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Big Year Birding with eBird

Two generations of Big Year Birders - Neil Hayward (right) with Sandy Komito. Half Moon Bay, July 28 2013.

Neil Hayward undertook an ABA Big Year in 2013, attempting to see more species than any other in a single year in the continental US and Canada. He at least matched the previous high of 748, and potentially exceeded it – pending the acceptance of one final species! Read on for a well-written and detailed account of how his year went, and how modern technologies like eBird contributed to his success. We would like to thank Neil for his excellent recounting of his 2013 Big Year, and for taking the time to author this article for us. Enjoy!

 

2013 turned out to be a pretty big year for me. It was a madcap adventure of birding, criss-crossing the continent by planes, trains, and automobiles (plus a kayak and the odd pair of skis) and surviving the dangers of polar bears, mountain lions, deer ticks and Aleutian plumbing. By the end of the year I’d seen 747 species of birds in the American Birding Association (ABA) region (Canada and the United States minus Hawaii) plus three potential (provisional) species new to the list: Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk. It was the closest that any birder has come to breaking the previous and long-standing record of 748 set by Sandy Komito in 1998. [Note: Common Redstart has since been accepted to the ABA Checklist and the Eurasian Sparrowhawk was rejected by Alaska, bringing Neil’s official total to 748+1 (Rufous-necked Wood-Rail pending)].

The attempt generated many comparisons to Sandy’s Big Year and highlighted some of the differences that have changed the birding world in that time. An important part of Sandy’s Big Year was being on the island of Attu, perched at the far western end of the Aleutian chain, for an El Niño spring that dumped unprecedented numbers of Asian vagrants. I never went to Attu (although the decommissioning of the airstrip meant the end of direct flights, it’s still possible to get out there by boat from Adak, with Zugunruhe Birding Tours). But I did have a tool that Sandy and many past Big Year attempts lacked – eBird. Having up-to-date and historical sightings at my fingertips all year could be considered a game changer. I used eBird every day. It was as much a part of my Big Year tool kit as my scope, binoculars, travel pillow and coffee cup, and it would be hard to imagine doing a Big Year without it.

In this article I’ll discuss how the functionality of eBird played into my Big Year: what I found useful, as well as some suggestions for improvements (such as providing exact GPS coordinates for Mountain Quail and White-cheeked Pintail.)

  1. ABA Rarities and Needs Alerts

The American Birding Association (ABA) assigns each species on its list a code, one through six. Code 1 birds are the most common (abundant), and code 5 are the rarest (birds seen 5 or fewer times and / or fewer than 3 times within the past 30 years). Code 6 is reserved for extinct or extirpated birds. There are currently 669 code 1 and code 2 birds. Those are birds that are seen in good numbers every year – either breeding in the ABA region or migrating through – and if you’re in the right place at the right time you have a reasonable chance of finding them (I saw 668 of them – missing only Common Ringed Plover) — which of course means that if you want to see more than 700 species you’re either going to have to chase some rarities or wait until Red Crossbill is split into a bazillion species!

eBird’s ABA Rarities Alerts made chasing those rarities that much easier. It’s a simple system: you receive an email for any rare species (codes 3-5) reported to eBird in the ABA region. Currently, there are two options for receiving these alerts – hourly and daily. I was signed up to the hourly alert. The top of the email summarizes the species reported, and a neat mid-year improvement saw the addition of the states next to the summary birds. I could quickly scan these emails – which at birdier times of the year came in almost every hour – and quickly pick out species I needed and states where I might be able to chase.

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 Fig 2. ABA Rarities Alert. Left and middle: screenshots from my iPhone of eBird’s ABA Rarities Alert for Jan 17, 2013 showing (left) the summary of species at the start of the email and after scrolling down (middle) the report for Nutting’s Flycatcher – a code 5 bird. Right: The bird! Nutting’s Flycatcher, Bill Williams NWR, AZ Jan 18, 2013. (Digiscoped with iPhone 4S and Swarovski STS 80 spotting scope.)

There is no review process for sending out these alerts – and so initially all of the rare bird sightings are “unconfirmed.” That’s great in that you hear almost immediately as soon as a rarity is reported. That happened with Siberian Stonechat – I’d just landed in Anchorage, AK (for a trip to the Pribilofs the next day), turned my phone on and saw an eBird alert for Siberian Stonechat. With help from local birder Dave Sonnenborn, I managed to get to the bird before it disappeared that evening. But beware: although it’s hard to enter rarities accidentally (there’s a warning that you’re doing this) it’s still very possible for misidentified birds to be reported as rarities. Using these alerts requires a sanity check: would you expect that bird in that location and habitat at that time of year? A report of a Berylline Hummingbird in southeast Arizona makes sense, but eight Common Snipe in Texas doesn’t. A review of the comments and the credibility of the observer can also be helpful.

