eBird Project

AOS/eBird Project reaches initial goals a year early

By Ken Hare and Greg Harber

Bachman’s Sparrow  (Photo Ken Hare)

In early 2017, the Alabama Ornithological Society answered a call to increase the data readily available to researchers on Cornell University’s eBird from Alabama counties that had few eBird reports, which potentially could skew future research on such issues as bird migration.

When the AOS board agreed to take on this mission at the request of eBird staff, AOS members thought the project would take until at least 2020 to complete. But in just 20 months, the AOS team working on the project has met its initial goals.

When in 2016 Alabama Ornithological Society President Anne Miller started focusing attention on the issue of poor reporting on eBird of birding records in many rural Alabama counties, improving reporting seemed a daunting task. In an article that year in the AOS newsletter,

The Yellowhammer, Miller wrote that almost half of Alabama’s 67 counties were “seriously under-reported” (See more here).At that time, there were many counties where the number of species reported was far below the Alabama median, there were several counties with fewer than 30 eBird checklists all-time, and there were huge gaps in the weeks in which eBird reports were filed from many counties, sometimes missing entire migration seasons.

To further focus attention on the issue, Miller invited eBird Project Leader Marshall Iliff to be the speaker for the AOS meeting in January 2017. Iliff highlighted that eBird data was increasingly being used by avian researchers and was a factor in developing public policy on protecting birds, and emphasized the problems created by the under-reporting of data in Alabama, as well as other states. The AOS board accepted that challenge, and created a committee co-chaired by Greg Harber and Ken Hare to develop strategies to increase reporting from these areas.

The first task was to establish current baseline data on the under-reporting issue, Once that was in hand, the committee decided to focus on the 16 Alabama counties with fewer than 150 species reported all-time, with special emphasis on the 10 of those counties that had fewer than 150 complete checklists all-time.

Strategies shifted over time, but eventually settled in to four approaches.

The first was to promote eBirding in these 16 counties on social media sites, in AOS publications, and on Albirds, an AOS “list serve” used by many Alabama birders to share such information as sightings of rarities. This was designed to get all birders, not just AOS members, to do eBird reports from these counties. This was a significant factor in our approach, and one we plan to continue into the future.

The second approach was to lead organized field trips to one of the least reported counties in the state. This effort was led by co-chair Greg Harber, who is also Birmingham Audubon’s field trip chairman, and was a significant factor in getting the number of species in Fayette County up. Also, by promoting these field trips in the local newspaper and on social media, the trips provided an avenue to promote eBirding in general and birding in the targeted counties specifically.

The third, and by far the most successful strategy, was to invite some of the state’s best and most prolific birders to join an “AOS/eBird Project Team” by agreeing to do reports several times a year in one or more of the targeted counties. Many of the members of this team far exceeded their original commitment, birding many times in multiple counties. (See the list of team members below.)

Using both social media and personal contacts, our fourth strategy was to urge birders in the state who had old lists not on eBird to enter those lists when they had sufficient data to do so. This strategy was especially important because it added historical perspective to the eBird data from the targeted counties. One team member, Jud Johnston, had records of several less common species from targeted counties, but only limited information on his personal lists. He dug into the archives of the Albirds list serve to find dates, times and bird descriptions to verify his historical reports on eBird. Another team member, Carrie Threadgill, took her Alabama Breeding Bird Survey reports from several years and entered them into eBird.

The results were impressive. The effort to address the under-reporting issues in these counties began in earnest in April 2017. By January 2019, just 20 months later, we had reached our goal of a minimum of 150 species in the 16 target counties and 150 complete checklists in the 10 checklist target counties.

In doing so, we raised the average number of reported species in the 16 target counties from 127 species to 163. In the 10 counties with fewer than 150 checklists, the results were even more impressive. The average number of complete checklists in those counties zoomed from 80 to 287.

