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The State of eBird 2010

Swallow-tailed Kite, Olga, FL, March. Photograph by Brian Sullivan.
Swallow-tailed Kite, Olga, FL, March. Photograph by Brian Sullivan.

April is eBird’s fund-raising month, and we welcome this opportunity to highlight some of the project’s accomplishments with you, as well as to share our future direction and vision. Last year was a remarkable one for eBird. Excitement in the birding and scientific communities surrounded the development of new modeling techniques to generate animated migration maps based on eBird data. On the project development side, our biggest achievement was launching eBird worldwide, making eBird tools and technology available to birders everywhere. eBirders contributing observations from around the globe helped make 2010 the project’s biggest year so far, with over 18 million checklists submitted. Thanks to all who have volunteered their time and effort birding and using eBird in 2010. The success of eBird hinges on your continued participation and support. Moving forward in 2011, we plan to further develop eBird as a tool and a service for the birding community, while continuing our core focus on science. Please read on and learn more about what we accomplished in 2010, and about what we plan to build in the coming year.

What we accomplished last year

eBird Growth

Each month the total number of checklists and observations submitted to eBird increases over the previous year. With the launch of Global eBird in June 2010, we now have data from 223 countries and 9022 species; roughly 90% of the world’s birds are now recorded in eBird. In 2010 alone, over 350,000 unique visitors used eBird from 183 countries around the world. In the same time frame, over 18 million bird observations were submitted. Remarkably, over 1.3 million hours were spent by birders gathering data for eBird checklists in 2010!

The amount of data being gathered is astounding, and scientists are beginning to see the contributions of birders in a new light. Indeed, eBird data are being used as a core component in the 2011 State of the Birds report (due out later this spring); a multi-partner effort to deliver concise conservation data to the general public, policy makers, and land managers. But there is much work yet to be done. We will continue our eBird outreach efforts in 2011, specifically targeting areas that lack data. Many birders still don’t use eBird, and it is up to us (and all of you) to bring them into the eBird family. Our ultimate goal is to make eBird a daily part of every birder’s routine, from the United States to around the globe.

Growth

eBird Growth since 2002.

Global Expansion

The extension of eBird tools and functionality around the world enables anyone with an internet connection to gather, archive, and disseminate information on birds. In many places, little information has been gathered in the past, and even less of that information has made it into organized databases. By making eBird available worldwide, we’ve taken the first step toward a truly global system for monitoring earth’s avian resources.

GlobalMap

World distribution of Barn Swallow as currently shown in eBird. Note the purple areas filling in across Europe, Asia, and Africa.

We do not expect eBird to take root overnight around the world, but already there are major success stories to share. Chile has risen as an exemplar for how a group can grow and develop eBird at the local level. Under the direction of Fabrice Schmitt, with the help of Alvaro Jaramillo (author of Birds of Chile) and other locals, Chilean birders have taken eBird as their own. Fully managing their portal and maintaining the database, they have embedded eBird into the local birding culture. With the cooperation and support of La Red de Observadores de Aves y Vida Silvestre de Chile, eBird Chile is growing rapidly. In just a few short years eBird has amassed more data on Chilean birds than has previously existed, and birders there are gaining new insights into bird distribution, migration, and nesting. Consider this quote from Fabrice Schmitt regarding eBird Chile:

“The results obtained from eBird data are already impressive! The new maps available directly from eBird provide the best available distribution information for many species — better than any published paper! The arrival and departure dates of migrants, information that is unpublished for most species migrating to Chile, are now available to anyone in the world! Where else but eBird would you learn that the Giant Hummingbird arrives in central Chile by the end of July?”

We hope to further develop this great partnership with the Chilean birding community, and use their passion as a model for how eBird can be developed in other countries in South America, and around the world.

PEFAChile

Peregrine Falcon observations in Chile.

Taxonomy

Maintaining a list of all the bird species in the world is a daunting task, especially when you have to make that list available for birders who want to enter data and keep personal lists. Myriad changes are made each year by organizations tasked with categorizing regional taxa (e.g., the American Ornithologists’ Union), and by scientists publishing data about specific taxa in the peer-reviewed literature. Keeping up with these changes is a significant challenge. And eBird takes that complication a step further by also allowing birders to record birds they way they see them in the field, which means sometimes below, and above, the species level (e.g., Empidonax sp., Clark’s/Western Grebe). In 2010 we launched our first world taxonomy. We continue to be committed to helping maintain the Clements Taxonomy for the world, and we strive to offer a single, usable taxonomy for recording birds around the world.

Tools for Birders

We have learned some important lessons over the years through past eBird development. Among the most important was the realization that we can gather millions of bird observations and engage thousands of birders if we continue to develop the kinds of tools that birders find useful, and perhaps more importantly, enjoy using. Building on this concept, in 2011 we have a series of new developments slated that appeal to the fun side of birding, with the ultimate goal of increasing repeated observations submitted to eBird.

