Friday, August 13, 2010

Newbie on eBird - some thoughts

I am writing this blog to express my enthusiasm for eBird.

I am finally using a tool to record my bird data! I have a couple of years of checklists (i.e., 3x5 cards in the field) and notes in my journal, but I had nothing to pull them together. I started a spreadsheet with Michigan birds I downloaded from Bruce Bowman's excellent site, but it soon overwhelmed me. It had all the birds in Michigan in the spreadsheet! I thought about deleting the ones I might never see, but then thought I needed to be reminded of them as possible choices. With my life list approaching only 75 birds, you can see why it was a dilemma!!

eBird makes it easy! (like really easy!). You enter your collecting place and minimal trip data (like time and distance - or just location and sightings if you just observed in one place), and then it gives you a list of suspected birds there. eBird already has knowledge (built up by verified records) about the suspected birds in a county or a HotSpot!

It is so quick, you will want to enter your data the same day after you get home. If your memory is fairly decent, you will probably remember all the birds you just saw without even having the 3x5 cards. Entered! Done!

I hate typing! eBird makes it easy to record bird species by just "x-ing" a box or putting the number of birds seen. Then you can export your bird list into something else, or send the list to yourself in an e-mail to forward to your friends. Cool!

When you submit your data, you first enter the location. eBird provides a great mapping tool so you can exactly pinpoint your location on a satellite map. If you are not familiar with the web's wonderful satellite mapping capability, this is enough of a reason to check it out! The checklist eBird provides only contains the expected birds for that geographic area. That sure helped me out! It also allows you to add other birds, but for me it really helps to cut down of the number of species in (for example) the eastern bird books or a Michigan list.

For example, here is a pic of Holland Ponds:

Another unexpected advantage is that as I scroll through the list to check off my birds, I am learning about bird groups! Hey, the bird books now make more sense in their phylogenetic arrangement. Besides learning related groups, this will help me to better flip to a group in the books without going to the index. (Yes, eBird would also allow me to go directly to a species to enter my data, but that would spoil my new-found learning tool!)

I imported a list of birds from an Excel spreadsheet into this blog. I had first recorded them in eBird, then downloaded them into an Excel spreadsheet on my own computer. The download was quick (a click). The importing here was quick (select spreadsheet cells, copy - then paste here). The paste did insert a couple of carriage returns between the lines, but it was quite easy to delete them. The following is a Holland Ponds list I imported from eBird. (I blogged about that day in another post.) It does not include minks, butterflies, and the like, but it is a great start. In the future, I will add my birds into eBird, then import into Blogspot. No typing twice!!! And, I have now figured out how to comment in the Notes section to include the other great things we see on a trip.

Canada Goose
Great Blue Heron
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Eastern Kingbird
Tree Swallow
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Or you can ask eBird to just e-mail you the results of your reporting. That way you will have an individual record (but you really do not need one - eBird will keep it for you!). Anyway, you can copy/paste from the e-Mail and add it to a blog or whatever. Here is exactly what you get (a different example - again I had to take out  a few extraneous carriage returns). You can add number of birds, comments on individual species, and even a comment for the whole trip on eBird. You can see the results here. (I am getting better, so my recent lists actually have numbers of birds, and not just "X"s, but you can see that either way works! An "X" puts the bird into your life list and your state and county lists anyway.)

Location: Holland Ponds
Observation date: 4/22/10
Notes: Also little blue butterfly and medium white butterfly
Number of species: 12
Mallard 5
Great Blue Heron X
Downy Woodpecker X
Northern Flicker X
Tree Swallow X
Black-capped Chickadee X Some at the nest boxes
American Robin X
Northern Cardinal X
Red-winged Blackbird X
Common Grackle X
Brown-headed Cowbird X
American Goldfinch X

Pretty cool, huh?!

eBird is a powerful tool. People have been encouraging me to use it for some time, but I procrastinated until Ed Lewandowski "shared" a list with me from a day we birded together recently. "Sharing" is a powerful tool whereby a designated recorder on a group trip can record the species seen and "share" with everyone on the trip. After you accept the shared list, it adds the species for the day to your eBird lists. You have the option as an individual to subtract species you did not see (I do this a lot!) or add species you saw that the recorder did not (I can only dream!). You can also add your own comments about specific birds in your individual eBird space, as well as your personal trip notes. (This I can do...)

By using eBird, you are making your data available to Cornell University and the whole birding community. You can actually be making a difference to the scientific study of bird distributions. In the long run, this is really the most powerful contribution you can make! YOUR data will help everyone better understand distributions of our feathered friends!

Even more fun and personally useful is that eBird will keep your "life list". You can find out all of the birds you have seen in all of your trips. It also tells you specifically what birds you saw where and when.