“This data from these under-covered counties is much more than the fun stats game to try to find first county records and boost the overall counts,” said eBird Project Leader Marshall Iliff. He pointed out that eBird relies on reports from reliable birders to do science-based modeling with eBird data.

“These models depend on having representative data from most parts of the country, and the blank spots in Alabama that are getting filled in have way more value than yet another checklist from a well-covered region,” Iliff said. “The information content per checklist from an uncovered county is really valuable to eBird. So thanks to all!”

AOS does not plan to stop with this success, however. Strategies to continue to keep birders returning to these counties are currently being developed, with an emphasis on continuing to promote eBirding in general and eBirding in all areas of the state in particular. As part of that effort, the committee will promote “county birding” in which birders seek to do reports from as many of Alabama’s 67 counties as possible and to get as many species in each county as possible.

(Members of the AOS/eBird Project Team are: Greg Harber and Ken Hare, co-chairs; Sue Moske, John Trent, Neil Gilbert, Ken Ward, Judy and Don Self, Geoff Hill, Larry Gardella, Jim Holmes, Jud Johnston, Carrie Threadgill, Anne Miller, Jordan Broadhead, Frank Farrell, James White, David McVay, and Marshall Iliff.)

 

Counties with fewer than 150 Species:  February 2017 (through December 2018)

Bibb: 140 (157)

Blount: 144 (177)

Chilton: 129 (157)

Choctaw: 122 (171)

Coffee: 133 (167)

Conecuh: 131 (160)

Crenshaw: 104 (156)

Fayette: 111 (159)

Greene: 133 (153)

Lamar: 96 (151)

Marion: 118 (179)

Pickens: 137 (163)

Pike: 125 (163)

Randolph: 139 (177)

Walker: 137 (161)

Washington: 147 (157)

Total: 2,046 (2,608) 27.4% increase

Average: 127.9 (163)

County Lists with fewer than 150: Feb 2017 (through December 2018)

Choctaw: 58 (410)

Conecuh: 53 (202)

Crenshaw: 34 (286)

Fayette: 25 (166)

Greene: 138 (513)

Lamar: 33 (172)

Marion: 131 (190)

Pickens: 118 (227)

Pike: 99 (368)

Walker: 117 (342)

Total: 806 (2,876) 256% increas

 

Seldom-birded Alabama Counties are targeted to benefit Alabama’s eBird database 

AOS will lead birding trips to some of the fifteen Alabama counties that are currently most seriously under-reported on the eBird database. According to an AOS survey (www.aosbirds.org), these fifteen counties have fewer than 150 bird species recorded in the eBird database. Counties in every part of the state are on the list, including centrally-located counties like Blount, Bibb, Walker and Chilton. Some counties, such as Lamar, Fayette, and Choctaw, have had no observations reported to eBird for more than half of the year.

Although Alabama ranks fifth in the nation in biodiversity according to NatureServe (www.natureserve.org), it is ranked 48th on the list of ‘Greenest States’ by Forbes (www.forbes.com). The eBird database is potentially a valuable tool to encourage protection for Alabama’s birds, providing critical information for scientists and conservation agencies. The database is also used by birders around the nation to plan birding trips that bring significant benefits to local economies. Unless the huge gaps in Alabama’s eBird database are filled, large parts of the state remain blank spaces on eBird’s species occurrence maps for the U.S.

At the 2017 AOS Winter Meeting, eBird Project Leader Marshall Iliff made a persuasive case for Alabama’s birders to support eBird, and the AOS board of directors initiated a partnership with eBird to fill in the gaps in under-reported counties. AOS invites eBirders throughout the state to participate in seasonal AOS field trips to under-reported counties. AOS members who are not yet active eBirders are urged to participate. We’ll sample the birdlife at Alabama Birding Trail sites and other eBird hotspots in these seldom-birded counties, and we’ll also sample the best local cuisine while we’re there—with a strong preference for barbecue. Our first field trip was on May 20, led by noted birder Greg Harber. Our destination was Fayette County. Join us on the next trip!