I’d like to have been able to tweak the Rarities Alert to include / exclude some of the birds that are on the cusp of the code 2/3 border. For example, Common Ringed Plover is a code 2 bird – it’s a breeding bird, but only in remote parts of Alaska. For anywhere else, it’s a major rarity. When one appeared in my home state of Massachusetts in May (ironically while I was in Alaska not seeing any!) it didn’t generate a rare bird alert. On the flip side, it would have been great to turn off some of the commoner Code 3 species – like the sometimes daily Black-headed Gull reports. [Team eBird note: Black-headed Gull and Little Gull have since been removed from our ABA Rarities Alert, although the ABA itself has yet to downgrade these to Category 2. We agree with Neil that ABA should revise the codes for Black-headed Gull, Common Ringed Plover, and several other species!]

The ABA Rarities Alert is complemented by the “Needs Alert”. They’re similarly easy to set up – you choose an area in which you’re interested (in my case, these were states), and elect to receive emails hourly or daily for every bird reported in that region that you either haven’t seen that current year (year list) or ever (life list). I’d been happily using this for several years for the state of Massachusetts – combined with the state listserv (of which more later) it’s a great way of working on your state list. Both the ABA Rarities Alert and the Needs Alert are found under the tab My eBird>Manage My Alerts. [Team eBird note: See also All About: eBird Alerts]

But what about finding non-rarities in a Big Year where you’re birding in many states? There’s no easy way on eBird to receive alerts about individual species that you’re specifically targeting, for example an alert just for Bendire’s Thrasher. However, tweaking the state Needs Alert can help. Before heading to a new state for the year, I’d submit a dummy list: I would create a checklist (submit data) for the whole state for that date. I’d then check off every species I’d already seen for the year – many of which I’d already seen in other states – leaving only those that I still needed. Importantly, after submitting this, I would select “hide from eBird output”, so that this dummy data wasn’t part of the eBird database. Turning on the (hourly or daily) Needs Alert for that state would then give me the information I really wanted – what was being seen there that I still needed for the Big Year. It helped me plan out efficient routes for my trip, as I’d be able to see all the available target birds. Obviously, at the start of the year these emails could be pretty long! But as I racked up species the alerts would get shorter and more manageable. When I left the state I’d delete the dummy list. I repeated this process each time I went back to the state as well as for each new state I visited.

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Fig 3. Needs Alert. Left: Example of a Needs Alert – this one for Arizona. Right: a bird found using the Needs Alert: Bendire’s Thrasher, Buckeye AZ. Nov 21, 2013. (Digiscoped with iPhone 5S and Swarovski STS 80 spotting scope.)

Towards the end of my Big Year, when I’d seen the vast majority of common species, it would have been useful to have a Needs Alert at the country level. Several of the species I still needed were distributed in several states (such as grouse) and receiving updates for sightings anywhere in the country would be great. [Team eBird note: We would love to have this, but processing emails for that many submissions puts a strain on our servers. Just use eBird Targets!].

 

  1. Where are the Birds? Range and Point Maps.

The Species Maps function (found under the Explore Data tab) was very helpful for understanding the distribution patterns of individual species. It allowed me to see where birds had been seen recently. For migrants, I could look at previous years and see when they arrived on breeding grounds or where they were seen in passage. Looking at individual records also gave me an idea of abundance and frequency at each site.

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Fig 4. Range Maps. Left: Distribution of sightings of White-tailed Ptarmigan in Colorado in Mar-May 2012. Right: A White-tailed Ptarmigan I found at one of those hotspots – Loveland Pass, CO. Apr 3, 2013. (Digiscoped with iPhone 4S and Swarovski STS 80 spotting scope.)

More difficult to interpret and use were lengthy observations – a 6 hour walk covering 3 miles. If just one bird were involved, how would you know where to look? And while many places I birded were full of records (southeast Arizona, southern Florida, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, etc.) there were many parts of the country with only scattered reports – often more remote places where I knew I’d have to track down those pesky grouse. Particularly helpful were comments associated with reports – such as more detailed location information or photographs. Combining this data with local listservs proved really useful – if the reporter were a common contributor to a local listserv, then I’d contact them and ask more about the site and ideas for finding the bird. Being able to do this – essentially a social media aspect – directly within eBird would have been very helpful.

 

  1. When are the birds? Bar Charts

Looking at bar charts of species for hotspots (found under the tab Explore Data>Bar Charts) for whole states was also helpful. By reviewing historical data I could see what species were likely and when. For the west, for example, I could see when Black Swifts first arrived (and if I missed them then, how long I’d have before they left). It was a great tool for timing my trips and maximizing what I could see. And given the large variability of arrival and departure dates it meant going back to some places many times. By the end of the year, for example, I’d been to Arizona ten times, Texas seven and Florida five.

image017 image019Fig 5. Bar Charts Left: Bar chart for birds seen at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park for the year 2012. Gray Kingbird is highlighted showing its arrival at the very end of March. Above: Gray Kingbird – Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, May 9, 2013. (Digiscoped with iPhone 5S and Swarovski STS 80 spotting scope.)

