How eBird Is Making Me a Better Birder

If you follow me on Twitter (and if you don’t, why don’t you?!), you may have noticed I’ve been tweeting about birds more than usual lately, and in particular I’ve been tweeting about eBird. So much so, in fact, that I almost typed it as #eBird in the subject line of this post.

I submitted my first-ever eBird checklist on September 23, and since then I’ve submitted a bunch more, all from walks I’ve taken around campus. It’s a little annoying to click on “My eBird” and have it tell me that my life list is a paltry 18 species – it’s really 560! – but that’s how many I’ve seen since I started submitting my records to their database. Although I’d been aware of eBird for years, what finally gave me the push I needed to start submitting data was my mom emailing me a link to a bird photo ID quiz they posted recently. Wait, even my mom knows about eBird? Maybe it’s time I started using this thing.

So I did, and something a little surprising happened.

Let me be clear: I’ve never stopped loving birds. Ask my parents what the first thing I did was at every national park we visited on our road trip last summer – I grabbed a copy of the official bird checklist. Birds were what turned me on to nature study, and I knew the names of all the birds in the neighborhood long before I knew the plants or bugs or what have you. But I’d gotten to a point where, unless I was in an area where I was especially likely to see new species or was tagging along on an Audubon club outing or something, I rarely just picked up my binoculars and went birding. Between when I moved here in July and last week, my binoculars probably hadn’t come out of their case more than twice.

Then came eBird.

Suddenly I had motivation to go out and look for birds – if I kept submitting checklists, not only was I contributing to citizen science, I was moving up in the rankings of top Vilas County birders! And if I wanted to submit the most useful best data possible, I had to have not just a list of species but counts of how many individuals of each species I’d seen. Remembering to count the birds I’m looking at has never been my strong suit. I can be a frustrating Christmas Bird Count companion – “Oh, that was a gorgeous flock of Black-throated Sparrows!” “Yeah? How many were there?” “Uh…” Well no more, I tell you, no more!

Another thing I have to do if I’m submitting a checklist is make a good faith effort to identify every bird I see. No more “Oh jeez, fall warblers, why even try.” Of course I already wrote about this at more length in my post about the warbler butt sketch, but it’s true, suddenly I’m training myself to pay attention to the little details that I might have missed. Oh, is that warbler hover-gleaning? What kind of tree is it in? Does it have an eye ring? Wing bars? …Wait, hang on, that’s just another butter-butt, isn’t it? Dang.

Yep, not only am I finally getting back in the habit of taking my binoculars with me when I go for walks in the woods, my birding skills are actually improving. Thank you eBird. Right now I’m #12 on the list of top contributors in my county – let’s see how long it takes me to become number one.

Are you keeping track of the birds you see and submitting the data to eBird? If not, why the heck not?

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8 thoughts on “How eBird Is Making Me a Better Birder”

  1. Actually I’m not on ebird – I saw the quiz on the AZ/NM bird list. But keeping lists of the birds we see sounds interesting, especially when we walk the lakes in the winter.

  2. An excellent account of your exploits once again, Rebecca. I list and like you, my BirdTrack database(english version of Ebird) also shows a list a fair bit below the reality. Birds are a big part of my life and I’m lucky enough to do professional bird surveying from time to time.

    Kind Regards

    Tony Powell

  3. I need a highly efficient, hands-free system for recording bird sightings. With two kids under two or a fly rod and kayak in tow, I don’t have time for notebooks, followed by data entry back home, etc. I’m a non-stop, 24-7-365 birder, but the drudgery of (unpaid) data recording and entry kills me. Suggestions? I’m sure there’s an smart phone app with voice recognition out there somewhere… If there is, I’ll buy a smart phone this week. Help!

    1. Hi Bread Walking, see Robert’s response below. I can’t really think of any solutions to your dilemma (though as Robert points out, the data entry for eBird is really easy). He makes a good point also that everyone enjoys birds differently – if eBird doesn’t work with the way you bird right now, don’t sweat it.

  4. @Bread Walking – I’ve longed for a voice recognition app for recording bird sightings for a long time – tied to GPS to indicate the location of the sighting, especially during road-trips. I think the technology is almost there and may be affordable in the near future.

    In the meantime, eBird data entry doesn’t take all that long. I’ve been using it for years now and my average checklist submittal time is probably around one minute. The non-monetary pay-off of eBird is excellent too – very nice management of your personal bird sightings, access to bird sightings around the world, maps that help us better understand bird migration patterns and more!

    But, not everyone enjoys keeping track of what they see as it kinda becomes work. Simply seeing and enjoying the birds is often enough. So, if that is the way you enjoy birds, that is just fine and don’t let anyone tell ya different.

  5. Rebecca:

    I concur completely with your observations about how you bird differently when you plan to submit to ebird. I consciously decided to use eBird as a tool to improve my birding, plotted out a route in my local patch and have been trying to bird it and submit my list to eBird at least once a week. A local bird diversity project but one that I can already see has improved my birding skills and habits by making me notice more. I am already plotting out a hyper-local checklist so I can spend more time observing and less time writing.

    Best of luck with your eBird efforts!

    Ed Furlong
    Evergreen, CO

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