The eBird Project 

By Anne G. Miller
(from  Summer, 2016 edition of the Yellowhammer)

The last time a Common Yellowthroat was reported to eBird from Lamar County was in 2010, when Marshall Iliff, eBird Project Leader from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, visited Alabama to encourage greater participation in eBird. Besides offering numerous workshops about eBird, Marshall did some birding in some seldom-birded counties, creating eBird records for a number of  species at locations that have never been revisited by Alabama’s birders.  Clearly, Alabama is still lacking in eBird reports from many parts of the state.

I’ve spent the last few days delving into the eBird database to learn more about what is needed here. What I found is both good and bad news. About half of Alabama’s counties have good numbers of eBird reports from around the year. Dedicated AOS birders of North Alabama like Damien Simbeck , Steve McConnell, and Sue Moske have made sure that most of our northern counties are pretty well documented. AOS birders in Jefferson and Shelby Counties and Montgomery and Lee Counties like Scott Duncan, Larry Gardella and Geoff Hill have also been actively reporting observations to eBird. Eric Soehren and John Trent, Biologists with the Alabama Department of Conservation stationed at the Wehle Land Conservation Center in Bullock County, have done an awesome job of reporting in their area and elsewhere around the state (John’s article about weekly patch reporting to eBird is posted below). And of course, the highest number of birds, and eBird checklists, come from our two coastal counties, where AOS members Howard Horne, Ben Garmon, and Andrew Haffenden are among the top eBird reporters.

Nearly half of our counties are seriously under-reported. I based my conclusions on three different factors: the first is of course, the number of bird species reported for each county. The highest species count was for Baldwin County (393), and the lowest was Lamar County (84). The second factor was the total number of eBird checklists submitted from each county. The highest number of checklists was from Mobile county (11,867), and the lowest was from Choctaw County (19). The third factor can be found by selecting an Alabama county in the eBird database, and clicking on the bar chart link. The bar charts show the county-wide occurrence of each species week by week throughout the year. They make fascinating reading when the species is well reported. For example, in Madison County, a bulge shows the spring arrival of Eastern Wood Peewees, and then there is a drop to a thin line as many of the birds move north, leaving behind a smaller breeding population, followed by a bulge again in the fall as the migrants move south through the county before disappearing entirely in the fourth week of October. The bar charts are used in many ways to help researchers and ordinary birders locate and study a particular bird species. But they are only useful if eBird receives enough checklists to fill out the entire year. This is where Alabama’s ebird reporting is weakest. Twenty-four Alabama counties have no eBird reports for at least ten weeks and as many as 38 weeks out of the year! It’s not just the remote, out of the way places, either. Take for example, the Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge in Bibb County: from the last week of August until the end of the year, no one has ever reported to eBird except for one week in October.

Below you’ll find a list of Alabama counties and their eBird totals for the three factors just described. It provides a fascinating look at the behavior of birds and birders in our state—for of course the human factor has a heavy influence on eBird data, and counties with the largest human populations have the highest bird counts. eBird checklists from regular and frequent visits to favorite locations can be extremely valuable sources of data, as John Trent’s article explains. However, we also need to explore underserved areas to provide a solid database for the birdlife of our state. Long-time AOS members like Sue Moske, Larry Gardella, John Trent, Ken Wills, Rick and Ron Kittinger, and Don and Judy Self show up on the eBird records of many counties. We need more birders willing to explore these under-reported counties, timing their visits seasonally to fill in the major gaps. Counties most in need of attention are listed in bold. As I suggested in a previous article for the YellowHammer, you can make your eBird reports especially useful if you choose to report from sites on the Alabama Birding Trails system.

