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How eBird makes me a better birder

August 13, 2009

There’s unlikely to be any readers of this blog that aren’t already using eBird as a means to catalog their bird sightings. If there are, well, shame on you and get with the program, man. Not only is eBird doing an enormous bit of good for studies of bird population dynamics in a way that a hundred years of CBCs and GBBCs have only scratched at the surface of, but from a personal and completely selfish way, it’s turned into a pretty enjoyable time sink, oops, I mean time-saver.

I say this because ever since the baby was born I’ve been taking care to make a bird list on our evening walks around the neighborhood. Typically I get between 20 and 25 species on these nightly jaunts and I’ve really enjoyed watching the bar chart fill in with what looks for all the world like a legitimate bird abundance chart of the type I used to pour over on trips to NWRs when I was younger. I even find myself cutting over to a certain bird feed station at a certain corner that gets White-breasted Nuthatches or a specific open space where I can find Chipping Sparrows just so I’m sure to pick up extra species on those walks. Keeping these day lists gives meaning to every single little dicky bird that I run across on the walks. It’s fun.

From the time we began walking when Noah was born in mid-May, one of the most predictable species on our walks were the Chimney Swifts that congregated over the neighborhood pond in the evenings hawking insects. In June I’d typically find a half dozen or so. In July that number was augmented by that year’s fledged birds so that I’d have up to 15 Swifts cruising over the water and chattering on every walk. But come mid-July they were all gone. It took me a couple days to realize it, but the data in the eBird didn’t lie. I hadn’t seen a Swift in my neighborhood for about six walks in a row.

We birders are undeniably aware of the wonders of migration, those of us in the middle latitudes depend on it to make our birding year, but often it sneaks up on us. And by the time we’re fully aware of moving birds, actual migration has been going on for weeks, if not months. It’s likely my swifts haven’t gone just yet, they probably joined up with any number of other local neighborhood swifts to stage at one of those old abandoned factory smokestacks in downtown Durham until critical mass is reached and they vamoose to South America en masse. But without the daily tick of my neighborhood list I wouldn’t have given it much thought until long after every swift was gone.

But thanks to eBird, now I know. And I’m a better more observant birder for it.

  1. corey permalink
    August 13, 2009 9:03 am

    Preach on, Swick, preach on!

  2. Michiel permalink
    August 13, 2009 10:12 am

    Hehe, I think it's fun to read your Blog even though I have the faintest idea what all this birding is about. Your passionate (and slightly obsessive) way of writing about your birding stuff actually makes it kind of cool.
    Come to think of it, it's always cool to have something to be passionate about, no mather what. I guess I'll stick to football (soccer) though…

  3. Nate permalink
    August 13, 2009 10:44 am

    @Corey- You know it! Incidentally, if you have the lists from the SuperBowl of Birding, would you mind sharing them with me? My notes from those days are far too sparse.

    @Michiel- That's nice to hear! I did a good job hiding my bird nerd-ness in Sweden, that was during a time when I wasn't doing much birdwatching in general. When I think back I wish I'd been paying more attention.

  4. corey permalink
    August 13, 2009 10:59 am

    Nate: Just tell me your eBird handle and I will share them with you directly on eBird.

  5. Nate permalink
    August 13, 2009 11:02 am

    @corey – It's naswick

  6. John permalink
    August 13, 2009 4:41 pm

    It definitely makes local birding more interesting. This summer I've been trying to fill in the one-week gaps on the bar charts for my home and local park.

  7. corey permalink
    August 13, 2009 10:44 pm

    @Nate: Done.

  8. Jochen permalink
    August 14, 2009 6:22 am

    There apparently is a desire amongst birders to have a "perfect" and "complete" statistics for their local patch (includes me). Could this tell us something about our motivation to bird in the first place?
    Are there differences between the percentages of male and female birders using eBird?

  9. Nate permalink
    August 14, 2009 8:27 am

    @John- I do the same thing. It's given the doldrums of summer bird a purpose.

    @Corey- Thanks! You just increased my year list by about 30%.

    @Jochen- There's certainly a collector's ethos among birders, and as long as we keep it in check I think it's a positive thing. The drive to find something new is important in birding, I see this as an offshoot of that. It's still new even if it's new for the second week of July or something equally mundane.

    As an eBird reviewer I've definitely fielded more responses from men than women, but I think it's a function of the regular sex ratio of birding more than any eBird specific thing. There are some big time woman eBirders in NC, at least.

  10. Jochen permalink
    August 14, 2009 8:59 am

    @ Nate: I asked about the sex ratio as I would guess the collector's ethos is predominantly a male domain. It seems women – in general and with many exceptions of course – tend to go birding for other reasons. At least this is my impression.

  11. Nate permalink
    August 14, 2009 9:22 am

    @Jochen- It's a good question, looking at the top 100 eBirders in my state 4 out of the top 10 are women, but only 5 out of the top 20, so take that as you will. I think that is fairly representative of birders as a whole if you think of eBirders as those who are generally pretty serious about birding.

  12. Wren permalink
    August 15, 2009 12:50 pm

    Nate, you're giving me an incentive to do this. Kathie (Sycamore Canyon) is an ebirder par excellence, and inspired me to set up an account while we were at the New River Festival together.

    I haven't used it much because so much of my birding is right here in my backyard, and I didn't see those records as that important to any one else. At the same time I've always wanted to keep yard records so I'd know (for example) when the blackbirds typically arrive and when they leave. Thanks for inspiring me to use eBird for both, and hopefully to be more diligent about recording observations at all.

  13. Nate permalink
    August 15, 2009 1:52 pm

    @Wren- Glad to hear it! I've found my neighborhood list to be as interesting as any I've done because in the past I was only really compelled to pay attention to the neighborhood in as much as I could find a new yard bird. Those occurrences are few and far between anymore, but being more attentive to the comings and going of my regular birds has been really rewarding in the meantime.

    Incidentally, my Grackles and Cowbirds left about a week earlier than the Swifts.

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