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eBird Changed My Life

eBird project leader Brian L. Sullivan likes to say that eBird has changed the way he birds. He said so in his essay “eBird and the Evolution of a Birder,” appearing in the January/February 2008 issue of Birding, and he said it again in “A Birding Interview—with Brian L. Sullivan,” which appears in the September/October 2011 Birding.

Me too.

eBird has changed the way I bird.

But I’m going to do Brian one better. I’m here to say that eBird has changed my life.

EBird_reasonably_smallFirst things first. In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past five years, eBird is a web-based birding checklist run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Electronic checklist software has been around for decades, but eBird differs from its predecessors in a fundamental regard: eBird serves the entire community of birders, all at the same time. When you enter an eBird checklist, it doesn’t just go into your proverbial e-shoebox. Instead, your checklist instantly becomes part of a global network of literally millions of checklists.

eBird is revolutionizing the way we bird.

 

After a couple of false starts, I became an eBirder for good on New Year’s Day of 2007. Starting that day and continuing now through New Year’s Eve on 2011, I have entered 3,066 eBird checklists. That comes out to 1.68 checklists per day during that five-year period. That’s cool, but the following is a lot cooler: I have entered at least one eBird checklist every single day since I became an eBirder. That is to say, I have gone birding every day for the past 1,826 days.

The last time I did something like that was during a five-year period running from the beginning of eighth grade through the end of the summer after my senior year in high school. Thanks to eBird, I bird again with the same tireless zeal with which I applied myself in my earliest years as a birder.

But there are some big differences.

 

CassiarDEJU3I make it a point to enter into eBird my observations of subspecies, hybrids, slash/combos, “spuhs,” and uncountable exotics. My eBird checklists from Boulder County, Colorado, routinely include such entries as Cassiar Junco, Lazigo Bunting, Cackling/Canada Goose, Empidonax sp., and Mandarin Duck. Back in grade school, I would have declined to record some of that stuff. (Right: Cassiar Junco by © Bill Schmoker.)

I almost always enter exact or estimated counts of species I record on my eBird checklists. In grade school, I was often content merely to note just general abundance (“lots,” “some,” “present,” etc.). These days, though, I take the time to count every Killdeer, every Song Sparrow, and every Ring-billed Gull—as a result of which I have stumbled upon such goodies in my home state of Colorado as Ruff, Nelson’s Sparrow, and Black-legged Kittiwake, respectively. If I hadn’t been eBirding, I probably wouldn’t have found those goodies.

I have never, ever, entered an incomplete eBird checklist. All 3,066 of my eBird checklists have included all the birds I was able to identify during the period of observation. Doing these things has made me a better birder, for what that’s worth. And doing so has made be a better and more disciplined observer of the world around me—and that’s worth a great deal.

As an eBirder, I have adopted new modes of thinking. Thanks to eBird, I have embraced new conceptions of the world around me. Being an eBirder has led me to question received wisdom about such matters as wilderness, nativeness, determinacy, truth, and beauty. eBird has opened my mind to a material universe that is bigger, more brilliant, and more glorious than I had known.

 

On the other side of the coin, eBird has also contributed to my newfound appreciation for the immense value of the little things in life.

A few weeks ago, I was wrapping up a long and complicated day—a day of appointments, deadlines, phone calls, and no birding. Night had fallen, and my son and I were racing—literally, running—from one bus stop to another. Then a thought occurred to me: Oh. OH! I haven’t eBirded today!

 “Slow down!” I pleaded. “Stop!”

My son and I detoured from the sidewalk, scooted down a very short footpath that led under a bridge, and wound up on the bank of a creek that flows through downtown Boulder. We couldn’t have been more than fifty feet from the sidewalk, but we might as well have been a million miles away. We looked for Rock Pigeons roosting on the concrete supports of the bridge. We saw no Rock Pigeons. We wondered if we might spook an American Dipper. We didn’t see a dipper. Maybe we would come upon the local flock of wintering Mallards and American Wigeons? Nope. No dice.

My eBird checklist for that date was zero birds, zero species, zero individuals. We had “nothing” to show for our effort, but the experience was priceless. An otherwise entirely forgettable day has been immortalized in my memory. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the water flowing under the ice. I remember the smell and feel of the cold winter air that night. And I’ll never forget the experience of just being there, as time seemed to stop for a glorious moment.

