“eBirding” our backyards for science

Wood Duck

eBird will help me remember which years a rare bird, like the Wood Duck, visited Cheyenne. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 16, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “’eBirding’ our backyards gives science important knowledge.”

2014 Update: eBird is now global. As of May 1, I have submitted 2001 checklists and have an eBird life list of 340 species. Reporting to eBird has become a habit.

By Barb Gorges

What year was it I saw seven western tanagers in our yard at one time? How often do lazuli and indigo buntings visit? I have a few notes scribbled on old calendars stored in the basement, but otherwise, 20 years’ worth of backyard spring migration sightings are just fond memories.

A few months ago I received an email from Brian Sullivan, eBird project leader, gently extolling the virtues of using eBird, the free online avian data system from Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, to track my sightings and share them with scientists and birdwatchers. I’ve submitted a few in the past but didn’t get into the habit. However, this spring, I think eBird is finally becoming part of my routine.

I’m still jotting cryptic notes on scrap paper, but I’m taking them to my computer and entering information on the eBird website, www.eBird.org, before I forget. When I check “My eBird” I can see how many species I’ve observed so far in 2010, and how many I have total. I can look and see if I was the first one in Wyoming to report a species this year.

For the serious birder, eBird offers that kind of competition. It allows uploading records from other avian record keeping systems and downloading of personal records from eBird and viewing data in different ways. You can be alerted to sightings of birds seen in your area you haven’t got on your life list yet, or you can use the data base to find the best place and time to see target species.

For the rest of us, especially beginning birdwatchers, a look at the list of local, public birding hotspots and their respective checklists is invaluable.

It is also easy to mark a personal birdwatching location and then have eBird generate a list of potential species. If you accidently type in “300” for the number of peregrine falcons you saw, you’ll get a polite question. Or perhaps your sighting is unusual for the time of year. If you say you are sure it isn’t a mistake, eBird might ask for documentation. If you can’t provide enough, your observation can stay in your personal data but won’t be shared with the public—birders or scientists.

You can always go back and make corrections to your entries.

All the cool free tools eBird offers are inducements to get us to share our bird sightings. Our data is most useful if we take a little extra effort to record time spent observing, distance travelled or size of area birded and estimate the numbers of birds of each species seen. The hardest part is to notice all the birds where you are, including those annoying background species like starlings and house sparrows.

For instance, when I walk the dog around Holliday Park, my focus is looking for what is unusual. On different days in April the lake hosted a white pelican, half a dozen cormorants, hooded mergansers, a pair of wood ducks and a pair of redheads. The 60-70 Canada geese are just background, not to mention the starlings and pigeons, but eBird prefers I submit a checklist of all the birds I can identify.

The use of eBird data is free to ornithologists, conservation biologists, educators, land managers and anyone who likes to play with raw numbers.

Doug Faulkner cites eBird as a reference in his new book, “Birds of Wyoming.”

But don’t worry, no nosy scientist is going to knock on your door. No contact information for observers shows on the website. There are several ways to remain nearly anonymous.

But in looking through the lists of Wyoming data identified by observer, no one here has chosen “Anonymous” or a fake-sounding name. Many folks on vacation submit Wyoming sightings, too.

Because eBird only started in 2002, there are a lot of gaps, though historic data can be added. Bird life at Wyoming Hereford Ranch is fairly well documented for spring, but apparently local interest dies off in winter. For all the birds I’ve seen over the years in Lions Park, the checklist for it as a birding hotspot has few species.

Just how many people are taking part in eBird as it gets ready to go global? Here in Wyoming this year so far 41 observers have observed 152 species. Since 2002, 6,948 checklists (a checklist is a list of birds observed for a particular time and location) have been submitted for Wyoming. Natrona County (Casper) has the greatest number of checklists, 1,561. Our county, Laramie County, with similar population, is in 8th place, having only submitted 275. Now you know why Brian Sullivan emailed me and other Wyoming birdwatchers.

In the rest of the country, urban areas like Los Angeles County (23,000 checklists) have a lot of eBirders, as does a birding travel destination getting a lot of scientific research like the Aleutians Borough in Alaska, 39,000 checklists submitted. If you want to get your name in the records, there are a few counties in Alabama and other Southeastern states for which no checklists have ever been submitted.

Birdwatching is a satisfying hobby for many of us, and eBird allows us to make a contribution to serious science. Go to www.eBird.org and look around and register for free.

I look forward to seeing more balloon markers on the map, showing more Wyoming birders are “eBirding.”

Patch birding

Flying Swallows

“Flying Swallows,” quilt and photo by Barb Gorges

Published Feb. 13, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Patchwork birding benefits birds.”

2014 Update: Sign up to bird your patch on www.eBird.org.

By Barb Gorges

Patchwork. The word draws my eye the way “quilt” does because both describe my indoor hobby the way “bird” describes my outdoor hobby.

But why was Ted Floyd, editor of “Birding,” the American Birding Association magazine, making an obscure reference to patchwork in a recent issue? I emailed him and he sent a link to a blog post he’d written about it and how it relates to green, environmentally friendly, birding, http://blog.aba.org/2010/10/green-birding.html.

Patchwork birding refers to birding in your own patch—your yard or a local park where you go often, versus jumping in the car or on a jet to see a rare bird.

Ted is concerned that birding has evolved into the hobby of the affluent who indulge in expensive travel and equipment, as has quilting, I would add, leaving huge carbon footprints right across great bird habitat.  Of course, extreme birders wouldn’t know about most rarities if local birders weren’t regularly examining their local patches.

Just the week before reading Ted’s patch reference, I finished reading “Life List” by Olivia Gentile, a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger. Snetsinger was the woman determined to see as many of the world’s bird species as possible.

She started birdwatching in 1965, but became obsessive about it after being diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Aided by an inheritance from her father, she went on multiple foreign bird tours every year. She valiantly endured bad weather, bad trails, and bad men, finally dying in a vehicular accident in 1999 in Madagascar, leaving a worldwide record of nearly 8400 bird species, the most anyone had seen at that time.

We can charitably say Phoebe was birding before carbon footprints were in our vocabulary and that extreme birding kept her sane and kept professional bird guides and tour operators employed. I hope someone has transferred her carefully kept note cards to eBird, the digital  archive where scientists can make use of personal birding observations.

Soon after Ted’s reply I got an email from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describing a new eBird feature: patch and yard birding record keeping set up to allow for friendly competition within one’s county. It will also give ornithologists more intensive information about birds. I imagine Ted knew all about this when he wrote his blog post—the world of professionals in birding is very small.

So now there is a name for the kind of birding most of us do. Most of us who begin to keep notes on the birds in our own backyards are already patchwork birding. I highly recommend http://www.eBird.org as a record keeping alternative to notebooks and scraps of paper.

Ted thinks patchwork birding is the responsible, green way to bird—no great amounts of fuel are wasted in long distance travel.

It’s amazing how many species of birds pass through my favorite patches: 50 in my backyard and a different 50 in Holliday Park here in Cheyenne since April 2010, when I began recording sightings on eBird. That’s not a lot of species among obsessed birders. However, frequently birding those areas helped me know exactly where to find an American kestrel for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count.

I’ve been thinking about how to control the size of my patchwork quilt making carbon footprint. Maybe I should spend less time quilting and more time walking around town watching birds.