 

  1. How many of the birds have I seen? Keeping count.

Doing a Big Year involves a lot of counting! Keeping track of how many species I saw was, surprisingly, not trivial. Most of my time was spent birding in the field, driving, looking for coffee, planning what I’d do next, and drinking coffee. Only occasionally would I find sleep. None of those activities lent themselves to counting above 500. Thankfully, I could let eBird do this for me (Another good reason to record all of my sightings in eBird!). My running total for the year was easy to check online (under the My eBird tab). However, since I could only count species accepted on the ABA checklist for my Big Year I had to find some way to exclude exotics that weren’t on the ABA list or escapees that weren’t countable. Unsurprisingly, every trip to Florida required a solution to this. Many of my visits to the Miami region, for example, included Mitred Parakeets and Orange-winged Parrots – neither of which are (yet) accepted by the ABA.

image021 Fig 6. The Uncountable. Orange-winged Parrot, Miami, FL. Apr 28, 2013. An example of a bird not countable on my ABA checklist for the Big Year. (Digiscoped with iPhone 4S and Swarovski STS 80 spotting scope.)

It would be great if eBird knew which were ABA-countable and which not – and then reported both numbers. But currently it doesn’t, which means if you only want to see your ABA list, then you need to hide the uncountable ones. I didn’t want to lose these data, so I made note of the (currently) uncountable exotics in the comments section of the checklist. And it’s not just exotics that are a problem, but “uncountable” escapes such as the Common Pochard I saw in January 2013 swimming along the frozen New York – Vermont border, as well as reintroduced code 6 (extirpated) birds such as the California Condor [Team eBird note: We’re working towards this, but it’s quite complicated to make this happen globally in My eBird].

 

  1. Adding species in the field

Before I could start counting birds, I had to record them. My evenings were so busy with writing up blog posts, editing pictures, planning the next day, and – if I was lucky – finding somewhere to sleep and eat (hopefully not both in the car) – that it often wasn’t possible to create eBird checklists for all the places I’d been that day. The app BirdLog for iPhone allows you to create and submit checklists from the field. It was a huge timesaver for me as well as increased my accuracy for reporting since I didn’t have to rely on my memory. When I didn’t have cell phone coverage, I simply created an offline checklist with a default list of birds and then submitted later in the day (only having to then select the appropriate hot spot). [Team eBird note: Watch here for news about the BirdLog app soon!]

 

  1. Top 100

I didn’t start out 2013 with the intention of doing a Big Year. For that, I’d like to blame two people: Gerri, my girlfriend, and eBird. OK, eBird isn’t an actual person, but I can still blame the person who came up with the Top 100 report! This function allows you to compare how you’re doing against other observers for a particular region (ABA, state, county, etc.) for the year or life. It was an element of fun competition. After trips to Arizona and Canada early in the year, I started checking it and noticed that I was doing pretty well. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed – I started getting emails from other birders asking if I was doing a big year. I replied, after removing the expletives, “No, because that would be insane!” But as my numbers increased and I steadily moved up the Top 100 list, I finally conceded that, if I were to do a Big Year, this would be a great start. It was April 2013, apparently not too late to start all the Big Year planning! (This unplanned and late start, together with being rear-ended in Philadelphia, made it an “accidental” big year.)

The Top 100 list (found under the Explore Data tab>Top 100) also allowed me to see who else might be crazy enough to do what I was doing. There was one – a certain Hans de Grys from Seattle – who always seemed to be one state ahead of me. We eventually met and birded together in Nome, AK. Hans was indeed doing a Big Year: from mid-year to mid-year. A big year can be a lonely endeavor, and I was very happy for the friendship. The Top 100 report was a great way to understand the human birding landscape, and again, having some way to interact on the site would have been helpful.

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 Fig. 7. Top 100. Left: Top 100 report showing top 100 eBirders in the ABA Area on June 8, 2013. Right: Two of those birders were doing an ABA Big Year – Hans de Grys and Neil Hayward, Nome, AK. Jun 8, 2013.

  1. Validation for a Big Year

A Big Year is played by the honor system. It’s sometimes hard for non-birders to appreciate this. How do you know that person saw X? Or Y? Couldn’t you just make it up? Of course, doing a Big Year is so ridiculous an endeavor and the prize money so small (yeah, I’m still waiting…) that you’d only really be cheating yourself. Having all your data in eBird, though, provides at least some level of documentation. Part of this is transparent – others can see, for example, how many birds I’ve seen for the year and the most recent species seen (on the Top 100 listing). But they can’t see my whole list, or where I saw particular birds and when.

