In early 2012, after almost a decade as a casual observer of birds, I found that my birding skills had reached a plateau. So, with the encouragement of a vocal Common Raven who woke me up on three consecutive mornings, I decided to make birding a focal point of my life. As part of that effort, I started using the online bird reporting software called eBird.
A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird is a convenient, free tool for recording and organizing personal bird sightings, exploring the sightings of others, and viewing dynamic maps and bar charts of specific species, regions, and time periods. In this post, I’ll explain how data input works, discuss how data is organized for easy retrieval, cover several eBird tools that are available to help you see more birds, and wrap up with a few tips.
Inputting and Retrieving Your Data
eBirding begins in the field. When I go birding, I take along a small notebook to record the birds who I see and/or hear. I use bird codes (more on this below) and slash-marks for shorthand. A typical notebook page looks like this:
When I get back to a computer, I input the data into eBird. I select my location and record the start time, total observation time and trip distance (if not a stationary count), and then enter in all of the birds. Sometimes I’ll include comments about a bird's behavior, plumage or precise location. To document rare or unusual sightings, I may even include a photograph or sound recording. The result is an eBird checklist that looks like this.
Each checklist is archived and added to a huge, publicly-accessible database. In cases where privacy is needed (e.g., when reporting the nesting location of a sensitive species), there is an option to keep a checklist private, thereby excluding it from the public database.
Every time you log-in to eBird, you’ll find your up-to-date species totals by county, state, country, and continent. At a glance, you can also see your species totals for the current month and year. Using various tools to review your observations, it’s simple to retrieve answers to a variety of questions, like what’s the highest count of Turkey Vultures that I’ve ever reported (Ans. 37 on 1 Feb 2013) or where and when did I see my first Tundra Swan? (Ans. Saw 3 at Tiogue Lake in Coventry, RI on 1 Feb 2012).
And, of course, it keeps track of your eBird Life List, which if you’ve been eBirding all along will be your official Life List (see my Life List Bird Game activity series).
The eBird Needs Alert feature has connected me with birds (and birders) who I may not have found on my own. I’ve signed up for the York County, Maine Needs Alerts, which means that if someone submits a checklist that contains a species I’ve yet to report seeing in the county, I’ll receive an e-mail notification. On many occasions, these alerts have helped me to see new birds and to discover new locations to bird. Adventurous, or simply curious, birders can set up alerts for multiple counties and/or entire states and receive hourly or daily updates.
A similar tool is the Rare Bird Alert. eBird submissions may be flagged as Rare for several reasons, including when a species is spotted outside of its typical range (e.g., a western vagrant or a European traveler) or out of season. Like Needs Alerts, these can be set-up for certain counties or entire states. And, if you don't want to sign up for email updates, you can simply browse the alerts online when desired.
Exploring Data Tools
In addition to alerts, you can view distribution maps for any species worldwide and generate charts of species seen in particular counties and states during certain months and years. In 2013, eBird unveiled the Hotspot Viewer, which allows users to retrieve detailed data for thousands of shared, public locations.
Take East Point Sanctuary in Biddeford Pool, for example. As of this writing, 264 species have been reported on a total of 1046 checklists. In addition to totals, you can view when each of the 264 species was last reported and first reported, along with high counts and a full set of bar charts for all reports.
In 2014, the eBird team introduced two more tools: Location Explorer and eBird Targets. Look up your home county, state, or country in the Location Explorer and be amazed by the data at your fingertips. eBird Targets is especially handy if you're preparing to travel outside of your local birding zone. You can generate a target list of species with just a few clicks.
Writing in bird code allows me to quickly jot down who I see/hear when I'm out and about. A short lunchtime checklist might look like this: 4 AMRO, 1 HERG, 2 BCCH, 1 WBNU, 1 HAWO. Later, when I submit my eBird checklist, I can simply type the 4-letter codes into eBird's Jump to Species box to quickly enter each species. With the possible exception of scientific binomials (see Why I Use Scientific Names), these 4-letter codes are my foreign language of choice.
If you're submitting a traveling report, you might find this distance measuring tool useful for estimating the ground you covered. If you walked an out-and-back route (rather than in a loop), only measure the distance one-way.
If you're not sure how many of a type of bird you saw, it's best to estimate. You can enter an X, which stands for species present in unknown numbers, but numbers, including estimates, are preferred.
If you're not sure of an identification, you have options. Either leave the unknown bird off your list, or select an appropriate broader-than-species-level category. For example, if you don't know what kind of gull, choose Gull sp. (Larinae sp.). If you're not sure if you saw a Sharp-shinned or Cooper's Hawk, enter Sharp-shinned/Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter striatus/cooperii). These and many other categories can be found by clicking the Add Species button. Once you've made a selection, include comments to explain your choice of label.
As you can see, eBird is more than just a birder’s electronic journal – it's a powerful data sharing tool. Visit About eBird if you want to learn more. Signing up for a free account is quick and easy. You might start out by submitting one checklist per day, or maybe just a couple of times per week. The amount of time and effort you put in is entirely up to you. You can count the birds at a bird feeder, during your lunch-break walk, or even at the ball park.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you're never very far from a bird. Consider using eBird to kick-start your birding and to help you see more birds, more of the time.
--last updated 3/8/16