A few thoughts on using eBird (for people who've never used eBird)

Some years back I was looking to add a Black Tern to my life list. So I posted a question to the old Illinois Birders Forum, a listserv of hardcore birders. The forum wasn’t a place for the faint of heart. Common identification questions were met with acerbic responses, or even outright derision. It was no place for beginners, and an intermediate like me had to tread carefully to come off as unsure of myself. 

My wife had just given birth to our second daughter, and we had spent many of the previous months indoors. We thought a quest to find a state-listed bird species might be fun, and perhaps 4-month-old Celeste would nap through most of the ride. The odds of me finding a tern on my own were slim, though, so I decided to submit a question to the forum and braced for the response.

“Go check eBird,” someone replied abruptly. 

OK…..I thought to myself, but eBird—an online database of sightings and their locations—can’t tell you everything when you may be searching a large tract. And with a 4-month-old in tow, we were going to need to be efficient. 

I’m pretty sure someone on the forum eventually gave me precise coordinates for the terns. We made our way to Lake County and found these striking, swallow-like terns without too much trouble. 

But aside from the snappy initial response, let’s talk about eBird for a minute and how to use it effectively. Because the commenter wasn’t completely wrong, indeed I could have checked eBird.

First, what is eBird? This Outside Magazine piece does a good job describing it as a “Strava-Yelp-Pokemon Go” for birders. At its core, eBird is a database that lets users upload their sightings and view others' sightings, too. It’s also an app that allows for live list tracking, essentially acting as a digital checklist. It's a powerful tool and of great benefit to science also. 

If finding a cool bird is your goal, though, eBird isn’t going to tell you everything. Countless times, more often than not, I go to an eBird location for a target bird and don’t find it. If you have say a 1,000-acre park or preserve, finding one bird can be like the proverbial needle in a haystack. Local knowledge, or having an inside source, are going to be crucial. And yes, you could ask a question on a message board and someone may provide a kind response. 

There are other criticisms of eBird—it draws crowds to birds, it adds to a competitive streak, it can be used by ne’er-do-wells who may harass birds. But there’s no doubt it’s a useful tool and has transformed birding. So here are a few tips. Note: there are many, many people who love birds and aren't on eBird, and that is fine, too.

1. It's the handiest tool available to find places to bird (despite the episode described above). If you want to look at an entire county to see what's hopping, choose region, then enter the county name. Once you're there, click 'Hotspots' on the upper right and you'll see the top hotspots in the county.

Go to the eBird website at www.eBird.org. Click Explore at the top left of the page.  Then click ‘Explore Hotspots’ if you'd like to look up a single place. From there, enter the hotspot name and select it. Click on the spot and press View Details to see recent lists.

2. It's also the handiest tool available for finding a particular bird species. This does require a username and password. Again, Click Explore at the top left of the page. Then enter the species name in Explore Species. This will pull up a Range Map. Click ‘Large Map’ and then zoom in as far you can for sightings. Click on the red markers to show recent sightings at a location.

3. All the traditional birding skills still apply. The app can’t find birds for you. When you arrive at a location it will still be necessary to practice all of the typical skills of identification, from looking and listening, to thinking about seasonality and range. And if you see another birder, asking a question or two may be well worth it (more on that below).

4. Get gloves with touch-screen sensitivity. This comes very handy on cold days like today when you’re keeping a live eBird list in the field. Mittens with finger gloves can work well, too.

Last, once you get more familiar with an eBird hotspot, you'll start to see the same names over and over, exploring the same haunts that you do. Then you might actually meet in the field and make an instant friendship.

In summary, eBird is a tool that is really not that difficult to use in most situations. Further, its benefit to science—all the sightings are tracked by Cornell Lab of Ornithology—makes it truly worthwhile. Even if it elicits a cranky comment or two.

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