I like the Listing Central feature on the ABA web site. You can see profiles of birders, together with how many species they’ve seen in different regions for different time periods. Listing Central has absolute numbers for those records, not what those species are. It would be great if there were a combination of the two approaches – where on eBird you could click on an observer (assuming they wished to share their data) and see which species they’ve seen and when.

As well as validation, eBird provided an important check and verification for some of my sightings. For all rare birds, or birds unexpected for that location and date, the checklist submission process requires providing a comment and a confirmation. And sometimes, I’d hear back from an eBird reviewer. That happened to me in California in July. I’d been there for a week and had been seeing California Quail every day (I know, why aren’t all quail as accommodating?!). After seeing a covey of them run across the road at Joshua Tree National Park, I didn’t think twice about my eBird entry until I received an email back from a reviewer asking (politely) if they might not be Gambel’s Quail. Of course they were – I’d unknowingly crossed into their territory and checked my initial identification. This wasn’t the only example, and I’m thankful for the education (and the reminder to pay attention to where you are!) that eBird and its diligent reviewers provided.

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Fig 8. eBird knows where you are. Crossing into Gambel’s Quail territory. Joshua Tree National Park, CA. July 14, 2013.

  1. Other electronic services

eBird is, of course, not the only online service for finding birds. Other sources of birding information I found useful during my Big Year were:

  • North American Rare Bird Alert (NARBA) provides a subscription service for rare birds ($50 per year) for which you receive email alerts and web access. NARBA distinguishes itself by focusing only on rare birds (usefully omitting some of the more common code 3 birds such as Black-headed and Little Gulls and including rare code 2 birds such as Common Ringed Plover). NARBA fleshes out the report with background maps and updates (positive and, importantly, negative) and archives this on the web site. Many birders submit directly to NARBA, especially if they are not on the local listserv and / or are unable to submit to eBird from the field, and I first heard about many of my Big Year rarities last year from NARBA.
 image029 Bean

Fig 9. NARBA notifications. Left: NARBA alert for a Bean-Goose in Nova Scotia. Right: the bird was later identified as a Tundra Bean-Goose and stuck around long enough for me to chase. Yarmouth Golf Course, Nova Scotia. Nov 15, 2013. (Digiscoped with iPhone 5S and Swarovski STS 80 spotting scope.)

  • Regional listservs. Of course, not all data is recorded by eBird. State or, in the case of California, county listservs continue to provide a powerful and complementary resource. I was signed up to those in places where I was birding regularly or expected rarities: MA, FL, TX, AZ/NM, WA, CA counties and AK. Of course, that meant reading hundreds of emails a day! But it was worth it – I heard about birds that weren’t on eBird, or that were being first reported on the listserv. The format also allowed for a more lengthy discussion on site access, location, behavior as well as the opportunity to communicate with other birders. You don’t have to sign up to read them – almost all the US listservs are conveniently found at the ABA Birding News page.
  • Facebook. Checking emails from eBird, NARBA and local listservs is, apparently, not enough. These days you have to be on Facebook too! 2013 saw a continuation in the trend to report sightings through the social network site. It’s obvious why this is happening: it’s very easy to fire off a quick post wherever you are – including a boat: while writing part of this review, I heard of the Yellow-nosed Albatross seen on Brian Patteson’s Pelagic boat (Feb 22, 2014) from a Facebook update complete with envy-inducing pictures. Facebook also got the scoop on the more chaseable Little Bunting in Humboldt County, CA on Dec 13, 2013. I was on a flight out there that evening.

 

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Fig 10. Facebook Finds. Left: Little Bunting, Humboldt County, CA. Dec 14,2013. (Digiscoped with iPhone 5S and Swarovski STS 80 spotting scope.) Right: Facebook post from Brian Patteson’s pelagic trip showing Yellow-nosed Albatross. Post by Jeff Gordon showing Rangel Diaz’s photo from the group, ABA Rare Bird Alert. Feb 22, 2014.

SUMMARY

By the end of the year, I’d spent 195 days away from home, visited 28 states, 7 provinces, travelled almost 250,000 miles and seen some 750 species of birds. Would the result have been the same without eBird? Is a Big Year really feasible these days without it?

eBird’s Rarities Alert together with NARBA and the Facebook ABA Rare Bird Alert meant that I heard about rarities very quickly. Perhaps the greatest advantage came with non-rarities. Without eBird I could have spent days trying to track down Gray Vireo, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Spot-breasted Oriole, Crissal Thrasher, Sprague’s Pipit… Using eBird not only meant I could find birds faster, but I’m sure also resulted in my not missing some. And that saved time also meant that I could be home for Christmas. So – thank you eBird for giving me some time off last year and for putting me within sight of the record. Maybe I should split my prize money with you guys?

By Neil Hayward