My life changed on August 1, 2007. Although I don’t remember much from that day, I do know that I went birding — starting at 7 a.m. at Peters Canyon Regional Park near my high school home in Orange, California. I rode the three miles to the park on my bike, since, as a 14-year-old, I did not yet possess a driver’s license. I birded for two hours that morning and saw California specialties liable to incite jealousy within Alabama birders — California Gnatcatcher, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and Wrentit, to name a few. The most unusual bird I saw was an American Wigeon, a migrant several weeks ahead of its typical arrival date in southern California.
I know these details about that morning because I submitted an eBird checklist, my first ever. In the subsequent decade, I have submitted over five thousand! In my journey as an ardent eBirder, I have learned a tremendous amount about birds, particularly about their status and distribution.
If you are already an eBirder, excellent! Keep up the good work. If you have never
participated, I would like to share three of the ways in which eBird has enriched my
experience as a birder in the hope that you will join me.
eBird is an online database of bird observations to which anyone can contribute from anywhere in the world. Known as citizen science, eBird harnesses the
observational powers of many, many birders and is generating a massive dataset used by scientists to study bird populations. Although eBird’s contribution to
science is notable — dozens of scientific publications draw upon eBird data every year — I will focus on the ways eBird can personally benefit the birder.
First, eBird provides an excellent platform upon which to record your birding activity and observations. Unless you are blessed with an extraordinary memory, it
is unlikely that you can remember what birds you saw on that trip to Dauphin Island
10 years (or months) ago — or even that you went birding in the first place! With
eBird, you record (at a minimum!) where you went birding, what species you saw,
how many of each species you observed, and with whom you birded.
Optionally, you can record notes, about either a species you observed or the outing
in general. And, my favorite option, you can easily imbed photos in a checklist.
Furthermore, submission is becoming ever more streamlined — in fact, apps are
available for both iOS and Android, allowing you to submit observations in real time
from the field.
Second, eBird automatically calculates your lists — every list imaginable, mind you.
Gone are the days of paid list-keeping software, clunky lists managed in Microsoft
Excel, or hand-scribbled lists on wrinkled paper taped to the refrigerator. As you
submit your eBird lists, you can watch your lists grow under the “My eBird” tab —
your life list, state lists, county lists, and year lists.
My favorite listing feature on eBird is the ability to track “Patch” lists from your
favorite birding localities. A patch can be a single location (such as my urban
Tuscaloosa subdivision, where I have logged 112 species to date) or a
conglomeration of locations (for example, Damien Simbeck tracks a Northwest
Alabama patch, which allows him to monitor the birds he has seen in that quadrant
of the state). For those who harbor obsessive tendencies about their state and
county lists, you can subscribe to “Needs” alerts, which will notify you via email
when someone reports a species that you have not observed in the state or county
Third, eBird has become instrumental for planning birding trips and learning the
status and distribution of birds in unfamiliar locations.
Let’s say you are an out-of-state birder with an upcoming business trip to
Birmingham in mid-September. With a quick search for “Jefferson County, Alabama”
on the “Explore a Region” option, you can discover the best birding hotspots (in case
you were wondering, Ruffner Mountain is the top hotspot, with 155 species
observed). With the “Illustrated Checklist” option (a new feature of eBird), you can
peruse the county list and browse bar charts showing the seasonal abundance of
each species in the county. You can also see the top birders in the county, by both
number of species and number of checklists submitted (it’s Ken Wills, with 208 and
982, respectively). With this information, our hypothetical business-trip birder will
decide to spend his free morning birding at Ruffner Mountain. He’ll know that a
Catharus Thrush he spots will not be a Hermit Thrush, since this species doesn’t
appear in Jefferson County until October. And he might even reach out to Ken to ask
if he wants to accompany him birding.
These are just a few of the ways in which eBird can benefit you personally as a
birder. I strongly encourage you to make eBird a regular habit. Every observation —
whether it is 10 minutes of watching birds from your window or a three-hour
ramble at Fort Morgan — is valuable and contributes to our knowledge of birds. You
will not regret joining the ranks of eBirders, and I suspect you will learn a great deal
from doing so. For tips on getting started, the “Help” tab on the eBird homepage
provides instructions for submitting checklists and answers to frequently asked
questions. I hope to see you eBirding in the field!
Neil Gilbert has been fascinated with birds since the age of five when he was growing
up in Michigan. He is pursuing an M.S. in biology at the University of Alabama, with his
research focusing on habitat associations of grassland species in the Black Belt region
of Alabama and Mississippi. He is a member of AOS and serves on the AOS/eBird