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eBird and the changing face of ornithological journals

March 2, 2012
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I’ve written a bit in the past on my looooong term project to enter the last 30 years of notable records from The Chat, the quarterly ornithological journal of the Carolinas, into eBird.  It’s been slowish going, as you might expect, there are loads of records and I’m only one man, but It’s been fascinating to take on.  Not only am I getting the sort of first hand information on the status and distribution of birds in my state over the last three decades, but I’m getting a real sense of how the job of editor of the records, called “Briefs for the Files” down here, has changed with the sort of information they’ve been given.

The Carolinas have had but three compilers in the last 30 years, so change is slow when it does occur.  Even so, the most difficult part of this project for me thus far involves the tracking down of birding hotspots from 30 years ago that may or may not be en vogue, or even present, in the 2010s.  More ciritically, the level of specificity from those older records is significantly less than what we eBirders are used to in this day and age, likely due to the old-fashioned snail mail and telephone way those records used to be compiled.  Often times I’m left with little more information than broad information about hotspots, particularly bodies of water, or worse, only the county or a nearby town.  In an eastern state with small counties this isn’t so much of a problem, but even so, the lack of precision is more annoying than anything.

For those of us well-eBirded up, it’s nothing to head into the database and pull out those remarkable maps that show where and when nearly every bird reported to an individual state has been reported.  It’s one thing to hear that North Carolina’s one record of Masked Duck comes from Craven County, it’s quite another to look at the map and see the network of pocosin lakes in the middle of nowhere where the bird was discovered, along with the records from the turn of the 20th Century in Massachusetts and Delaware, and marvel at the luck of that one fortunate birder who flushed it.  That’s the wonder of eBird.  But without specificity, without seeing the precise site where that bird turned up, the record, though important, just isn’t as fantastic.

The question of whether to include those species noted at the county level is one that has vexed eBird reviewers since the beginning, and there are no shortage of discussions among those tasked with keeping the data straight about this very topic.  The issue is covered differently across the eBird world, and with particular strictness in the big states out west, but I generally accept them in North Carolina barring extenuating circumstances.  For instance, entering pelagic species, and occasionally coastal species, on the county level is an instant trip to invalidation town.  I once had to invalidate one of the few records of Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel in North America because it was entered as “Dare County”, which places the stickpin in the middle of Pamlico Sound, a few hundred miles from the Gulf Stream where the bird was originally discovered.  I’ve since entered the sighting correctly, but it’s rough to have to let go of a real sighting by a real person to replace it with a dummy account.  But I digress.

The current compiler of ornithological records for The Chat is a younger guy, not as enamored with eBird as yours truly but respectful of its increasing importance in the world of record keeping.  The birds reported are done so fairly specifically and often include the county, perhaps a nod to the increasing interest in county listing among many of the younger birders in the state.  Whether or not this is the way things are going elsewhere, I suppose I can’t comment, but it’s nice to see a clear, if subtle, change in the way birds are reported, though you may need to read several years of sightings, as I’ve found myself doing, to really see it.  I don’t know if eBird is the impetus, but it seems too coincidental that the change occurred in the years since eBird has made it push into the greater birding consciousness.

Have birders in other states seen a similar change?

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