GIS Helps California Audubon Identify Essential Bird Habitat

Conservationists, bird watchers, farmers, and developers across the state of California can now access bird habitat information from a digital bank of maps and data created with ESRI’s geographic information system (GIS) technology. Commissioned by the National Audubon Society and BirdLife International, the Important Bird Areas (IBA) program designates locations essential for breeding, wintering, and/or migrating birds. Conservation activities at these sites include land acquisition, habitat restoration, advocacy on behalf of IBA, and education to local communities about their unique birds and bird habitats.

Through the Audubon California Web site, users can now quickly find answers to questions such as, What is the total acreage of all IBA land? Who are the major land owners? What percentage of IBA designations are in some form of protection?

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Through a partnership between Audubon California and California Polytechnic State University, the maps and database supporting the California IBA project were created by David Yun, GIS supervisor for the City of San Luis Obispo, and a group of students from Cal Poly’s Natural Resources Management Department. The team used ESRI’s suite of ArcGIS software, designed to help users organize, visualize, and analyze layers of disparate geographic data with dynamic maps and geodatabases.

“ArcGIS Desktop provided the most complete set of tools required to complete our mapping project,” said Andrea Jones, director of the Important Bird Areas program for Audubon California. “Two critical ArcGIS Desktop applications were ArcCatalog and ArcMap. We used ArcCatalog to manage all GIS layers, and ArcMap to digitize boundaries, analyze data, and create maps and graphics.”

With GIS, the IBA maps brought together topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey; wildlife habitat relationship data from the California Department of Fish and Game; digital photographs from the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP); and shapefiles of protected and conservation lands, counties, roads, and waterways from the California Spatial Information Library.

More than 10,000 IBA sites in nearly 200 countries and territories have been identified since the IBA program’s inception in the 1980s. Bird-Life International estimates that hundreds of sites and millions of acres have received better protection as a result of the IBA program. A major objective of the IBA program is the protection of vulnerable birds. Of particular concern are species that are not widely distributed or are concentrated in one general habitat type or biome; and individual or groups of species, such as waterfowl or shorebirds, that congregate at high densities due to their gregarious behavior.