A New Development in Online Birding

By Tom Williams


EBird: The World’s Biggest Shoe Box

Think about the amount of data on birds sitting in shoe boxes or in computer files, accessible only to the person who made the sightings. Consider, for example, my own modest lists – just short of 8,000 entries. Admittedly a lot are House Sparrows and European Starlings, but that’s still a lot of data.

What’s it worth? For a variety of reasons, it’s worth a lot to me but not much to anyone else. One reason is that I can get to the data, but no one else can. Another reason is that it’s idiosyncratic— all collected by one birder who preferred certain birding areas, and who has a lot of trouble distinguishing between Western Wood-Pewees and Empidonax flycatchers, and who has never understood exactly what color "buffy" is and who . . . well, anyway.

Suppose though, that someone created a single large database in which everyone who birds could record sightings over the Internet? Suppose further that they could use it later to print lists of birds sighted and to find out where and when certain species were seen by others. In other words, a database that could combine the bird lists of everyone in America.

Well, eBird—a joint project of Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society—is just that.

A Very Brief Introduction to eBird

Click on www.ebird.org/content/ to take a look.

When you get to the eBird page—this may take a while if you have a dial-up connection rather than DSL or Cable Internet—you will see all kinds of things to click on. Eventually you’ll want to look at them all, but start as follows:

1. Click right above the head of the picture of the Blue-winged Warbler.

2. Click on the right side of the screen.

3. Enter Utah for the county and UT for the state, and then click .

4. Click once.



You should now see something like this, but without the dates and the red arrows.

Each of the green dots represents a location in Utah County for which someone has entered sightings. The dot labeled Aug 1 represents a trip I made from Lincoln Beach to LeBarron Point. I don’t know for certain who entered the other two, but the July 3 entry seems to correlate with an owling trip reported on Bird Talk by Bryan Shirley. In any case, by the time you view this map, many other Utah birders may have added their sightings.

The Select a Species box (below that map and to its right) lists only the birds reported in the trips represented by the green dots that are currently showing. If you select one or more species in the list and then click update, the dots that are not associated with a sighting of the species will turn gray. If, for example, if you select Flammulated Owl while you have the three Utah County dots showing, two of them will turn gray and only the dot for the July 3 trip will remain green.


Some Problems to Resolve

The eBird site is well-conceived and has the potential to be a great resource for birders. Several problems, however, need to be worked out before the world will beat a path to the door of this particular mouse trap’s inventor.

First, even with cable Internet, the program is often slow. With a dial-up connection it is probably painfully so. Second, the interface requires a lot of getting used to. Many first-time users will not return because it can be confusing. Third, the process of entering sightings is time-consuming. I can do a trip report on AviSys software in far less time. One might start to enter future trips but very few birders will be altruistic enough to go back and enter the data they have already collected.

The creators of eBird might want to design a way of accepting tab delimited or comma delimited lists. This would allow thousands of birders who currently use listing software to easily upload tens of thousands of back sightings. It would also make it possible to continue to maintain your lists on your own software and on your own computer but still contribute to eBird.


Where Will eBird Go from Here?

In less than ten years, with the spread of the Internet, we have seen a quantum leap in the way we get birding information. If Cornell Labs and the Audubon Society follow through on this project and keep improving the site—and if the birding community responds—we could see another such leap in the way birding information is reported, organized, and retrieved.

If you go to eBird and select a map for the entire state of Utah, you’ll see that Salt Lake County and Washington County are well ahead of Utah County in reporting sightings. Even so, only a very small fraction of the data being collected by Utah birders has been reported. The more Utah birders use eBird the better data we will have on the times, seasons, and locations of Utah birds.

After you look at eBird it might be interesting to report your experiences and impressions on Bird Talk. If you prefer not to discuss it in front of the entire Utah birding community, just email tom_williams@comcast.net. I’m interested in the project and where it’s going and would be like to hear what others think.

©Tom Williams