A Historical Perspective

By Ashley Peele July 25, 2018
Least Tern courtship

(CO Bob Schamerhorn)

Veteran BBA volunteer Mike Stinson reflects on atlasing in the era before eBird.

Imagine working on a breeding bird atlas in a pre-internet world where The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird platform amounts to little more than a sci-fi pipedream.

There is no Facebook, no email updates, no Google, no searchable online database allowing for easy comparisons of birdsong recordings. Cameras are analog and must be loaded with rolls of film containing about 30 exposures that then have to be dropped off and developed at a brick-and-mortar photo lab. (After all this, you still have to pick up the rotary phone, spend a full minute dialing a friend, setup a time and place to meet physically, then finally get together to show off your pics and discuss the bird in question.) Should you visit a rural area and need advice, sans cellphone, you politely ask to make a call from a country store—and are denied because the number isn’t local. In the field, you’re encumbered by paper checklists. Once completed, you tuck the records into an envelope, affix a postage stamp, and mail the precious info to a BBA coordinator. After hearing nada for weeks, you pray the mailman hasn’t lost everything and rendered your labors pointless.

Compared to today’s wired-in reality—where, for those with a data plan and smart-phone, there’s little that isn’t a voice-command or quick thumb-swipe away—the early days were… so… mind-… bendingly… s-l-o-o-w-w-w.

Many of Virginia’s veteran birders remember the experience well. Only, as natives of a non-digitally augmented society, what millennials might call ‘struggles’ were their ‘par for the course.’

“It’s funny looking back on all this more than thirty years later,” says VABBA2 Region 4 coordinator and eBird reviewer, Mike Stinson. As a 21-year-old, Stinson signed up as a volunteer birder for the VABBA in 1985. From 1988 to ‘91, he spent summers working as a paid technician for Kentucky’s first Atlas. “I heard about the first [VABBA] by word of mouth through a [Virginia Society of Ornithology] or local bird club meeting.” Back then, if you wanted to participate, you signed up and were snail-mailed information and instructions.

Mike Stinson

In the old days, would-be atlasers were assigned to blocks near where they lived. Without access to project-oriented social media and digital communications, many worked in isolation. If they didn’t live in an area with an outgoing community of birders, their contact with the project was probably limited to form letters and occasional phone calls.

“There was no sense of what the big picture looked like, beyond an understanding that you were working with this—” amorphous and hopefully many-membered— “group of birders to create a detailed statewide map of distribution and breeding activity,” says Stinson. Basically, an atlaser received his or her checklists, instructions, and assignment, and that was that. “You had no clue what anyone else was doing. The whole idea of an atlas was a new concept,” and, “you just tried to do your best to get out in the field, follow directions, and hope that it all added up to a coherent final product.”

In addition to less publicity, the lack of infrastructure (read: no internet!) and inability to access a ready-made supportive community led non-enthusiasts to shy from the project. But with the implementation of eBird and social media platforms, that is changing. Though approximately 400 birders participated in the first VABBA, more than 975 have contributed during the VABBA2’s first three seasons alone.

Stinson says the boost has much to do with the project’s inbuilt sense of digital community.

“I was atlasing this morning and when I got home I saw that [an atlaser] in Mathews County had located a colony of Least Terns and posted photos to the VABBA2 Facebook page,” says Stinson with a laugh. The connectivity helps keep morale high by assuring birders they’re not alone and facilitating interactions despite geographic distance. “That kind of instant feedback was unfathomable during the first atlas. If something really interesting happened, unless the birder knew you personally, or the finding made it into a VSO newsletter, you probably weren’t going to hear about it.”

According to VABBA2 director Dr. Ashley Peele, the ability for birders to witness their contributions creating an atlas in real-time is a major benefit of eBird. If a birder begins to feel disconnected, or that their efforts are futile, they can simply log into the database and check out the latest Atlas Effort Maps.

On a micro level, birders can (almost) watch entries as they’re being posted by peers. Whereas, in terms of the bigger picture, Stinson says “you can find out, immediately, which survey blocks need work and which have been completed.” Additionally, birders can now travel anywhere in the state and contribute—and that mobility invites increased participation and investiture. “It’s a big change, because, in the [1980s], you basically covered the areas that were assigned to you and that was it. You didn’t know what was going on anywhere else and, unless you were on the inside, or wrote in to request further information, there was no way to find out.” But now, with eBird, “you see the project and database growing in almost real-time. That’s a big boost and makes it a lot more fun.”

Meanwhile, implementing eBird has brought improvements to the administrative side of things as well. For instance, Stinson says the platform has dramatically simplified the process of reviewing records.

During early BBAs, reviewers had to sift through physical documents to verify observations that would, collectively, make up the atlas. With very few photos, they were left to rely on handwritten notes. If doubts arose concerning a breeding confirmation or species sighting, a phone call had to be made.

Now, digital filters are helping to catch potentially erroneous inputs. “We no longer have to look at every single entry … and that makes things far more efficient,” says Stinson. Logging into eBird, he accesses a queue of entries that have been flagged for review. Within a couple of clicks, he’s assessing observations. Sometimes, a sighting date or location puts a bird somewhere it wasn’t likely to be. Other times, it’s a simple typo, where “someone plugged in the number ten instead of a one,” which may or may not be easy to spot. If Stinson needs to ask the birder a question, he can do so via email.

But could you imagine spending day after day combing through the VABBA2’s current database of more than 600,000 physical entries looking for problematic sighting dates and physical characteristics, much less trying to decipher participants’ hand-written scrawl? “It certainly wouldn’t be fun,” Stinson says. And the quality of data would subsequently decline.

While both Stinson and Peele are quick to point out the eBird database is not without its flaws, they do so with a big caveat: This is a system that is persistently evolving—and at a breakneck pace.

“It’s come a very long way in a brief period of time and is constantly being improved,” says Stinson. “Now, if a state was talking about conducting a breeding bird atlas, I wouldn’t be asking if they were going to integrate with eBird, but how. At this point, to not use it would be crazy!”

~Eric Wallace, VABBA2 Communications

For more information about the evolution of eBird’s filter system, see our recently article on VA’s Data Guys.

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