Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The migration gods frowned on me for the second weekend in a row: In what should have been the last weekend of the big spring migrant push north through Florida, I scored exactly two migrant warblers. So instead of contemplating the wonders of birds, I'll contemplate the wonders of a tool every birder should take advantage of: eBird.

EBird rules: It's an easy way to keep your lists (and will even sort your sightings out by date and location) AND all your sightings will be made available to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for their investigation of bird life. It allows you to share your lists with other users or even e-mail them to random people who aren't eBird users.

But eBird occasionally sends me into spasms of angst. Whenever I enter my sightings in eBird, I'm aware that I'm not just doing it for myself, but for the Sake of Science! So I'd better be darned sure of my ID when I click on those little boxes by bird names. What if those shiny black things I saw were Boat-tailed Grackles rather than Common Grackles? Would this bad information—compounded exponentially by all my other misidentifications over the years—cause the hard-working folks at Cornell to have a completely skewed view of grackle populations in Florida, leading to misguided policy decisions that could cause the whole lot of them to go extinct? AACK!

Citizen science comes with certain responsibilities. And occasionally, the usually pleasant early-afternoon task of logging my morning sightings onto eBird sends me into an existential panic attack. For instance, take this typically atypical session:

Observation type:

"Travelling count", according to eBird guidelines,refers to counts taken while moving over a specified distance for a certain duration. "Area" count" refers to counts made while covering the same patch of ground repeatedly. Which box do you check when you go somewhere, bird the parking lot for half an hour, wander a mile down a trail, bird a patch down there for an hour, then come back?

What the hell. Travelling count.


What day was Saturday anyhow? Did I leave my calendar in my office again?

Distance covered:

If you birded a loop trail, does the distance refer to the circumference of the loop, since that is what you physically walked, or the area of the territory bounded by the loop, since that's where all the birds you saw came from? And how do you calculate that anyhow if you don't know how long the trail was? Or if the loop doesn't actually form a circle, but an irregular blob, and your calculus skills are really rusty?

Okay, 3 miles. Because it's a nice round number.

Number of people in your birding party:

I went there alone. So that's one. But then I ran into Rex and Phil and this couple from Orlando. So that's five. Then I ran into Cecelia and Barbara and Craig, but then Rex left and Cecelia and I split from the rest of the group to look for King Rails, and on the way back we ran into Craig again and his roommate from college so that makes it..

Still five?

Kirtland's Warbler is an excellent observation! Please click to confirm.

Yikes, did I actually click Kirtland's Warbler? I meant Common Yellowthroat. My bad.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker is an excellent observation! Please click to confirm.

What, you don't believe me?

But in the end, it's worth the angst. I've got a convenient online database of all my sightings—a virtual scrapbook of my outings. And I'm helping advance science (in the same way I used to "help" in the garden when I was three). And the collective wisdom of the thousands of seasoned birders who also swear by eBird should cancel out the negative effects of my screwups.

I hope!


Kelly said...

haha! You made me laugh with the Kirtland's Warbler and Ivory Bill! ...it is a lot of responsibility. I'd like to give this a try one of these days.

jen said...

I don't laugh out loud at a lot of things but this is hilarious.

Dave Lewis said...

Good one! Now I'm even more confused about what I send to them...I btter read it over again...

Felicia said...

Thanks for your kind words! Kelly, you really must try eBird; I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

dAwN said...

Haa haa..well I have used ebird a few times.and I know what u mean about standing count etc etc..I tend to put casual count..but the whole thing makes my head spin.
And getting the location correct etc..
Wish it was a bit more user friendly.
they will be coming out with an app i can use in the field with my itouch..Hoping I can tick of the birds I see..maybe it will even know the location I am in..etc..
and then at the end of the day..upload it all to ebird.
maybe then I will submit lists..

Felicia said...

Hi Dawn,

It would be cool if that app had a GPS locator built in! I'd definitely get into something like that!

Larry said...

I see we all run into the same stuff with eBird on occasion!