Keeping notes and eBird

After a great weekend of birding, the field notebook I was using was filled to its last page.  This always gives me a great sense of accomplishment, wrapping up a notebook’s worth of birding experiences and ornithological data.  On top of that, I was proud for another reason – of the pile of notebooks whose whereabouts are known, all of those bird data have been entered into eBird.  It took some time to catch up, especially with the many checklists I still had to enter from Costa Rica.  All was complete, and it got me thinking about this pile of notebooks collecting dust in a closet.  Sure, those data are all online now, but there’s more than bird checklists in those notebooks.  Sketches, notes on birding locations, county birds, even historic records I copied out of old issues of North American Birds during long days at the museum – all of that is still in there.  So I decided to label my notebooks.  Nothing extensive, just my name, the date range, countries and states included, and any other notable goodies.

I have to admit that during the labeling process, I uncovered a half-full notebook spanning 2006 to 2009, with barely any of the checklists entered!  It took me two days to go through the pages, figuring out what was already in eBird, and entering the remaining checklists.

All of this work I put in begs the question, why bother putting all this stuff into eBird?  I don’t throw away the notebooks afterward, and I keep all my lists in Excel spreadsheets anyway.  For me, there are so many good reasons to use eBird that it’s hard to know where to start!

So let’s start with the purely selfish reasons: it’s a free listing software.  I’ve never paid for listing software, but from what I know, that stuff isn’t half as good as eBird.  The only list I really keep in eBird right now is my Mohave County year list.  It takes me 18 seconds to pull it up, and I can see when and where I first got each species.  Say I want to look at all my observations of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in Mohave County in 2011, I click on the bird and it turns out I’ve only had them twice, once at Lehman Hill and the next day at Kohen Ranch.  I can click on the location for Lehman Hill and see that I’ve seen 45 species there this year.  I can do the same with my life list – say I want to see in how many states and countries I’ve seen Ovenbird.  I click on the species and eBird shows that I’ve entered observations of Ovenbird from Veracruz (Mexico), Maine, Ohio, and California.  If I’m only interested in numbers, there’s a page called “My eBird” where I can browse any list total that I’m interested in.  Glancing at the “states” section, I can see that I’ve entered the most species for California, with 388.  I have 107 species in Washington, 1 for Michigan.  This is curious…I’ve never been to Michigan.  I click on the “1” and see that I have House Sparrow on a checklist for the Detroit airport…well I guess you have to start somewhere.

But eBird is not a listing software.  It’s a citizen science project.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology uses all these observations as a massive data set, similar to other citizen science projects such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, Christmas Bird Counts, Project FeederWatch, Breeding Bird Surveys, etc.  Only a lot bigger.  So if you’re using eBird as a listing software, and you’re entering sightings at the county level instead of specific locations, or putting a month or a year or a lifetime’s worth of sightings into one checklist, you’re sidestepping the utility of those sightings to science.  eBird reviewers find those checklists and remove them from the data set – your lists aren’t affected, but those kinds of checklists just aren’t useful to the project.

So why is that important?  How does eBird use all those data, anyway?  I’m always interested in that very question, since I like to know how my work is paying off for the birds!  One of my favorite articles on the eBird home page is on the Animated Occurrence Maps that have been created for several bird species.  Check out a few of these maps.  Biologists use eBird data to create a model predicting the presence or absence of a species in a given area on a given date.  It’s not completely accurate, but it does paint quite a picture of where a species occurs and how it moves throughout the year.  Biologists also use eBird to track species of concern, such as Rusty Blackbird.

Finally, my favorite thing about the eBird data set is that it is open for anyone to use and explore.  A few examples.  Let’s say I really want to see a Black Rail – not a hypothetical situation.  I can look at the global range map for that species to see where it occurs.  Since it occurs in Arizona, that’s probably my best bet to find one.  So I can pull up another map showing me where Black Rails have been reported in Arizona, with specific locations, dates, numbers, and observers.  I see that almost all the records fall on the Bill Williams, including a bright yellow recent observation.  I click that marker to see that this species has been recorded several times in the past month between Highway 95 and the gate on Planet Ranch Rd.

The maps are great, but I really love using eBird’s bar charts.  Let’s use another example.  Say I’m going to Costa Rica, and I’ll be spending a lot of time in the province of Heredia.  I can pull up a bar chart showing me what species have been recorded, and their annual occurrence.  Or, imagine we’re in Washington County, New York in April, and it’s a totally new place.  I really want to see, say, a Snow Bunting.  I can check out that bar chart to find that I should pick a new target bird, because Snow Buntings depart in mid-March.  There only limit to the utility of the eBird data set is what is entered by birders like you and me!

eBird is for anyone interested in birds, no matter their skill level.  No one is expected to find and identify every bird, and there is an extensive review process to find and review sightings that are out of range and/or season.  That leads me to a word of advice.  If you’re entering eBird and suddenly the program asks you to click a box to confirm a sighting, go ahead and confirm it if you’re sure of what you saw!  Then click the “Yes” at the top of the page where it asks if you want to enter more details, and write a description of the bird you saw, or an explanation of how you arrived at an unusually high count.  I do this even for a continuing rarity, or for a count that I don’t think is unusually high.  When you click that “confirm” box, an eBird reviewer then decides whether there is enough information to enter that sighting into the permanent scientific record.  They may even email you to ask for more details.  Writing a description as soon as the record is flagged is a good habit to get into, and it saves everyone time.

Get out there and eBird!

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About Lauren Harter

I live in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where I work as a field biologist and spend as much of the rest of my time as possible looking at (and listening to!) birds.
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