You can "slice and dice" the data in a variety of ways. You can see what species have been recorded for a particular location, or region, or state. You can see who the main listing birders (no, not the birders who are tilting, the ones who put up lists on eBird) are in any area, and the number of species they have recorded for the area. This gives you some idea of your chances of how many birds you might see there (over time).

You can see the first and last reported dates for each species in the area. You can get to a map of the area for them.  You can see bar graph charts like in Allen Chartier's great Birder's Guide to Michigan book, but even for individual locations!

Since I started writing a draft of this note, I actually got Holland Ponds accepted as an eBird HotSpot in Macomb County. It is a well-deserved designation! Now anyone entering data for Holland Ponds can select the location from among the HotSpots. This allows data to be combined into a location list. Powerful! Imagine having data from all the birders who visit Holland Ponds at different times (and with very different levels of experience I might note) combined into a more complete avifauna! What a great thing for Shadbush Nature Center that administers Holland Ponds! (By the way, y'all, I encourage anyone with past Holland Ponds data to try to merge it into the newly designated HotSpot! Please! We love the place and want to see it protected!) Thank you to the Michigan HotSpot coordinator!!!

For "Birding Hotspots" you get a wealth of info. For example, I learned how to go to the birding hotspots already on eBird for Michigan. Robert H. Long Nature Park was one of our favorites last year - great place for Red-Headed Woodpeckers, local shorebirds at certain times, and just a great number of species on a regular day! The following URL will take you there. You will see all reported birds (first reports)  for 2010, you can get a great map - even a satellite pic of the area (hey, click around!). Ah, technology is wonderful! Try it by following this link: eBird RH Long

Hey! I am a newbie! I only list the birds in which I am confident of my observations (not too many, but growing). Imagine if all the experienced birders with years of experience took the time to report their observations! Wow! What a data base!

Imagine if all the "local birders" like me just reported the birds that hit their feeders (I record "my deck birds" daily and will start downloading my past lists soon onto eBird)!

One thing to think about when making your field notes is the county lines. For example, Kensington Metro Park and Stoney Creek Metro Park both straddle county lines. Part of the reporting power of eBird is that it can summarize by county - hence you need to know the correct county for your observations. Just check the map sometime, so you will remember the "imaginary" (What do birds care about county lines!) boundaries for your places next time.

Oh. Another really cool thing is that even after you submit your data, you can go back later and make changes. This takes some of the "fear" out of saying you saw something and later finding out you were wrong. For example, I often take photos and look at them much later. If I see that I made a mistaken ID in eBird, I can correct it. I can add the birds I did not know when I shot them. So - fear not!

I sense eBird is making me a better birder. Since they have a place for recording the sex and comments on individual species, I now look more closely. (No, you do not have to do this - it is an option if you want to record details or comments on birds...). Now - at least for my deck birds - I have to pull out the binocs to sex and age the birds when I can. I am forced deeper into the field guides! Was that a juvenile female Cardinal? I am forced to learn more! Instead of just "ticking off" a species, I am starting to "tick off" individuals within a species!

I also now try to count the birds I see. I always had my own scale - "one, a few, many, abundant, dominant". It turns out that this translates reasonably well for eBird. They want a number, but the number is as relative as my own scale. One bird means something - a sighting, a presence. Ten birds - I can count by twos to get this. Forty birds - maybe 35 to 45? A hundred birds is far different than 200 birds, and so on! I was always intimidated with counting birds. Damn things move before I could finish my count! (If I ever tried to count more than 10 birds at a time...). I am compulsive. I wanted precision. I would not "count" because of that! Forget that! Who cares if there were 176 birds or 212? It is the relative number that "counts"! 200 birds are far more than 10 or 100! I'll now "chunk off" maybe 20 birds and just move my binocs or eyes to use that "chunk" to count the birds! I have noticed on eBird that our best birders seem to do that! I often see counts of 100 or 200, but never 186 or 227! I now fear not - I am with the best "counters"!

Yes, I really enjoy eBird (as if you could not tell...).

I really want to express my appreciation to the Cornell University staff and volunteer network for making this great tool available and for being so quick in responses to the few questions I sent them!

eBird is "chinchy"! Try it! It really has made a big difference in how I "bird"!

- "Dr. Bob"

PS, I started this note back in June when I started using eBird. I am just now posting it. I am even more favorable about the site than I was then. I did want to write a longer story, but really, it speaks for itself, so just try it for yourself.

1 comment:

Cathy Carroll said...

Dr. Bob, I began using eBird years ago when it was a rather basic tool and it felt like I was the only one in the world using it (I wasn't, of course). It was time-consuming and difficult to identify my birding locations, but I chugged away at it. Then, for whatever reason - probably time - I stopped using it. In the intervening years, eBird has dramatically improved their site and others have encouraged me to resume my postings to eBird. Now, when I read your blog, I'm encouraged to try again. Of course, my other problem is trying to revive my long forgotten user name and password.