 

I often get asked the question, “What got you interested in birds?” And I sometimes get the more general version of that question, namely, “What sorts of people get interested in birds?”

Ebird-1Here now is a variant on that question: “What sorts of people really get into eBird?” Or, to make it more personal: “Why should you get into eBird?” Are you into listing? Are you a proponent of “citizen science”? Do you want to be a better birder? Those are all fine reasons for getting into eBird. Indeed, those things attracted me to eBird in the first place.

What sustains me, though, as an eBirder is something entirely different. I keep at it, quite simply and quite profoundly, because eBird keeps me going, because eBird sustains me.

I’ve got a lot to do today—deadlines for the March 2012 issue of Birding, thank-you cards that need to be written, mail that needs to be opened… And I suppose I should feed the cat. But that can all wait. I need to get outside, I have to get outside, right now, so that I can enter an eBird checklist for this last afternoon of 2011.

Go on! Try it. Click here.

eBird will change your life.

 

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • I started eBirding in earnest in June of this year and quickly became a junkie. Now, I’m trying to push it on all my friends. I even challenged everyone in my blog a few days ago (http://sharptern.blogspot.com/2011/12/my-2012-ebird-challenge.html) to average at least one checklist per day in 2012.

    If I’m out tomorrow in a driving ice storm catching pneumonia just to get a good checklist in, I have Brian Sullivan and his crew to thank for it…and that’s a good thing!

  • Robert Kyse

    I just checked out ebird. It reminded me of a recent visit to the mall. I needed to cut through a department store to quickly get from the parking lot to the eye glass store I was headed for. To do this I must have taken a dozen turns as I walked through the store. Understandable – the store doesn’t care about wasting my time. They just care about showing off their products. They had some really nice stuff but I was interested in eye glasses not clothing.

    On the way out I had some time so I took another dozen turns and checked out there kitchen equipment (I like tools of all sorts). There seems to be a tendency in stores today to limit their inventory by packaging things together to make it seem like you’re getting a lot for your money. But I didn’t want an entire set of pots. I just wanted a quality one quart pan with a metal lid.

    Ebird is really nice stuff. But I would like a life list I can customize to show what I’m interested in not some popularized version of it. A working spreadsheet allowing easily downloaded and inserted changes would be a good start. The rest is nice stuff I can go to ebird for.

    I don’t mean to sound negative about ebird. I’m just stating a preference.

    Happy new year!

  • Ted Floyd

    Brian? Brian Sullivan? Calling Brian Sullivan! Brian, can you respond to Robert? The thing is, I would say that eBird does allow the user to customize according to his or her perceived needs. But let’s hear from Brian (or from others at eBird) about this.

  • Great post! You’ve inspired me to add yet another New Year’s resolution: To become a better eBirder

  • Hi Robert

    At eBird, we’ve really tried hard to walk the line between making useful tools for birders, while always ensuring eBird is collecting useful data for science and conservation. To that end, all of our development revolves around collecting more and better quality data, while at the same time prioritizing the tools that our audience needs and demands. Birders’ needs, and the feedback of all eBird users, help us shape and develop the project (e.g., global coverage, improved data entry, expanded alerts, etc.). We also work hard to ensure the science and conservation communities can access and analyze eBird data any time they wish.

    The life listing component of eBird that you mention is a nice byproduct of inputting useful data for science. As you submit your daily observations to eBird, the program keeps all your lists for you automatically. The life list process is pretty simple right now: if you report a species to eBird, that species shows up on your various life, state, county, year, etc., lists. In the future we would like to allow for more customization of these lists (counting sps. hybrids, etc.), and we certainly will do that moving forward.

    As I said, our goal is to make useful tools for the birding community while gathering more and better data for science. We’ll strive to continue doing that in 2012, and unlike all the items you find in a department store, eBird won’t cost you a dime!

    Thanks to all current eBirders for submitting millions of records in 2011, and for empowering the birding community by providing critical data for real world science and conservation. And welcome new eBirders, we’re happy to have you become part of the flock!

    Happy New Year

    Brian Sullivan

  • Ebird changed me and the way I bird also. It has made me a better birder and a better blogger! Another blogger got me started and now I submit at least one eBird list a day. All of my recent lists are complete lists but I do have some past data from before eBird was ever started that I have entered as incomplete lists because I know that there were other birds around but I only recorded the unusual. Still, I think January of 2007 was when I became an avid eBirder too! It’s nice to me another person as passionate about it as I am.

