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The Recuperative Value of eBirding

Kelley hawkwatching in Oct 2013 for the October challenge

Kelley Nunn and Robin Huff are active eBirders whose lives have been markedly improved through the use of eBird. They wrote to us independently and unsolicited, wanting to share their experiences with eBirders worldwide. In May of 2014, Kelley was debilitated by a mystery illness, and was bed-ridden for 6 months before finally discovering an accurate diagnosis: vestibular migraine/migraine disorder. All in all, Kelley spent about 10 months in bed until she began to recover in March of 2015. She has written a powerful account of how the eBirder of the Month Challenges helped to motivate her and how they gave her a purpose to get outside to be active despite her troubles with vestibular migraines. The story reproduced here is a modified version of the original article that Kelley posted on her site, My Migraine Brain. Robin had a hip replaced and found that her healing process was sped up and greatly improved by her use of eBird and other citizen science projects. We hope you find these stories by Kelley and Robin as engaging and inspiring as we do.

eBirder of the Month Challenge

by Kelley Nunn

The neurologist I saw back in August 2014 who misdiagnosed me with cerebellar atrophy wasn’t on point with his diagnosis, but did give me some resounding advice on how to cope with chronic illness. As he was measuring my muscle strength, balance, and tremor, he told me a story about a violinist he had seen in concert who became so entranced in her music that she would sway and move with her instrument as though the rest of her world had just disappeared in the feeling of it all. After the concert, someone asked the woman what she felt while playing and she answered,“Bliss.” His advice to me was to find my “violin:” something that was so all-encompassing that it could make the “What’s wrong with me? Will I ever get better?” thoughts about my medical condition disappear. Lucky for me, I already had. Birding is my violin.

Back when I was bed-ridden, there wasn’t much birding I could do. On days when I could tolerate the visual stimulation of sitting in a car, friends and family members would drive me to nearby birding locations: the Brandywine Wetlands to look for interesting shorebirds; Wilson Road to see the Bobolinks/Eastern Meadowlarks and search through the swallows hoping for a Cliff or Bank Swallow; and Longwood Abbondi property, to check again for a vagrant heron, egret, or swallow. As you can imagine, driving to the same three locations over and over with the same goal every time became rather tiresome. But, there was something that revitalized my goals every month and gave me a renewed purpose–eBird’s “eBirder of the Month” challenge.

Every month since the beginning of 2014, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird has posted details for a monthly birding challenge. The requirement to complete the challenge is simple, and those who are successful are entered into a drawing to win a pair of Zeiss Conquest HD 8×42 (!!!) binoculars. For example, the June 2015 challenge is to submit 20 checklists containing at least one breeding code [Team eBird note: this month’s challenge is all about birding with others! We hope you give it a try!]. Back in April 2015, you qualified if you submitted 20 checklists containing a species of diurnal raptor (coinciding with spring raptor migration). As you can see, the challenge is usually pertinent to what the birds are doing. What was my motivation for completing the monthly challenges? Well, 1) anyone who knows me can attest that I love a good challenge. Otherwise, 2) the monthly challenges provided much-needed structure, goals, and motivation. And, 3) while I have yet to win one of the Zeiss binoculars, the optimism and hope I would feel every month while waiting for the “You’ve won!” email and imagining myself retiring my beaten and battered Nikon Monarchs did more good for me than the eBird team could have ever imagined.

Kelley Yard Birding (in the rain) for the October 2014 eBirder of the Month Challenge

Kelley Yard Birding (in the rain) for the October 2014 eBirder of the Month Challenge

So, when I was bed-ridden, I would formulate the birding I did almost entirely around the eBirder of the Month challenge. One month, the challenge was to submit at least 20 checklists from a single patch. For those few weeks, I would ask whoever was driving me to head for the Route 82 farmlands, which was one of my patches. At that time, it was physically hard for me to tolerate the visual stimulation of the landscape moving as we drove around, but my determination to meet my goal of completing the monthly challenge would get me through the half-hour/forty-five minutes in the car. Last October, the challenge was to submit stationary checklists of duration greater than one hour. Just a year earlier in October 2013, I would stand atop the hill at the Ashland Hawk Watch and count raptors for hours while scanning the skies, but in October 2014, moving my eyes around for more than 5, 10, or 20 minutes was sometimes enough to put me flat in bed for hours or days. That month, I probably submitted over twenty 1-hour stationary checklists (sometimes I even went over an hour). It felt SO GOOD to submit them, and to accomplish something.

