eBird’s Win-Win: How Both Scientists and Birders Benefit From eBird

Story and photos by Laura Erickson
Land managers can use eBird data to understand how different species use New York’s Jamaica Bay at different times of the year. The thickness of the green lines shows average abundance as it changes from week to week each month.

Every time bird watchers raise binoculars to identify a bird, they can collect useful data. When and where you see each chickadee or robin may seem trivial and repetitive, but reporting how many individuals of each species you see each day can be invaluable to scientists. That’s why the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon launched eBird (www.ebird.org) in 2002, and why the majority of funding for the project came through a National Science Foundation award. In a 2009 paper published in Biological Conservation, Brian Sullivan and collaborators on the eBird team explain how eBird’s wide-scale species-level data, easily accessed in useful form by anyone, help scientists in myriad ways. The researchers also explain how the project provides perks that encourage birders to gather and share increasingly valuable data.

What scientists get

Whether tracking the increase in Eurasian Collared-Doves as they’ve spread from Florida to much of North America since the late 1970s, or tracking the timing of migration of different populations of Yellow Warblers, or generating a range map of any species, eBird contains a wealth of data visualization and analysis tools to give birders, land managers, and scientists useful information about bird distribution and relative abundance. Here are some examples of ways eBird has made an impact:

Yellow Warbler, by Laura Erickson
Yellow Warbler.

Prioritizing oil spill cleanups

On November 7, 2007, 53,500 gallons of toxic bunker fuel spilled into San Francisco Bay after the Cosco Busan, a container ship, struck the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in thick fog. The spill impacted at least four important bird areas and rapidly spread to beaches around the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Scientists quickly created a visualization juxtaposing maps of the spill and the important bird areas with recent bird sightings data from eBird. Knowing exactly where birds were located allowed managers to more easily prioritize areas for cleanup and pinpoint where efforts to gather birds for treatment should be concentrated.

Protecting a declining species

Rusty Blackbirds have declined by as much as 70–90 percent over the last 40 years. Working with eBird, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s International Rusty Blackbird Working Group created a focused citizen-science project, the Rusty Blackbird Blitz, to learn more about this vulnerable species’ habitat use, flock size, species associations, etc. For nine days in early February, thousands of participants search in earnest for Rusty Blackbirds and report their sightings to eBird. When combined with sightings of Rusty Blackbirds reported during migration, this information will help scientists understand more about this blackbird’s ecological requirements so that conservationists will have a better chance to protect the species and its habitat.

Habitat management

Land managers must often provide for the conflicting needs of different species of concern. For example, wetland managers are often tasked with adjusting water levels to help both shorebirds and waterfowl, though most shorebirds require mudflats and shallows whereas ducks and geese usually need deeper water. eBird data, summoned to show the birds’ temporal patterns, can sometimes give a clear picture of when water levels should be high and when they should be dropped to best accommodate the needs of both groups of birds. At Jamaica Bay in New York, a simple graph generated by eBird contrasts the seasonal abundance of five shorebirds of interest with that of five migratory ducks. The ducks are abundant in March and drop in abundance by the beginning of May when shorebirds are increasing. Shorebird numbers peak in May and again in August. They decline in late September when waterfowl numbers are increasing again. This visualization helps managers schedule their management tasks accordingly.

What birders get

Faster than a speeding rare bird alert. More powerful than a listserv. Able to leap into remote locations with a single call. Look—it’s eBird!

Birders have long wanted as current information as possible for tracking down rare birds. Thanks to eBird, they can now learn exactly where a rare bird is being seen just moments after someone discovers it. Using eBird-powered iPhone and iPod apps, accessing information from eBird has never been easier. Birders also value a quick and easy way to keep track of their life lists.

Masked Duck.
Masked Duck.

Finding rare birds

Many birders flocking to Titusville, Florida, for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in late January arrived a day or two early to do some birding on their own. A quick glance at an iPhone or iPod touch app sent many of them straight to the Viera Wetlands to add a Masked Duck to their life lists. Masked Ducks don’t appear in Florida every year, and so the one that spent this winter in Florida was a lifer for a great many people. With the BirdsEye app, birders knew at a glance whether it had been seen yet that day, and where exactly to head in the wetland to see it. Birders also visited the feeders at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center to see Painted Buntings. Though far less rare than a Masked Duck, these colorful birds thrilled many. Because BirdsEye is constantly fed new data entered into eBird, finding “good birds” has never been so fast and easy.

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Birders don’t need an iPhone to get the free Notable eBird Sightings Google gadget, which shows notable bird sightings on your computer desktop for the state(s) of your choice. Users can view details of each sighting and see them plotted on Google maps.

Birding in an unfamiliar place

Those birders who had never visited Florida before weren’t just interested in Masked Ducks and Painted Buntings. Boat-tailed Grackles, abundant moochers at fast food restaurants in Titusville, were lifers for a great many new visitors to the state, as were Roseate Spoonbills, Brown Pelicans, Black Skimmers, and more. Birders unfamiliar with the area could use the BirdsEye app to find them all, and to find directions to the hotspots. One birder raved in a review at the BirdsEyewebsite, “No more wasting hours reading location guides and scouring listservs. No need to listen to the latest hotline. I took this app with me on a trip to New Orleans and was amazed at how many target birds I was able to locate in just two mornings.”

Alerts to find new state birds

What if you’re building your state list and need birds that aren’t rare enough to be considered “notable”? If your state list is up to date on eBird, subscribe to the neweBird State Needs alert to get an email every day informing you of any reports of birds that you haven’t seen before in that state.

Keeping track of your lists

eBird provides listing features to create and keep track of your life list, and generates lists of birds seen in specific places or time periods. To sweeten the deal for birders who want a bit of recognition for being the first to spot a new bird,output tools highlight the first time a species is reported in a geographical area, along with the name of the eBirder who first discovered it.

Simple data entry

After a birding jaunt, a birder may not feel motivated to get on the computer to type in data. But eBird developers have made it increasingly easy to post data. Many eBird users have been storing bird records electronically in various forms on their personal computers for years. An eBird import tool is designed to provide an interface through which these records can be imported to eBird.

eBird Growing Exponentially

The eBird team is making more and more innovations designed to serve the birding community, encouraging an increasing number of birders to contribute checklists. Between January 2003 and March 2010, bird watchers entered more than 31 million records. Nearly half of them were contributed since 2009, and 4.5 million were from the first three months of 2010. The more birders use eBird, and the more quickly rare birds are reported, the more valuable this resource becomes for everyone.

Originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of BirdScope.

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