  • I’m just wondering if there’s a secret – other than lying to ebird – to just get life lists entered and adding dates/locations and additional lists later. Otherwise, I’m kicking myself for *years* of day lists that covered 4 counties but there’s no ‘upper coast’ option so they all have to be state lists. Ouch.

  • Diana Doyle

    With the close of 2011, I just completed what I called my “eBird diaries”: I resolved to enter an eBird report for every day of 2011 as a way to record a year where I literally did not know where I would be four, six, or twelve months later. I knew it was to be a year of incredible change: son off to college, home in Minnesota sold, and on a moving boat full-time. I realized eBird could be a way to record this tumultuous year through the each day’s observations of birds. I haven’t had time yet to review the many states, species, or counts, but it brings back such memories to just scan the locations and sightings in eBird’s “My Observations” and remember this crazy year through the checklists of birds I reported.
    Now it’s the first day of 2012 so I don’t HAVE to submit a report. But I will anyway. If I don’t, who will report the birds seen along Florida’s Indian River today?

  • Heidi

    The first thing to realize is that all data are valuable at some level. Even though your old day lists span multiple counties, you can still enter these observations at the state level. They will be tagged as state-level data and treated accordingly on maps etc., but your personal lists will be right for TX. We are exploring ways now to allow people to enter data that lack a specific date too, so that option may be coming in the not too distant future.

    The important thing is to get started using eBird in your daily birding now, and try to keep your checklists to more refined locations and specific dates. We’d like to see the concept of the ‘day list’ and ‘trip list’ disappear as we now know it, as those kinds of checklists allow for more limited kinds of analysis. Keeping your checklists to refined locations lets eBird do the heavy lifting of building your various lists for you, while at the same time collecting ‘higher resolution’ data for science.

    We hope the concept of the ‘initial life list build’ helps bring more people into the eBird fold when it’s released, so keep an eye out for that development sometime in 2012.

    Thanks

    Brian

  • Rob

    You’ve been more diligent with eBird than I have. I’ve only submitted 1674 checklists, but I’m taking the eBird challenge this year and will be submitting at least one checklist every day. I am also going to use 2012 to search out all my old trip lists from outside of the ABA area and enter those into eBird as well.

    eBird has changed my life and birding in many ways. I love being able to look up any species and quickly see how many times I’ve seen it. As I enter old checklists eBird offers me an amazing look at my birding over the years. The eBird alert system is helping me find birds in my new home county here in NJ. An eBird alert just notified me of a potential new ABA bird for me at a feeder 3 miles from my home!

    BTW, don’t forget that Audubon is Cornell’s partner on eBird. The whole idea of pinpointing bird sightings on a map online is so powerful. There’s even a case to be made (and was made legally) that Audubon and Cornell’s technology eventually made Google mapping of locations possible. Birdfinding and chasing is so different now that eBird can kick out bird sighting locations for us to use.

    And the instant checklist generation is awesome. When I was heading to New Zealand last week, I had eBird generate a checklist for the Auckland area based on eBird submissions–then I was able to click on the names of the birds I was seeing and get a map of where those birds had been seen in and around Auckland. Most of my birding around Auckland for the week I was there was based on locations I first found via eBird. And eBird hasn’t even been in New Zealand that long! Very powerful!

  • Brett Walker

    Spending so much time entering lists is the biggest impediment to eBirding that keeps me away. I need a smartphone app that: (1) allows me to simply name the location and state where I’m birding (i.e., it opens a customizable “active” list), (2) automatically records the date and each bird(s) that I identify (by speaking into the phone) along with a georeferenced location of that bird, (3) keeps a running tally by species, subspecies, morph, etc for the active list, then, (4) once I’m done birding, it updates my eBird data on-line with a click of a button. I’m a 24-7 birder. By that I mean that most of the time I’m “birding” I’m actually walking with kids in a double stroller, working outside, kayaking, hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, etc. I don’t have time to write down all the birds I see daily on a paper list, then sit down, sign in, and update that list manually on the computer after the kids and my wife go to bed. I spend too much time in front of a computer every day already! Does such an app exist? Is there another way to eBird that doesn’t include manual data entry of every daily list on a computer? If so, I’ll consider becoming a serious eBirder! And maybe that will inspire me to enter my past 20 years worth of lists….