As I said before, the news is both good and bad. The good news is that many dedicated Alabama birders are already using their skills to observe and report on the state’s birdlife to eBird. This is important scientific work that is especially urgent at a time when so many bird species are in decline. Each checklist we submit has long-term value for understanding and protecting the birdlife of Alabama. The bad news is that many, many other excellent birders are just not taking the time and trouble to report to eBird. So if we talk about it, think about it, and do it, maybe someday all of us Alabama birders will get the habit of reporting our sightings to eBird. As President of AOS, I see this campaign to create a solid ebird database for Alabama as a major goal for our organization, on a par with the Breeding Bird Atlas. It will take years, and real effort by our members, but it’s important and rewarding work. I feel privileged to be working together on this campaign with so many fine and gifted Alabamians.

eBird Rankings for Alabama Counties as of August, 2016.  

Compare this list with current status of each county on eBird to measure our progress

Rank          County                          # Species                          #Checklists                #Weeks not reported                      

1                    Baldwin                                  393                                          10,655                          0

2                    Mobile                                    365                                           11,867                          0

3                    Lauderdale                            289                                             1,994                          0

4                    Colbert                                   282                                             1,814                           0

5                    Morgan                                   280                                             2,179                          0

6                    Limestone                              276                                              1,772                          0

7                    Barbour                                  263                                              1,012                          0

8                   Montgomery                          260                                              3,725                         0

9                   Madison                                 254                                               10,216                        0

10                 Lawrence                               248                                                    831                        1

11                  Marshall                                 247                                                 1,010                        0

12                 Jefferson                                240                                                  4,892                       0

13                  Shelby                                    240                                                  1,922                        0

14                 Lee                                          230                                                   2,378                        0

15                 Elmore                                    216                                                   2,106                         1

16                Jackson                                   214                                                       845                        0

17                Covington                               208                                                      629                         0

18               Hale                                          206                                                      500                         3

19               Bullock                                    203                                                     1,983                        0

20               Macon                                     193                                                      1,371                        0

21               Geneva                                   190                                                          362                         1

22              Russell                                        187                                                               142                         14

23               Winston                                184                                                         2,580                       0

24              Tuscaloosa                             181                                                             532                       1

25               Calhoun                                 180                                                            984                       0

26              Perry                                          180                                                                  649                       14

27              Cherokee                                  177                                                                   165                          9

28               St. Clair                                  177                                                            675                        2

29               Lowndes                                176                                                            325                        1

30               Houston                                173                                                            641                        0

31               Cullman                                  172                                                           437                         3

32              Wilcox                                         171                                                                  97                           14

33             Monroe                                        164                                                                337                          10

34             Franklin                                       161                                                                188                          20

35               Marengo                                 161                                                           738                       0

36               Dale                                        169                                                           659                       0

37              Clarke                                          156                                                               901                          6

38             Cleburne                                     155                                                                211                          9

39              Sumter                                        155                                                               150                         13

40             Henry                                           153                                                                324                        14

41             Chambers                                   152                                                                 148                         8

42             DeKalb                                         152                                                                767                          8

43             Butler                                          150                                                                 120                          9

44             Tallapoosa                                150                                                                 354                          7

45             Talladega                                  149                                                                  635                         17

46              Autauga                                147                                                                 380                      0

47             Dallas                                 147                                                               90                   10

48             Etowah                              146                                                             225                    6

49             Washington                    143                                                              263                    4

50             Escambia                         139                                                              128                    10

51              Coosa                                136                                                              239                    10

52             Bibb                                   136                                                              192                     19

53             Walker                              133                                                              101                     20

54             Greene                              132                                                              105                     12

55             Pickens                             131                                                               107                     18

56             Blount                              128                                                               445                     0

57             Coffee                               126                                                                207                     8

58             Clay                                   117                                                              1,001                   29

59             Marion                             117                                                                  124                   19

60             Pike                                   116                                                                   83                   19

61              Conecuh                          115                                                                   46                    23

62             Randolph                        114                                                                  193                     2

63             Chilton                             111                                                                   119                    18

64             Fayette                             109                                                                    26                   36

65             Choctaw                           105                                                                    19                    38

66             Crenshaw                          95                                                                    27                    35

67              Lamar                                84                                                                    27                     37