Birding In The National Parks: Gleaning The Benefits Of eBird's New Features

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eBird's new Hotspot Explorer make it easy to plan birding excursions.

It’s been a while since I’ve used this space to tout the benefits of eBird, but the project keeps getting better and better, so it deserves another mention.

eBird is the result of a collaboration between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. At its most basic level, eBird serves as cloud storage for your personal birding records. Beneath the surface, it’s a whole lot more than just a listing service.

Anyone can sign up for an eBird account. It’s free and simple. Once you have an account, you can begin entering checklists. Each checklist is a list of the species of birds seen and the number of each in a particular place at a specified time. The program will ask you where you birded (you can find the location a map), how long you birded, and whether you were stationary or traveling. It’s that easy.

As you build a collection of checklists, eBird lets you know how many birds you’ve seen in your lifetime as well as breakdowns by year, county, state, country, and region. You can also select a species and be shown every occasion on which you’ve seen that bird.

That’s all wonderful for personal record-keeping, but the greatest value of eBird is that these data are collected from thousands of users worldwide and compiled into a single database that is accessible by anyone. That means I can use it to plan the best spots to visit on my next trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and a National Park Service biologist can use it to assess timing of migration at Death Valley National Park. Every month that goes by sees more scientific research making use of data gleaned from eBird.

Trip Planning

With eBird’s new “Hotspot Explorer” feature, planning the birding days of a trip has become a lot easier and loads more fun. I can set the explorer to the month of August for the past ten years and zoom in on the hotspots in Rocky Mountain National Park. This tells me that the Bear Lake area is one of the most productive spots in August, with 68 species. If I switch the search to September, I see about half that many species being reported from Bear Lake. Looks like August is a good time to go!

Once I’m settled on August, I can view bar charts showing me all of the birds I’m likely to see in August at Bear Lake as well as how numerous they are and what other times of year they might be present.

Finally, I can view all of the details about the Bear Lake hotspot, including who’s been seeing what on recent visits. Not being a local birder, I don’t know most of the birders’ names, but sometimes I find names of some of my fellow Michigan birders on the hotspot lists from obscure places around the world. We birders do tend to get around!

I see that a birder named Jan Allen found a Clark’s Nutcracker at Bear Lake early last week. That would be good to know if Clark’s Nutcracker was on my wanted list (it is) and I were in Colorado (sadly, I’m not).

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This feature of eBird lets you know which species turn out in a particular locale in a particular month.

Citizen Science

As if the value of the list keeping and trip planning weren’t enough, you get to be a part of ornithological research every time you enter your sightings at eBird. Here’s a way of thinking of the value of a bird sighting:

You’re hiking and birding by yourself on a beautiful August morning near Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. Stopping at a stream, you catch sight of an American Dipper splashing in the water, then disappearing over the rocks. Not another person is in sight. Having seen that bird, you are now in sole possession of some data. You know the species of the bird and its location at a given time. No other human being has those data, and no one ever will if you don’t share them. With the simple act of entering that bird sighting at eBird, those data are now available to the world. That includes researchers studying the distribution of dippers and vacationing birders hoping to add a dipper to their list.

You can even make the whole process simpler by using the BirdLog app for your mobile device. BirdLog is the exclusive app partnered with eBird that allows data entry from the field. Your phone’s GPS can mark the precise location, and all you need to do it tap “American Dipper” on the checklist and send that sighting to Cornell.

Regardless of skill level, your contributions will make the eBird database stronger and more useful than ever. Volunteer reviewers check any sightings that the program flags as being unusual. The reviewers can ask for more information or a photo from the birder to confirm the identification. If the ID doesn’t hold up to the reviewer’s scrutiny, that particular sighting can be hidden from the database output, but it will still remain on your personal lists. With those checks in place, even a novice birder should feel comfortable using eBird.

Give eBird a shot and let me know how you like it. If you’re visiting a national park sometime soon, check it out on the Hotspot Explorer and see how your list compares to everyone else’s. Then come back here and tell us how you did!