My Epic eBird Project
As much as I love eBird, and as much as I depend on it to keep track of my personal records and to find certain species I want to see nearby, I’ve been disappointed with the dearth of historical data in North Carolina. That’s not a slight to eBird, which is uniquely capable of taking that information and turning it into something really useful to the bird community, but relative frustration with the fact that there’s an enormous amount of bird distribution and abundance data just sitting out there, waiting to be used for something more than personal record-keeping and nostalgia. In a nutshell, that’s the entire point of eBird, to take that data that’s sitting in excel files, and Avisys accounts and notebooks around the world and get it in a place where it can do some good (as well as be a pretty swanky way to manage your records).
This was especially true in North Carolina. I’ve got some great and dedicated eBirders in the state, especially in the Triangle, but I’ve yet to convince enough people in the state to really go all-in to get that historical data that has the potential to make eBird so great. Also, as the reviewer for the state I feel a sort of ownership of the site and the data therein. I really want the eBird data, particularly state and county lists, to be as accurate as they possibly can be. I know there’s some work that needs to be done for eBird, but I’m fortunate in that some great folks in the state ornithological society, the Carolina Bird Club, have made an effort to catalog those rare bird reports on the CBC site. Kent Fiala, webmaster for the CBC and the editor of the quarterly journal, The Chat, has collected the Briefs for the Files, the section of the journal where notable sightings are listed, in a searchable database online. It’s a great tool, and one I use regularly, but for the longest time I was frustrated that this data was likely never going to get into eBird where it could do some good. Until I just decided to do it myself.
So I created a dummy account, one with the Carolina Bird Club’s name, and started entering all the sightings from the Briefs directly into eBird. I enter everything as an one species checklist as an incidental observation, and I’m sure to relate all the information available to me in the record. This means the issue of The Chat that the record was reported in, as well as the observers – multiple if need be – that found the bird. I enter them one after another, slowly working my way to the present, and I get a lot of records like the one below.
If the bird in question has already been entered into eBird by the original reporter, I don’t enter it. I’d much rather have the actual individual’s record in the database, but for the time being this has been a means by which I can get those historical records in place. And thus, the eBird data for the state is that much more accurate.
Now there are a couple disclaimers here as well. First, I mentioned I’m the eBird reviewer for the state. I don’t think I would have tried this had I not already had control. There are lots of records, and since they’re all from the ornithological journal, the vast majority of them are flagged records. It’s nothing for me to go into my cue of flagged eBird records and blanket approve these records. I know they’re coming and I know when they’re coming. I’d hate to be caught unawares by 75 Common Merganser records over a period of 30 years.
Second, I’d much rather have the original reporter entering their own data into eBird. It seems to me, however, that this is a fairly unrealistic goal. On the occasion that is does happen, however, I do go in and delete the CBC-Chat record. Yet another reason why I wouldn’t do this unless I was the eBird reviewer, as I’m made aware when those historic records come in and can easily remove duplicates.
It’s an imperfect solution, but I’d much rather have those records in eBird in some capacity than to see them sitting unused. I wish I’d realized the sort of commitment this has turned out to be, however. I’ve been working for about 10 months as I have time, and I’m only just to the end of the ducks. The new data entry protocol that ebird has introduced has made this process inordinately faster, which is great, but it’s still going to be a long hard slog to get the data in. The payoff will be worth it, however, when I can look to eBird as an accurate representation of North Carolina’s bird records. And I figure that will happen some time in 2035.