species nesting there. Despite the heroic effort of nearly 500 volunteers and the extension of the project by two more working seasons, only a fraction of the state’s area had been visited by atlas teams through 1993. BBA seemed doomed to fizzle out.

Two events transpired to revitalize the BBA in 1994. That spring Eugene Hunn, Mattocks’s successor as Bird Records chair, recommended a more focused, county-by-county approach. King County had already been comparatively well covered and Hunn took charge of organizing a full-scale assault to finish it, with the assistance of Hal Opperman. A small group of dedicated birders was recruited. Access was obtained to vast tracts of the county closed to the public (Weyerhaeuser’s tree farms and the Seattle and Tacoma municipal watersheds). By August 1995 almost none of King County’s 273 atlas blocks remained unvisited, and Opperman began to coordinate preparations for extending the effort to Kittitas County in 1996.

A second event would lead to the merger of the statewide BBA and the Washington Gap Analysis project based at the University of Washington. The Gap project is a nationwide program administered by the National Biological Service. Its goals, state by state, are to map existing land cover; to model breeding distributions of all terrestrial vertebrates; and to identify ecosystems, species, and areas of high terrestrial vertebrate diversity that lack representation in the current network of reserves. In 1994 Michael Smith, a member of the Washington Gap team, began consulting with Mattocks. Data and methodologies of Gap and BBA complemented one another beautifully, and the two projects soon converged. The result was the publication of the bird volume of the Washington State Gap Analysis Final Report (Smith et al. 1997)—the most comprehensive picture thus far produced of the generalized breeding distribution of Washington’s birds. This publication contained all of the atlas data for King County, and most of those for Kittitas County, gathered through 1996, when the statewide BBA officially ended.

The King/Kittitas projects continued on to completion at the end of the 2000 season, by which time nearly all blocks in the two counties had been surveyed to a uniform minimum standard. In 1998, the Bird Records Committee of Seattle Audubon (now chaired by Opperman, who had succeeded Hunn in 1996) added Kitsap County to its atlas project. Under the direction of field coordinator Steven Gerstle, observers tallied over 200 party hours in the county that year. A second big campaign in 2000 sufficed to bring Kitsap up to the same standard of completion as King and Kittitas. Island County was added to the atlas roster in 2001. Field coordinators Frances Wood and Brenda Senturia oversaw the surveying of every block in the county to the established minimum standard in just two seasons, 2001 and 2002.

In the meantime, Seattle Audubon’s Science Committee (successor in 2001 to the old Bird Records Committee) began laying plans for the publication of the four-county BBA. Jerry Joyce, chair of the Science Committee since 2003, was instrumental in obtaining the support of the Seattle Audubon Board, thus bringing the project to fruition in the 2004–2005 budget year.