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Dispatches from the front lines of the GBBC

February 22, 2013
by

Optional soundtrack to this post.

February 18, 2013

My Dearest Wife,

We crested the hill today to find the full strength of the Backyard Bird Counters allied against us.  Their numbers were uncountable.  Their energy boundless.  The bird records came at us full bore and I watched many of my fellow reviewers – good men, family men – fall by the wayside.  They weren’t ready.  I wasn’t ready.  The horrors were beyond count.  I saw species never before recorded in North America reported from my county.  I saw erroneous Red-headed Woodpecker records piled like so much cord wood.  In the end it didn’t matter it if was a Purple Finch or a House Finch, they went into the checklist with seemingly no consideration as to which side of the line they were on, both species accounts sacrificed on the altar of citizen science.  I shant know if I will ever be the same again after this bloody campaign, but I trust the powers that be know that this is all for the best.  All I know is that too many good bird accounts have been soiled today.  It seems as though this battle will not be over as quickly as we had hoped.  The records continue to come in, less continually than before but we stand before them broken with scarcely the willpower to determine their validity before we, too, will lay down before the wave and in doing so be consumed by it.

Send my love to the children.  I pray that they will recognize their father when I return.

–=====–

Carolina Wren - Falls Lake, Durham Co, NC

Ceci n’est pas une House Wren

I have long known about the “holes” in eBird.  The species pairs that result in one, less common, species being reported erroneously in inflated numbers because any attempt to tighten the filters to catch it would result in a deluge of legitimate records getting hung up and turning into a pain in my Indian Wild Ass.  I was always very aware of two pairs: Purple/House Finch and Sharp-shinned/Cooper’s Hawk.  The former, in both cases, are uncommon but not rare and often mistaken for the latter.  I assumed this was happening on a small scale, but I didn’t worry too much about it as I trust the heavy eBird users in the state to get things right. If people report a dozen or so Purple Finches when they were really House Finches the signal is going to be lost in the noise of legitimate data.  It’s not going to matter in the long run.

But this year the Great Backyard Bird Count was run through eBird, and I keep a pretty close tab on my North Carolina eBird.  I quickly realized, upon receiving a Needs Alert for Wake County that was page after page of Purple Finch records, that something was seriously up.  A quick jaunt through the data later turned up checklist after checklist of GBBC participants that had included Purple Finch but neglected to record any House Finches.  Not that this is completely unheard of, but it’s a giant red flag that something sketchy is going on.

Fullscreen capture 2222013 120035 AM.bmp

This is a suspect checklist

I began sending emails, literally hundreds of them.  And with every email, for which eBird helpfully provides a template that every user knows, I included a couple paragraphs on how to separate House and Purple Finch.  And you know what? 60% of them, more or less, came back saying they’d made a mistake. That is a completely ridiculous percentage of Purple Finch records that had issues.  And I didn’t even consider the ones that had both Purple and House Finches in questionable proportions, because I have a sneaking suspicion that people are counting the red ones as Purple Finches and the brown ones as House Finches.

So it got me thinking about other confusing species.  Not just the Sharpie/Coop thing, but ones regular birders might not even think about. I began to look into Red-headed Woodpeckers over the weekend and found that 90% of them were on lists that neglected to include Red-bellied Woodpecker.  Once again, emails were dispatched. Once again, an alarmingly high percentage of the responses admitted mistakes.

So I looked at Herring Gull records without Ring-billed Gulls. Loads of them. Common Ravens without American Crows. The same. House Wrens without Carolina Wrens. Great Cormorants without Double-cresteds. None of these are flagged by the filters, nor do they really need to be.  And these are just the obvious ones. Who knows what else is out there, just waiting to be discovered? The prospect is terrifying.

Don’t get me wrong, I am one who is almost always willing and able to help out a rookie birder with an ID problem. Many times I actually enjoy it.  But this is so overwhelming that I’m having trouble wrapping my head around where to even start here. It is a lot of emails, and they never stop arriving. And while I tried to keep up with it as the records came in they’re still coming in. And now all the new records are all tied up with the ones I’ve reviewed and validated. They may never be sorted out.  How could they be?

Unless, of course, eBird allows the capability to search for checklists that contain a chosen species, but are absent another chosen species.  That would be great to use year round rather than once a year when the tsunami of data comes in and buries us all.

In any case, I really think I’m starting to hate the GBBC.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2013 8:32 am

    Thank you for your valient efforts to educate the masses on identifying the confusing species.

    Two people reported a barn owl here in greenville County despite being mid-day in the middle of the woods…..

  2. February 22, 2013 9:05 am

    Wow! It was downright boring in PA by comparison. There were a few stray reports, like backyard Winter Wrens and maybe some folks making Song Sparrows into Foxes. The finch problems were there, but nothing on that level.

  3. February 22, 2013 12:30 pm

    Nate, I loved your intro paragraph — very creative. But my gosh, what a mess! I hope the folks in charge will take a look at what happened this year and reconsider how to run the GBBC next year. ~Kim

  4. February 22, 2013 5:50 pm

    Hi Nate, When I read a few days ago that GBBC would be funneled in to ebird, I had the same misgivings – that many erroneous records would be sent in by well-meaning, but mis-informed, participants.
    We want to encourage citizen science, but the data needs to be clean (correct) before it arrives. I would encourage GBBC and ebird to collaborate next year, but ONLY with checklists that were submitted by a trip leader (who, we hope, would be able to distinguish between a red-headed and a red-bellied woodpecker). Then again, that negates the whole point of a “BACKYARD” bird count!

    Another concern: I did not submit a GBBC record this year, for last year, when I entered the data, the web site only wanted to know the zip code of the location and the overall habitat. Just the zip code? How do you distinguish the true locations of the GBBC record when it has such a poor way to pinpoint the sighting?

    I have submitted many ebird records, mainly for my Wake Audubon Society trips, my walks around the neighborhood in Raleigh, and occasional travels to Florida. I really take the time to make sure they are accurate. Even so, you have caught a few irregularities on my records – in some cases, they had to be corrected, in others, I had confirmation of the sighting. The effort to clean up the GBBC data must be truly overwhelming!

    Good luck with this mess. Perhaps all GBBC record can be flagged and that will help sort out the big bumps in the data for posterity.

  5. February 23, 2013 6:59 am

    My hat’s off to you! I receive eBird rare bird alerts daily & have been astounded at the wild reports. As one who has submitted my own erroneous reports, I bow to the wisdom of the elders who have patiently helped me to become a better birder. Thank you for the good work! Keep your head up & don’t stop treading the troubled waters.

  6. February 26, 2013 1:42 pm

    Life is pain Nate! Pain!

    Great soundtrack by the way.

  7. March 4, 2013 11:50 am

    Nice to see the internal workings of the ebird review process. In Central Texas for the GBBC, we had reports of Boat-tailed Grackle, Eurasian Wigeon, Whimbrel, Willet, etc. Pretty entertaining.

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