A good example of this concept is the newly released ‘Yard and Patch Competition’. Our data analysts have identified a need for more repeated samples from the same locations over time. Birders are creatures of habit, and often bird the same places day after day. Our challenge was to devise a way to engage them to survey these places and then enter those observations into eBird on a daily basis. All too frequently birders only enter a checklist when they find something noteworthy. Instead, we want them to enter all the species they see, every day of the year.

These games engage birders to see who can find the highest number of species in their yard or patch (i.e., favorite birding location), but importantly, also rewards those who submit the highest number of complete checklists in a year. Already we’re seeing results. In 2011 we have nearly 8000 yards and patches registered in the competition, and tens of thousands of complete checklists have been gathered. We hope these games will continue to drive birders not only to get out and sample the same places routinely, but also to submit those checklists to eBird.

Science and Research

Since all eBird data are freely available to the public, researchers from around the globe are discovering eBird as an excellent data source. The data are being used in myriad ways now, from focal species studies to broad-scale population modeling. Some of the most exciting modeling is the work being done by Daniel Fink and his colleagues on the Spatio-temporal Exploratory Models. We are pleased to make the first results of these species distribution models available through the eBird website. These maps offer the first glimpses of how eBird data are being used behind the scenes to better understand bird distribution and abundance. Particularly exciting are the migration animations, which show for the first time entire populations of birds moving at continental scales. We plan to keep this series of maps updated regularly, and we hope to engage our audience in a discussion about the biological patterns shown there. Our first series of maps is available here.

WOTHmap

Predicted distribution of Wood Thrush, 22 June 2009.

2011 Goals and Development

New Data Collection

eBird has outgrown its initial design of simply collecting numbers of birds at a specific location. As the project has matured, conservation groups and researchers have approached us in hopes of using eBird to collect more specific data to address their conservation goals. While the eBird fundamentals remain the same (i.e., complete checklists of birds with numbers for each species), we are now adapting the data collection process to gather more information about birds, and in the process eBird is developing into a more useful and flexible tool for conservation science.

The Gulf Oil Spill highlighted the growing need for eBird to gather more information on birds. Researchers wanted to know not only when, where, and how many birds were present, but also the extent of oiling on each species. To do this we had to expand the back-end infrastructure of eBird to collect these additional variables. In the process, we built in the flexibility that now enables us to record other ancillary bird information (e.g., breeding status) as needs arise. This new, and more complicated, data entry process necessitated an overhaul of the existing eBird data entry pages.

DataEntry

Screen grab of the new eBird data entry page.

Our goal with the new data entry pages is the make the process customizable to each person’s skill level and needs. We have added complexity, but at the same time we’ve made the fundamental data entry process smoother and more intuitive for beginners. Experts can customize the data entry form to show the kinds of things they like to see (e.g., subspecies), while beginners can keep it simple. Likewise, the expanded data collection capabilities have moved eBird into a more scientific role by allowing any research group wishing to use an online data entry process to use eBird for their study. The form can be customized for a specific study or even a protocol, and we can now easily gather data that before were lost. We are currently testing the new design in-house, and hope to have it available for the broader eBird community to begin beta-testing later this spring.

eBird Hotspot Wiki

We’re sitting on an untapped goldmine here at eBird. Years ago we created the technology that allowed our users to plot locations on a map, and importantly, to designate certain locations as public birding places or ‘Hotspots’. Right now we have nearly 50,000 locations pinpointed as birding ‘Hotspots’ from around the world. But so far these have only been points on a map used for data entry. In 2011 we plan to change all that, by allowing users to describe these sites in their complete richness. This dynamic new eBird tool is tentatively called the ‘eBird Hotspot Wiki’, and it will not only increase eBird use by engaging a new audience, but it may also allow us to build revenue for eBird through developing site sponsorships.

The idea of this tool is to provide a location-based information service to the birding community that not only serves information about birds, but also allows local experts to provide detailed site information such as: how to bird a specific location, where to look for target birds once you’re there, where to eat dinner, who to go birding with, best place to stay nearby, etc. We plan to build a page for each of these ‘Hotspots’, and then let our users take ownership of them, filling in the pieces of data that only a local would know. eBird can fill in the bird data; the users do the rest. This symbiosis helps feed the tool, and makes it smarter and more useful to the participant. If eBird knows what birds you’ve seen, it can help you build a travel itinerary to capitalize on potential new birds in a region or state, wherever you plan to visit.
Thanks for your continued support

As contributors to eBird, we hope that you value the services we provide. Your dedication and commitment to eBird has been invaluable in helping us develop the project. We are grateful to be part of such an engaged, intelligent community. By donating to eBird, you can help support the work that we do, and ultimately help us conserve the biodiversity of birds and their habitats. Thanks again for a great 2010, we look forward to an even better 2011!

Team eBird