Thursday, May 28, 2009

Comments on your comments!


Thanks again for providing valuable insight into how you use eBird, what you like about it and what you think needs to be developed. The responses show that we have a broad range of users, from beginners to experts, and each user seems to use eBird a little bit differently. Below I'll try to address some of the questions that arose.

To Dave Rach: Active promotion is what we're hoping to achieve. We want eBird to go 'viral', that is we want all of our users to actively promote it to their birding friends and family. Ideally each eBirder would be a vocal advocate for the project on listserves and anywhere else they could find a forum.

To Claire: I actually think that it's great that you're one of the biggest contributors. This shows that you don't need to be a famous globe-trotting expert to make a huge contribution to eBird. Your data are as valuable, or arguably even more valuable because of your understanding of eBird, your repeated observations and your inclusion of effort information. This is the epitomy of what we want in an eBirder!

To John: Hotspots are sometimes an issue in eBird. eBird thrives off data, and when a new hotspot is created it is certainly data poor. Over time the bar charts etc become fleshed out with more data. It just takes a while, especially if you're one of few people contributing to the hotspot.

To Kathiesbirds: The fact that you've moved from GBBC to eBird and now count all of the birds you see all the time is incredible. That's the model that we hope many GBBC participants will follow. In terms of convincing your friends who are using other birding software, well, that's a big issue. Many birders do use other software to keep their lists, and we're aware of that. We are trying to develop ways to easily migrate those data into eBird. See this URL for a section that shows the differnt programs (e.g., AviSys) that have written code to bring data into eBird ( The real issue here is that eBird collects data in a way that is useful to science. By contributing complete checklists of birds from discrete locations with associated effort information, you are adding value to your observations and allowing them to be used in scientific analysis. Observations of single birds in space and time, as many of these software packages record them, and less useful becuase they lack the specifics that are needed for analysis. That's the critically important thing about the way eBird works. We're always walking the line between trying to let birders do what they do in an enjoyable way, but at the same time steering them in the direction of making their data more useful.

To Corey: We do have plans to make eBird available worldwide. We hope to do this in the near future and it is one of our major goals. The problem is that its not as simple as just turning it on. There are many things that work behind the scenes to make eBird what it is, including regional editors who review data, automated filters that create checklists and flag potentially erroneous data, hotspot editors etc. It is a major job to just get all this working in the USA! Right now we plan to launch the rest of the world in beta, which means it'll be less than smooth for a while, but will consistently improve with time and subsequent iterations.

To Paul Hurtado: We're actually working on a concept right now to do just that! We are going to introduce a map that shows where the data are concentrated and where we need data. We're actively working with analysts right now to create that.

To Sean: We are currently working on our first series of APIs and data feeds that will stream data out of eBird. These should be launched within the next several months. What we need to do next is to ask you, and the rest of our users, exactly what kinds of feeds you'd like to see if you were going to display eBird information elsewhere (e.g. Facebook).

To Michael: There are lots of good ideas here. The big one that I see is the realization that we might need to take more 'starter' data to get people involved, and then push them in the right direction with their new observations. Right now you need species, date and location for a record in eBird. We've toyed with the idea of creating an 'initial life list' option where users could just go in and set up their lists without the associated data, and then move forward from that point. What has stopped that is our desire to keep the database solid, and free of information that can't be used by science. What we're realizing is that we might have to change that policy to get people 'over the hump' and into eBird. Once they are in eBird, we've found that they really do begin to understand the importance of contributing effort-based observations. Not all will, but it certainly might help.

The blog would be a great forum for people to help others upload data. We'll do a post on that in the near future. There are some new tools that make this even easier. Check out the eBird Express here (

To Sean: We are in the process of trying to 'take the lid off' eBird, open it up in ways that it hasn't been seen before. Part of that will be allowing users to expose their data to the public or to just 'friends'. Right now only you can see your individual checklists, but in the next iteration of eBird we want YOU to decide who can see your data. I know that I'd like to see what some folks are reporting. In addition we need to begin to uncover the review process, make our data editors visible and accessible to the public and generally pull back the curtain on some of things that happen behind the scenes. More transparency will make users more comfortable with the whole process.