  • Brett has some good ideas that I have been pondering for a few years, but don’t let it hold you back from being an eBirder. I think it is very rewarding and the amount of time I spend entering checklists is so little compared to the enjoyment I get out of the results. I love eBird and have been using it for some time.

    Thanks Rob, for mentioning and participating in the eBird One-a-Day Challenge I have extended. I invite everyone to participate!

  • Ted Floyd

    I get your point, Robert, but are you perhaps missing mine?

    My point is that eBird has changed my life. Yeah, back in the day (pre-eBird for me, pre-2007), I woulda said, in effect, “I just want eyeglasses, not clothing.” But I gave in. Folks like Tim Lenz and Chris Wood kept nagging me about eBird, and I gave it a whirl. Five years and five days later, I’m a very different birder and even, I believe, a different person.

    If you really get into eBirding, Robert, you’ll find yourself buying that entire set of pots! That is, indeed, my point.

  • Jack Solomon

    Elsewhere, in the past, Ted Floyd said of Cassiar’s Junco: “Now there’s a name that I suspect not all of us would recognize!” You got that right, Ted.

  • Ted Floyd

    I hope I said Cassiar Junco, not Cassiar’s Junco. Note that Cassiar is a place, not a person’s name. Cassiar Junco, like Cape May Warbler.

  • Ken Schneider

    I’m also a huge fan of eBird. I happened to start birding (after a regrettable twenty-year hiatus) about the same time that eBird was really starting to take off (2006) and virtually all of the observations from my birding trips have been entered into eBird. All of my various life, state and county lists are organized beautifully by the eBird system, a very nice “fringe benefit”. eBird challenges me to keep careful track of the numbers of birds seen, which then makes me more likely to look carefully at each bird in larger flocks and therefore more likely to find unusual species! The ability to enter subspecies, age, sex, spuhs, etc. also gets me to look more carefully at each bird.

    I’d like to tie-in this last bit with my wish for more articles in Birding on the ageing and sexing of common birds in the field, something I’ve mentioned once before in a different post. Although there is information in various field guides and in the Pyle banding books, it is very difficult for me to find solid information on whether it is possible to reliably separate various age and sex classes of bird species and, if so, what the best field marks are… Let’s take the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped Warbler – I know that the younger and female birds are browner and show less yellow on the flanks and throat (for Audubon’s), but if one chose to look very carefully at each bird, can a birder reliably separate the age/sex of each one? Or does it break down into “likely adult male” and all others, eg? This kind of information seems tough to find. What about a series of family-focused articles on warblers, sparrows, etc?

  • Ted Floyd

    Hi, Ken.

    Two things:

    1. Re: “eBird challenges me to keep careful track of the numbers of birds seen, which then makes me more likely to look carefully at each bird in larger flocks and therefore more likely to find unusual species!” Amen. I couldn’t have said it better.

    2. Re: “I’d like to tie-in this last bit with my wish for more articles in Birding on the ageing and sexing of common birds in the field, something I’ve mentioned once before in a different post.” Thanks for this suggestion, which I think is an excellent one. An upcoming article in Birding will tell us about a bird that is trivially easy to ID to species, yet surprisingly hard to age and sex. Stay tuned!

  • Ted Floyd

    Say, this month’s Denver Field Ornithologists (DFO) meeting will feature a live demo and tutorial on eBird. By Yours Truly, no less.

    Feb. 27th, 2012, 7pm. At the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Arrive early, bird nearby City Park, and add Southern Cassowary and Rainbow Lorikeet to your Denver County list . . .

    Get additional details here:

    http://dfobirders.org/wordpress/programs/

    See you on the 27th!

  • Priscilla Nam Hari Kaur

    I’ve been a birder since I was still living at home, and have been casual about it at times. For example I don’t keep lists. I only post about my sightings when I’ve seen something pretty unusual, but I use eBird when I want to know more about when and where I might find a bird I’m interested in seeing. For example, this Winter I used eBird data about Burrowing Owls and Short-Eared Owls and was successful in getting looks at both these species. I also found out that the BUOW is gone from our area by the end of Feb and the SEOW tends to stick around well into March. This kind of data is very helpful and eBird is a great resource for this kind of information, and it is easy to use.

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