eBirders Help Focus Gulf Conservation Efforts

By Pat Leonard
July 15, 2010
eBirders Help Focus Gulf Conservation Efforts
                    State of North America's Birds 2016 report            

Birders are doing their part to help birds along the Gulf Coast, now threatened by the massive Deepwater Horizon oil leak. They’re doing it through eBird, submitting real-time observations of Roseate Spoonbills, Sanderlings, Brown Pelicans, and other species that inhabit this rich ecosystem. eBird online data entry has been updated to allow birders to report any sick, oiled birds they find.

“The beauty of eBird is that we’ve been collecting baseline data from participants in the Gulf Coast states since the project began in 2002,” says project co-leader Brian Sullivan. “We also have historic data coming in for the region. Based on these millions of records, we know what species should be there, in what numbers, at any time of year.”

These baseline data provide the yardstick by which change is measured. Will there be fewer species along Gulf shores in the weeks and months ahead compared with the past? Will there be fewer individuals of each species? Will some species show reduced numbers in the years ahead because this nesting season has been lost?

At press time, 250,000 bird observations had been submitted to eBird from the Gulf Coast states since early May, and there have been 85 reports of oiled birds. Data from eBird may help determine what proportion of birds of many species are affected by the oil.

“If we get a report of 50 Brown Pelicans with light oiling on one bird, that’s not so bad,” says Sullivan. “But if we get a report of 10 Brown Pelicans, and every single one is coated with oil, that’s an area getting badly hit and it should be a priority for cleanup and bird conservation work.”

The eBird team has also created the eBird Gulf Coast Oil Spill Bird Tracker gadget on its website (ebird.org) to show where coastal birds and oil may intersect. The map shows the current location of the surface slick and focuses on 10 bird species of conservation concern that could be affected if the oil comes ashore (if it hasn’t already). These are just a few of the many species threatened by the oil. For each species, the tracker displays eBird observations submitted since early April.

Knowing where, when, and in what numbers species typically occur in a given area is clearly vital in responding to an environmental crisis. eBird is poised to address that need on a much broader scale. Though it is still in the development stage, eBird is now taking in bird observations from around the world. When enough baseline data have been amassed, it will be one more tool environmental managers can turn to in an emergency. Conservation plans can be based on the latest data and upon the commitment of people everywhere who care about birds in harm’s way.

The screenshot at top is from the eBird Gulf Spill Bird Tracker site.

Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of BirdScope.