To Oriole: Agreed, birding has to be fun first, after all, that's why most of us do it! We just need to find the right mix of fun and science at eBird.

To Derek Bakken: eBird does allow the option of entering data at the county and even state level. The reason that we try to steer people away from that and toward more location-based checklists is that the latter are so much better for analysis. The former are find for listing, but it all comes back to adding value to your data. If you're out there collecting data, why not go the extra mile to make it useful. It's actually more rewarding in the end even for listing purposes because then you can view location-based lists, not just county etc.

To Brendan: We are definitely focused now on trying to build community around eBird. We don't want to build a "Facebook for birders" but we do want to interface more fully with these types of social networking sites. I'll turn it back to you: what kinds of eBird information would you want to display on your Facebook page?

To Jennifer Wenzel: If you open a checklist using the "Manage my observations" tool you can see under "Date and Effort" info on each individual checklist whom you've shared it with.

To Clay: Do all you can to get others into it!

To Anonymous: RE your observations being in the wrong order, email me separately with more details and we'll look into it (

To Dave Rach: We can open this forum up so that users (members) can post topics. What we don't want is for the discussion to turn from eBird to "what bird is this?" etc. There are other forums for that kind of birding info.

To Joe: Hah! I also birded Costa Rica on my honeymoon and submitted a ton of checklists. I used an Excel spreadsheet to collect the data while I was there and then bulk uploaded it when I got back. We need to do a feature on how to do this on the eBird home page. Look for it soon.

To Lindsey: Another nod to the social networking side of things. We need to do this better.

To Gallus: eBird allows you to enter all field identifiable subspecies in North America. They might not be on some checklists, it depends where you are birding, but you can always add subspecies data using the "Add a species" option on the checklist page. See the eBird taxonomy ( for all that we have to offer. We are now working closely with Clements so that it and the eBird taxonomy will become one and the same.

To Evan: Location-based data are better for analysis and for listing purposes. It sounds like what we need to do is to design a quick way to create 'day reports' that will tally all the birds you've seen in a day.

The 'timeout' on a checklist submission should be 60 minutes. eBird restarts the clock each time you interact with it so if you click the 'rare species' link in blue at the top of the page, and then revert back to 'most probable' you'll be back where you were with 60 fresh minutes to continue.

To Riasp57: It's great that you've moved over from GBBC to eBird. If you want to talk specifically about what birds your seeing and that type of information, you can check out the listserve called BirdChat here (

To Jay McGann: Duplication of effort is definitely something that we struggle with. That's why we're trying to make it easier to import data from other software to eBird.

To Finatic: Yes, eBird Buddies would be able to see your checklists etc. and look at your data. Maybe even comment on birds that they like or dislike.

To Anonymous RE Weather: You can put weather info in the checklist comments to describe local conditions. We gather weather info for analysis from automated sensor networks so adding that into eBird would be somewhat redundant - at least from an analysis perspective.

RE "Here Comes Everybody". We realize that in most community-based sites that a relative few contribute the majority of the data. Even still, the numbers at eBird are on the low side. What we hope to learn is why 90% of users don't contribute data, and then possibly make some changes to welcome that group into the fold. There will always be more users than contributors, however, we are hoping to improve the ratio.

To Linda Price: Yes, agreed, we definitely need to feature the utility of finding your own place to monitor. While many birders do visit the hotspots, finding and owning your 'local patch' as the Brits call it, has tremendous benefits.

I really like your idea of the 'eBird help night' at local bird clubs.

To Jay McGann: We are attempting to do precisely what you say, which is to bring all bird data under one umbrella (including eBird) at the Avian Knowledge Network. Check it out here (

To James Fox: We need to step up our hotspot process in general. There's a lot of potential here for more useful information and ways to organize bird information.


  1. Thanks to everyone for great comments. I am one of the other eBird proejct leaders, alon with Brian and Chris Wood. A few follow-up comments:

    To Evan: We share your concerns about the 60 minute timeout, but it is a necessity at this point to avoid putting too much strain on the system in case people forget to log out. Another way to avoid the annoying loss of a checklist is to submit it and then re-open it and start on the comments. This way your checklist will be submitted and safe and you can fill in the checklist later. So try considering entering long lists as a TWO-STEP process.

