October 24, 2018
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How many experienced birders are tracking bird sightings these days?

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
A female Northern Cardinal and Tufted Titmouse

I thought growing older would take longer. I find that I am ill-equipped to function in the modern world, in that I can’t type with my thumbs and I don’t own any electronic devices that start with an ‘i.’ So I am already dreading my New Year’s resolution. This will be the year I commit to using eBird.

I made the same resolution last year.

Many experienced birders now rely on eBird, a program that allows users to keep track of their personal bird sightings online. The checklists are also aggregated into a grand database that lets biologists track the international distribution and wandering of birds. Developed jointly by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, it has proved to be one of the most valuable biodiversity data resources on the planet. Check it out at www.ebird.org.

For birders who record their sightings, eBird is becoming practically indispensable. At present, I keep my personal checklists in an old spreadsheet. I’m just one hard drive crash away from oblivion. Still, that’s better than my old list-keeping system, when I just checked off my new sightings in an old field guide. That sufficed until Sept. 6, 2004, when my dear wife accidentally left my book on a beach in Washington State. Lists entered into eBird are backed up, safe and protected. Your list can be updated from anywhere, anytime.

Traveling birders can research recent sightings to plan their vacations, learning what birds have been seen where. In fact, I’m using eBird to plan a distant adventure sometime in the New Year. Professional hint: it’s easier to find birds if you already know where they are.

I’ve tried all the excuses for not using eBird. Foremost, I never wanted to take the time to enter sightings. I was especially reluctant when guiding a group or leading a walk, because I didn’t want distraction from the main task. Nor did I want to spend time entering data in the evening, when a hot shower and cold beer were more enticing. Furthermore, much of my birding is done in the northern part of Maine, where access to WiFi and cell phone service is a challenge.

Unfortunately, eBird updates have rendered my excuses useless. There is now a free smartphone app that allows me to enter my birds offline as I go, and stores the info until I’m back in civilization. The app uses my phone’s GPS function to automatically keep track of where I am, even if I’m deep in the woods. If I mistakenly enter an unlikely bird, eBird politely questions the sighting. I tried it over the holidays, and eBird questioned my report that I had seen 80 pine siskins around Moosehead Lake. “Really? 80?” eBird prodded.

Yes, really. Which should be fun, because eBird has built-in quality control measures that give a panel of Maine experts the chance to review flagged sightings, just to reduce the possibility of questionable data being entered into the national database. Naturally, I know the reviewers and they know me. They likely go beyond questioning my identifications, and question my sanity. A ton of evidence supports them on this.

The amount of cool information eBird puts at your fingertips is daunting at first. You can explore regions, research hot spots, and investigate range maps for target species. You can look at bar charts that show when species are likely to be present, and when they have vamoosed to the tropics. For many, the best feature is the ability to carve out personal space with your own My eBird portal. It automatically keeps track of your birding fun, creating lists of your sightings in any form you wish. Try leaving that on a west coast beach!

My New Year’s eBird resolution is also being forced on me by circumstances. We’re about to launch an update of the Maine bird atlas, a comprehensive map of where the birds are statewide. Professionals and volunteers will scour the state over the next few years, and all the data will be compiled using eBird. I’m not only a volunteer spotter, I’m a regional coordinator, assigned to assist birders in the Moosehead area. I’d better get used to eBird now.

In future columns, I’ll explain more about this project, but there’s no need to wait. Maine Audubon’s staff naturalist, Doug Hitchcox, will spill the beans in a Friday night program at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden at 7 p.m. on Jan. 19.

Maybe he can explain eBird to me, too … again.

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