If you want to learn about the natural history of a place, there are several traditional sources of knowledge: individual local experts, more or less formal classes and guided walks, books and printed field guides of varying geographic precision, and the hard-earned knowledge of patient experience. If you are particular interested in birds and live in the present day, however, you have the fortunate advantage of a resource called eBird.
eBird is a website and citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which collects bird sightings by private individuals all over the world and renders them into a form which is both useful for science and endlessly fascinating for birders. This latter trait is not a mere pleasant peripheral bonus, but the key to eBird’s success: with every step the developers take to make the information more useful and appealing to birders, they increase the amount of data that those birders submit to the platform. And in our area, that data is significant and constantly expanding: numerous observations are submitted every day in Marin County and popular hotspots like the Las Gallinas Ponds have upwards of 3400 submitted checklists.
Now, I’m a big fan of traditional immersive nature experience, which contains a lot that can’t be reduced to a list of bird species and abundance. It is possible to get excessively caught-up in “listing” and forget to slow down and savor the unlistable. But eBird is an undeniably powerful tool that can democratize formerly arcane knowledge, meaningfully contribute to our overall understanding of bird populations, and get people more excited about looking at birds—and spending more time doing so.
So, with those enticing propositions established, how can you use eBird to learn more about the birds of Novato, Marin, or wherever you may be? Here are five of my favorite eBird techniques:
- Find local hotspots: Some good places to look for birds are obvious, such as state parks and county open space preserves. We chronicle several of the most notable on this blog. But there are many more potentially rich locations in our area and eBird’s “Hotspot” concept is one of the best ways to find them. Simply go to the Hotspots Map, type in “Novato” or any other place in the location field, and you’ll presented with a rich swathe of potential places to explore. Click any of the location markers (the redder the hotter) to quickly jump to the profile page for each hotspot where you can see recent sightings or a calendar year bar chart for a more complete picture of the birds found in a given location. Note that hotspots are constantly being added and some hotspots are still early in their careers—you can help fill out the data for your favorite local trail or preserve.
- See recent sightings: Once of the huge advantages of eBird over printed resources is that it is updated in real time. Submitted checklists are made publicly available each day (they remain editable by the user in case correction is needed). The most recent data can be explored in a couple of ways.
Were you thinking of going down to the Las Gallinas? Go to their Hotspot Page, click “Recent Visits” and you can see what people have been seeing this week, yesterday, or this morning.
Maybe you just want to know if anything interesting has been popping up in the county or at other non-hotspots in our area. Go to the Explore a Region homepage, enter Marin, and click that same “Recent Visits” tab for a list of recent checklists and their locations.
- Understand trends: If you want to develop a broader understanding of when migratory birds arrive or depart from our area, rather than just coasting along on the steady hits of “what is here right now,” then eBird’s ability to generate bar charts for a county, hotspot, or personal collection of locations is one of the site’s most useful tools. From a County Overview or Hotspot Overview, simply click “Bar Charts” to immediately generate a bar chart for the designated geographical zone. Or go the special Bar Charts section to generate a custom chart—perhaps comprised of multiple Bay Area counties, or of a selection of five of your favorite local hotspots. (Note that the bar charts will function best if you choose areas that have many submitted checklists—some new hotspots don’t have enough data yet and will have grayed out sections where insufficient data exists.)
- Focus on a particular species: Another way of using eBird is to find a particular bird you would like to see. Never seen a varied thrush, our elusive winter forest robin? Simply type its name into the Species Map, zoom in to your desired geographic area, and watch as the little dots of recorded sightings appear, with recent sightings highlighted in red.
- Reveal the gaps in your experience: Once you create an account and start submitting your own sightings (easiest done with the smartphone app in the field as you go, or easily recreated later on a computer from field notes), you will be able to sift through the vast webs of data in more personally relevant ways. For the real rare bird hunters, eBird has an Alerts feature to notify you when birds that are either locally unusual or just not on your personal lists appear in your designated county or counties. If you’re simply interested in seeing which of the normal birdlife of our region you have not yet encountered, you can use the Target Species tool to generate a list of birds that you haven’t seen in the county or state, ranked according to their abundance on local checklists and optionally limitable to certain months of the year (i.e. “show me the winter birds I haven’t seen yet”). This list is seamlessly integrated with the Species Map so you can instantly jump to the map of recent and historical sightings and find out if your personal “unseen species” have really been lurking around the corner of your hometown all along.
I have to admit that I’m a recent convert to eBird—I started using the platform at the beginning of the 2018 in conjunction with my Thoreauvian Big Year. But after initial skepticism about technologifying my nature time, I have come to accept that judicious doses of big bird data can indeed enrich my understanding of birds even on the small and local level. Adding to your eBird lists and sharing with others is not necessarily the deepest of interactions with the natural world, and has some levels of instant gratification and gamification, but it’s a more or less harmless game that promotes learning, sharing of knowledge, a less destructive form of collection than old-fashioned trophy hunting or modern material accumulation, and which gives an added impetus to get outside, explore the unexplored corners of your world, and re-explore your most familiar haunts deeply and repeatedly.