    To Gallus: A bit more on subspecies, since that is something I work with a lot in eBird. Many subspecies are poorly defined and taxonomists disagree about how distinctive they are. For that reason we have tried to make eBird include all "groups" or field identifiable forms, but not necessarily all 15+ subspecies of Yellow Warbler since many of those are difficult to distinguish. We try to walk this line as best we can, and are coordinating these groups with Clements

    Anonymous RE: Weather: I always include weather info in my submissions, and always put it in the checklist comments. Recently I have been systematic abolut including this with a unique text string that I could always search for and extract from an excel eBird data dump. This, for today I wrote in my comments: "Morning birding with my favorite dog Chula. Nice migration overnight. WEATHER: Overcast with wet grass from drizzle overnight, calm, 60 F."

    Consider using these types of delimiters in your comments so that you can always search for certain topics. I also use: MAMMALS, HERPS (i.e. Reptiles and Ampphibians), LEPS (butterflies), ODES (Dragonflies) as other delimiters sinc eI usually take note of more than just birds. The checklist comments section is where each eBirder can customize the notes to their own preferences. See our story on comments here:

  2. Something I would like to see is customized filters for well-known hotspots. Where I live (Arizona) many species are expected in the valley but not in the mountains (and vice versa). As a birding vacation spot, many out-of-state birders come through and do not necessarily know what to expect where. I think it would be helpful to tailor hotspot submission pages for the places everyone visit. You are not likely to see Northern Goshawk or Hepatic Tanager at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson, but they are on the list, and people report them without setting off any filters. Obviously, it would take some work but for the most popular sites I think it would be worthwhile (and would be willing to help).

  3. I've been posting on ebird since very early (2000?) and I'm wondering about the utility of my data. I bird where I am and while I'm doing what I'm doing and I keep a list of that. Based on e-bird, I work hard to keep a complete list. If I am in a specific are, I list that area, but if I am out and about, I use a city or county. Mostly, I'm turning in a day list for every place I've been that day.

    I am trying to figure out how I can add effort information to my checklists. When I do go out specifically to look for birds, I include effort information. Most of my checklists, though, I'm not actively looking for birds, I'm doing something else and writing down what I see. My focus varies. My effort varies. I'm birding from the same house and yard, but from different windows -- so what I can see varies. I'd love to add an effort component to make my data more valuable, but I question how to do so due to consistency issues.

    Any advice?

  4. Thanks for the comment post to the initial comments; I think it will help people see they are at least being noticed.

    I will wait and comment on xml feeds and sharing lists when the posts are, um, posted (as long as I don't forget to keep checking).

  5. Kim, your question is one we struggle with a lot at eBird. Many others keep bird lists from around the house while gardening, talking on the phone, or doing various other tasks.

    Basically, we feel that anytime birding is your primary focus, it is possible to supply a reasonable estimate of effort that make the data more meaningful. But if your primary focus is gardening, driving, or talking on the phone, you are probably missing a large percentage of birds that you would have recorded with more focused effort. In these cases, we do recommend using "Casual Observation". However, one of our pet peeves (and something we used to see often) is when birders submit a Casual Observation with mileage and duration, which indicated that it could have been entered as a traveling count.

    My personal approach to this is to submit it as a complete checklist and traveling count (or stationary) when I am comfortable that I am getting a majority of the birds present. If I take a phone call while on a birdwalk, I don;t downgrade to "casual obs", but if I feel like I was really really distracted and lost my focus on counting birds, then I do consider it a "Casual obs". Keeping a notebook with you at all times is a good practice to make sure that you don't forget to record the common birds.

    Good question! Only you will know how rigorous your survey was, but I hope this was helpful.

  6. Regarding the desire to consolidate multiple locations into one observation -- there is another way to come at that, by adding "Day lists" to the options for examining your own data on the "View and Explore Data page." We can already do Year, Month and Week lists. Would it be much harder to let us do Day lists too? I've also occasionally found myself wishing that I could do a custom date range, both for looking at my data, and for looking at all data. Right now you can ask for a range of months. I'd like to have finer granularity. I could generate a trip list for that Alaska trip by asking for a summary of dates I was there, for example.