Through completing these challenges and submitting all these checklists, I began to feel that every checklist I submitted was like earning a merit badge—as though I was proving to myself that on that day, I had accomplished something. I absolutely love eBirding and eBird; I use their data resources religiously and owe so many of my positive birding experiences to their species maps and alerts. Without eBird’s challenges, I wouldn’t have had a purpose to get “sick me” sitting up in a chair, or out in the yard, or to sit through those car rides every single day. So, I’d like to say thank you eBird and thank you Zeiss for coming up with this truly brilliant idea. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

When it comes to my 2015 Recovery Big Year, I can’t help but think how much good could be done in introducing individuals who are struggling to cope with chronic illnesses to birding. If you know someone who’s not-so-healthy, introduce them to the monthly eBird challenges! And please, if you’re out birding, submit your checklists to eBird!

The Recuperative Value of eBirding

by Robin Huff

I’m giving eBird and other Cornell Lab citizen science projects credit for aiding my recovery from a hip replacement this winter.

The stage was set to take advantage of nature’s recuperative powers–when we moved to suburban Virginia last autumn, my husband and I put out a few small native plants on the back deck along with several suet and seed feeders and a heated birdbath. Our still-beautiful Douglas Fir Christmas tree became another shelter option for birds staging their landings from a narrow strip of deciduous woodland just beyond the deck.

After my surgery, I usually sat or exercised with a view of the feeders and regularly tracked visitors via stationary counts in one of my three eBird “patches.” I’d never had an opportunity to observe for so long in one location, and was indeed intrigued by the variety and daily drama: the Red-bellied Woodpecker that knocked a Northern Flicker off a suet feeder, endless male Eastern Bluebird “spats,” and sadly, the apparent demise of my “surgery bird,” a Ruby-crowned Kinglet who came regularly for 17 days but was not seen after a major snowstorm during this tough Virginia winter. I reported during the Great Backyard Bird Count, joined Project Feederwatch, and finally did the National Wildlife Federation paperwork to certify our yard as a Wildlife Habitat.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Robin's "surgery bird"

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Robin’s “surgery bird”

I volunteer at Q?rius, the year-old interactive and experimental learning space in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of National History, so I paid particular attention to the behavior of birds for which Q?rius has skins, eggs, and skeletons in its collection of 6000 objects. I hope I can now better bring them to “life” for Q?rius visitors and inspire visitors to look for birds in the wild.

One house-bound day, I enjoyed Cornell’s live feed broadcast from the Adelie Penguin colony near Palmer Station in Antarctica; on another, the “Being A Better Birder” webinar. eBird also provided some other constructive, pleasant intellectual distraction from tedious post-surgical routines. As is perhaps inevitable with a name like Robin, I’ve birded since childhood and kept records ever since a wonderful Ohio biology teacher, Mr. Kidwell, took our group of 16-year-olds on a two-week birding trip to Texas and Mexico. For me, bird behavior has always been a stronger attraction than listing, so while I’d kept decent records on species seen, location, and date, I’d never compiled a life list. A year ago, the phenomenal birder Peter Kaestner urged me to use eBird and kindly gave me a tutorial by phone. I was hooked.

By the time of my surgery, I’d logged data for a few hundred species but still had quite a pile of hard copy records from over 40 years of birding. What better time to tackle them than when stuck at home recuperating?

So, between physical therapy sessions and laps around the house with my walker/cane, I re-lived trips to Alaska, Japan, South Africa, Argentina, Morocco, Tanzania, and elsewhere by logging historical data in eBird and finally getting a count for my life list. I also have to confess that I began to enjoy watching the life list “odometer” turn over, like when I timed my entry of Bird 1000 (Brown Snake-Eagle) to the precise day I’d seen it on a South African trip 32 years before.

In my year of eBirding I do think I’ve become a better birder. Logging more detailed data has prompted me to focus more clearly on what I’m seeing and to study up on birds more thoroughly. The sheer joy of watching birds is unaffected, and I choose to believe that spending so much time watching them instead of, say, TV reruns, may well have speeded my recovery. I hereby attest to the recuperative power of eBirding!