Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My 2012 eBird Challenge!

I've got a challenge for all you birders out there that involves nothing more than you, your binoculars, your favorite field guide, and eBird.

This Hairy Woodpecker is listening...

What is this eBird thing, you ask. Let’s allow the folks at eBird themselves to answer:

“A real-time, online checklist program, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

Some ducks from my life list. A life list is like a collection of awesome memories, isn't it?

Reduced to its most basic utility, eBird is a fun and convenient way to maintain your personal birding lists. Your life list, year lists, month lists, and numerous geographic lists are there for your perusal and updated automatically every time you enter a bird sighting. Have you seen more birds in Comnache County, Oklahoma or Grand Isle County, Vermont? eBird can tell you in a second, as well as every sighting you’ve ever had at specific locations in those counties.

My county lists. County birding is soooo much easier with eBird.

That can be a lot of fun, but it’s also a treat to use eBird to help locate birds. Let’s say you find yourself in southern Arizona in September of 2011 and you want to add a Lucy’s Warbler to your life list. Have any been seen in the area this month, and if so, where? A quick check of eBird reveals the answers.

Lucy's Warbler sightings in south-central Arizona in September 2011. (eBird screen shot)

If all of that isn’t enough, consider that every sighting you enter at eBird is a contribution to science. Ornithologists use the data collected there for myriad reasons, not the least of which could be in studies to determine migration and nesting patterns and the need to protect vulnerable habitat. It’s one of the finest examples of citizen science you can find. If you’re a birder, you are a citizen and a scientist already, you know.

Happy Scientist.

Consider this: You’re on a leisurely sea kayak trip on an early fall day. You’ve paddled out to False Cape State Park in Virginia and put-in for lunch on the barrier island’s beach. There you spot a pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. No other humans are in sight. You are now the sole possessor of some data. The species of bird, number of individuals, precise location, and time and date of appearance are all data that you, and only you, possess. Feeling some responsibility to share this newfound treasure? You should be! When those data are entered at eBird along with all the other sightings of Buff-breasted Sanpipers for the fall, a picture (literally!) of that species’ fall migration appears. Your sighting alone may seem insignificant, and it’s true that the vast majority of bird observation data are not very valuable in a vacuum. But combine those with millions of other records and the existing data become stronger and stronger with every new entry.

"Here's what I want you to do..."

So, here’s my challenge to you. If you haven’t signed up at eBird or haven’t used it much, I’d like you to become an active user and try to enter at least 365 checklists in 2012. But that’s a checklist for every day of the year, you cry! Yes, but it’s not as difficult as you’d think. (For one thing, there are 366 days in 2012, so it’s not even one per day, but that’s splitting hairs.) With jobs and kids and life and weather it’s impossible to go birding every single day of the year. But 365 checklists doesn’t mean 365 days. I entered twelve checklists for one 6-hour birding trip in November this year. These aren’t day lists, but rather checklists of sightings at fairly specific locations for relatively short periods of time.

Here are some tricks to easily get to 365.

One way is to enter Sunday yard birds. Spend 15 minutes counting birds in your yard every Sunday morning. Who doesn’t love relaxing like that? And with virtually no effort, you have 52 checklists for the year without leaving the house.

Birding doesn't have to be an adventure every time.
aka Gratuitous Angelina Jolie picture to generate blog visits.

You also have to start appreciating, and recording the seemingly mundane lists. Do you pass a pond on the way to work every morning? On most mornings does it have a few Mallards and a Great Blue Heron? In most of the country that would be something to yawn at. At eBird, that’s valuable information. Stop for five minutes, see what else you see, and enter the list! Who cares if the ducks and heron are all that’s on the list? Those are data that serve to make the entire body of data more valuable. A five or ten minute observation is all it takes. Two hundred of those counts may total about 20 hours of your entire year.  Is 20 hours spent watching birds in nature all that bad?

Common as dirt...and you should count 'em and list 'em!

And now you only need about a hundred more lists to hit the goal. If you go out actually birding once a week, and enter an average of two checklists for a morning bird walk, you’re going to hit the goal. If you take a weekend drive, ten lists in a day isn’t uncommon.

And we haven’t even added in the incidental sightings while driving or looking out the window of a restaurant. We birders like to say that we’re always birding, at least while awake. If that’s the case, 365 lists at eBird in 2012 should be a piece of cake.

Do it for the ornithologists. Do it for you. But most importantly, do it for the birds. Are you up for this challenge?

Comment below and let me know if you're in!


  1. I am up for the challenge and already do it! Nice to meet another passionate eBirder! I've been one since January of 2007! and as soon as the sun rises i will be out counting birds on this first day of 2012! Happy New Year!

  2. @Kathiesbirds The sun never rose in Northern Michigan - more of an ice storm - but I'm yard-birding anyway. I just looked at your blog from Sycamore Canyon and realized how desperately I need to get to AZ. So many lifers waiting for me...and some of my favorite plant communities as well.

  3. I think that regular checklists submitted covering a specific area, whether you see many birds or not, is probably more scientifically valid than using eBird to keep track of your life-lists.

    I am trying to incorporate this idea into my everyday birding experiences.

  4. For sure. It's no secret the nifty life list feature is just a lure that Cornell/Audubon uses to get more people involved in reporting birds. I can't stress enough how important it is to enter lists that aren't exciting. I think I have a list from last week that was one American Crow.

  5. I started using eBird only for the life list featue, too. Now I am mainly trying to get to 1000 complete checklists in a year - that's my eBird challenge!

  6. 1000 is awesome. I'm at 325 half way through the year. Should get 500 easy. Next year, 1000!

  7. To get rare bird alerts from e-Bird, check out RareBirder at: