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My Epic eBird Project

July 22, 2011
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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.

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7 Comments
  1. July 22, 2011 9:24 am

    Great to see other people are doing this. I just entered a ton of historical records for central Pennsylvania with the help of a recently published book, “Birds of Central Pennsylvania” by Grove and Bolgiano. Boosted one of the county’s list almost up to 300 and helped to better show temporal distribution for a bunch of species. I am impressed you are reviewing all of NC though. Here in PA we have about 10 reviewers spread across the 67 counties.

  2. July 22, 2011 10:07 am

    Good luck and it is nice to see this being done. Wonder if anyone would do it for South Carolina as well.

  3. July 22, 2011 3:04 pm

    It’s good to see that someone is doing this. Future birders will appreciate your efforts (even if they don’t know who did it).

  4. out4trout permalink
    July 24, 2011 9:12 pm

    Nate,
    I live about 30 minutes from Winston Salem & I have been entering my birding data into ebird, though not as frequently as I should.

    If I can help you with some of the NC data let me know, I love NC and the great birding found here. I am currently transcribing NC bird data on cards to computer for the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, North American Bird Phenology Program.

    Just let me know if I can help.
    Brian

  5. Nate permalink*
    July 27, 2011 10:27 am

    @Drew- I think Pennsylvania has a larger eBird community than NC right now. That seems to be changing on NC’s front, but not so quickly. That said, at some point I do see my workload increasing to the point that I’ll need to split the state up.

    @Derek _ I’m doing it for NC because, as the reviewer, I’m not putting anyone else out by sending them dozens of flagged birds. But I do have permissions for SC, because I was a reviewer for a short time in the interim between the last one and the current one, so perhaps I could do it there too.

    @John- Thanks!

    @Brian- Very cool, with the Patuxent stuff. That will be enormously useful. If I end up needing help, I’ll keep you in mind!

  6. Dianne C. permalink
    August 2, 2011 7:50 pm

    That is a good idea. My little club has a Yahoo group where they sometimes report things. I could pull things off there and then send a summary report to the group maybe.
    A few years ago, I digitized over 20,000 records from Mildred White’s journals back to the mid 70’s and Dick Cannings uploaded them to eBird.ca. I have since figured out how to do that and uploaded my own few records, lol.
    The more there are the better more eBird will be used. Thx
    Dianne C.

  7. August 9, 2011 10:07 am

    Good luck Nate. Let me know if you decide to do SC and want some help.

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