How do I eBird?

Eurasian Skylark on the Pendle Hill, Lancashire. © Gyorgy Szimuly

I have read and heard much feedback about how people use eBird and their everyday birding was adjusted to this exceptional tool. So I thought, I sum my experiences up with a little wishlist at the end. I’m sure I don’t utilise the full power of all features, but it is partly due to annoyances and those being out of interest for me at the moment.

In the late 80s and early 90s, I was lucky to work for the Bird Monitoring Centre of BirdLife Hungary where I was part of the team to set up the monitoring of common birds. We call it MMM. It gave me a much better understanding and pros & cons of different avian monitoring methods what I adopted it in my everyday birding. Ever since I have started birding, I have always been methodological in the field. My mentor always reminded me to produce data what can be useful for future purposes.

Counting

Since my early years, I counted birds as precisely as it is possible in the field in a variety of circumstances. If I could, and most of the times I could, I make individual counts, so the figures are 100% precise. For mass bird community estimates, I use the classic counts of fives or tens or hundreds. At my former local patch, we often played the estimation challenge for wild geese. 20-30 or even 40 thousand wild geese have been using the Old Lake of Tata, Hungary every winter, allowing us good opportunity to practise. My numbers were often matching with or very close to my dear friend’s counts/estimations. eBird has excellent guidance about different counting techniques here and here.

A network of my personal locations around my town. Over the time, some of them are transferred to be an eBird Hotspot.

Loop Trails

Since eBird introduced the trail tracking system, it became pointless to calculate the size of the area you cover. There are two ways for me to use this tracking tool. A loop trail is when I walk around an area, typically a lake or a forest trail and count all birds I hear or see along the path. I arrive at the same spot where I started. My rule is to count everything inside the loop (if the area is open enough) and birds within 250 meters on the outer side of the loop. Based on the literature, 95% of all birds can be detected within 125 meters, so a 250 meters wide buffer makes it 100%. It is also important to keep it in mind that your eBird marker is for a certain area. If, for example, a buzzard flies a kilometre away from my location, I cannot add it to my checklist. It is flying over is a completely different and irrelevan area. During counting waterbirds at a lake, I always use the above-described method for all the birds (typically songbirds) detected along the path/trail.

The Willen Lake (North), Milton Keynes is one of my popular loop trails.

Line transect method

This is one of my favourite and most used counting methods. I apply the same rule for including birds, as I described in the loop trails paragraph. I do a lot of birding along low-traffic or single track roads in rural England. These are functioning as any other paths. Due to the low disturbance, birds are relatively showy nearby the roads and easily detectable. Birds outside the 250-meter inclusive zone on either side of the road are excluded. I either use my car with all windows down (regardless of the weather), or I walk. I try to limit the length of the line transect to 2 miles, but typically it is under 2 miles or less. If there is a junction or a sharp bend, a landmark or building, I start a new section. In my opinion, the shorter the trail length is better. I have seen many checklists on eBird with trip length as long as 150 km. These data are more or less useless and imprecise. I’m hoping I can afford an electric car soon so my birding will be much much more sustainable, although I do a lot of mileage with engine off. The only disadvantage of this method is that it is relatively fast, but the data remains comparable. My average speed is approximately double the pace of walking (low gear 1 or 2, no throttle used).

This is a simple line transect trail on a single track road.

Point counts

I have just recently started setting up a local project of monitoring bird communities using the UTM grid system. I started adding those counting spots to eBird. It is a 1×1 km grid system over an area. I record all birds within 50 meters to the spot for 5 minutes, but birds between 50 and 125 meters are also noted. This sampling method is often used in scientific projects.

What I don’t use in eBird

I stopped using the rare bird alert in the UK as some eBirders are invading these alerts with domesticated non-native birds (like Snow Goose in the St James Park in London). These set of data on a daily basis take away the focus from the real rarities. These are just one of those unimportant annoyances. Simply because I could not figure out how to set up my missing species for the year or an area, I don’t use this alert tool in the app neither. I need to take a closer look at it to figure out how to get notified for a good species when I visit a potential area (e.g. Northern Goshawk, what I have never managed to see in the UK).

X’ is a no-no

Okay, I have to admit, I have some X in my historical checklists. In the early days of travelling to different countries, I did not always count birds due to the lack of time or whatever reasons. In my regular local patch birding, I never use X. As I see, X is often used by listers, and apart of telling us the presence of a bird, it provides no more information whatsoever. I cannot repeat myself enough times that even misjudged (over or underestimated) numbers are better than the X.

Wishlist

The Cornell Lab Of Ornithology and the eBird Team has made an outstanding work making this app available for everyone for free. From the top of my head, I cannot list a thing to change (maybe just the subspecies naming). If I could wish one thing is to turn this into the ultimate birding social media platform. It is impossible to connect with eBirders as most of them provide no email address or other ways to reach out. Even as little as having a Contact me button in the eBirder’s profile would be amazing.

I’d love to hear about your feedback, opinion about this post. You might have a different opinion, so please share it with me below.

Literature used

J. M. Scott, Fred L. Ramsey and Cameron B Kepler (1981) Distance estimation as a variable in estimating bird numbers from vocalisations, Studies in Avian Biology, No 6, 334–340.

R. J. Fuller & D. R. Langslow (1984) Estimating numbers of birds by point counts: how long should counts last?, Bird Study, 31:3, 195-202, DOI: 10.1080/00063658409476841

C. John Ralph, Sam Droege, and John R. Sauer (1995) Managing and monitoring birds using point counts: Standards and applications, USDA Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-149.

Colin J. Bibby, Neil D. Burgess, David A. Hill. (2012) Bird Census Techniques, Second Edition. Academic Press, pp257.

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