    I had also just stumbled on the idea of "following" the prolific birders in my area to get a better idea of what was being seen, where and when in my area. That's pretty complicated, I'm sure, but it would be cool. The Google gadget is a good first step.

    I loved LG Price's idea for a hierarchical menu of locations.

    I'm stoked to hear that there are plans to publish an API for eBird. I asked about this a few years ago, but it understandably wasn't at the top of the priority list. I'm a computer science teacher and would love to be able to work on some eBird related projects with my students.

    You asked what kind of data we'd like to see. I'll confess that I have been scraping eBird data to construct hotspot checklists for our local Audubon chapter bird walks for a couple of years now. ( to see what I've been doing). What I wanted to do was provide checklists just of birds that have been reported from our bird walks, so I set up an eBird user for the chapter field trip leaders. We either enter our observations using that account, or share our individual observations with the chapter account (brilliant feature, sharing, by the way!).

    Now comes the hard part. I could embed a link to display the bar chart for the hotspot (as long as the location was a recognized hotspot - some of our trips are by permission on private land, and those locations, of course, can't be hotspots) on our chapter's web site, but I wanted to restrict the data selected to just the observations associated with the chapter account - birds that have actually been seen on our field trips. At the time, I couldn't find a way to do that. What I wanted was a way to essentially do the database query "show me all the birds seen in James River Park by user richmond_as". The only way I could figure out to do it was to log in as richmond_as, display the data I wanted, save the web page, and run it through a Java program I wrote to get it into a format that I could use on our web site (with ample attribution that the data was coming from eBird, so I hope I can avoid trouble over that. I did ask permission, but I never heard back...)

    So, anyway, that's my wish for the API -- a way to do what I'm doing periodically by hand, but on the fly, either with a query-type link that includes restriction to a particular user's data, or with some simple scripting in JavaScript, Python or some other widely available web scripting language. Hope that made sense.

  7. I know this comment is better suited for backyard bird survey feedback, but for the love of all that's good and feathery, do not ignore west Texas! Few and far between are the birders out there and when a good birder submits 20 Pine Siskins at odd times of the year, don't just ignore it! She was exasperated that even with a write-up, her submission was ignored and is highly unlikely to participate again in the future - much less regularly ebird at all. I've since moved, but the plight continues, we need more regional editors.

  8. I really like this idea of blogging.
    On sub-species, though many are can not be seperated in the field by looking, many can be identified by location and time of year. Like a Grasshopper Sparrow in South Florida in June is Floridanus, while in January it could be Pretenis or Floridanus (Though they are seperatable if you are careful). Many Yellow Warblers species are the same, Galapagos, Cuba, Bahamas, South Florida, New Jersey in June are likely to be only one particular sub-species. No matter how you have I love eBird and will continue to add checklists. I spent 2 weeks adding all my back checklists from 1999 on. Hard to believe I've entered more than 1000 checklists. I actually have older checklists but I can't count them (long story). Still noticed that some "non-countable" species are in my totals based on where they were seen, is this something that can be addressed?

  9. If you need help with Hotspots for Florida I'd be happy to help where I can.

  10. RE: The weather comment. I find it interesting that eBird is very interested in the exact location you birded (zooming all the way in and even recommending multiple lists for a larger park) and yet is not interested in "microclimate" data as well. I live in Seattle, where the weather can be quite variable from one hour to the next and even in different neighborhoods. While the official weather station may report high, low, rainfall etc for a day, that data is collected at the airport which is a good 30 minute drive from where I live, and really wouldnt seem to have the crucial detail for the specific area you are birding.

    For instance, I was at Discovery Park today, and it was thunderstorms and wind, so I went to the Ballard Locks (about 2 miles away) and it was overcast but warm with some cloudbreaks. None of this is likely reflected in the "offical" data recorded at SeaTac airport, but definitely has a big effect on the number and kind of birds observed.