Summer Breeding Bird Challenges: An Interview with Alex Wiebe

By Sarah Toner June 19, 2016

Recently fledged young includes these downy Killdeer chicks and confirms breeding for this species. Jay McGowan/Macaulay Library (ML29292751)

This week, we interviewed Alex Wiebe, a freshman birder at Cornell University. Alex has done many big days and competitive birding events, from setting monthly big day records in his home state of Maryland to leading winning teams in the World Series of Birding run by New Jersey Audubon. Last summer, Alex and many of his young birder friends created a competition to document breeding for as many species in Maryland as possible.

Can you describe how the competition worked?

The competition, which we called the “Breeding Bird Challenge,”  was an attempt to make local summer birding more exciting. The objective of the competition is to try to accrue the most points from a point system based on eBird breeding bird codes. Each species a participant sees during the period can count for 0-3 species. The point system is as follows:

0 points: Bird seen or heard, no breeding code.

1 point: Possible breeding.

2 points: Probable breeding.

3 points: Confirmed breeding.

You can find more information about how each of these birding codes are defined on the eBird website:

Over the course of the period, you can upgrade your points for a species as you record it to a higher level of breeding confirmation. I keep a spreadsheet to easily keep track of the points I have for each species. The objective of the competition is to accumulate the most points over the period selected. My friends and I did the competition in the month of July and added up our points from the whole month, but birders could also do the competition in a day or week.

Summer Breeding Bird Challenge Spreadsheet

A spreadsheet keeping track of the highest level of breeding confirmed for each species. Photo courtesy Alex Wiebe.

How did you and your friends come up with the idea?

The idea actually came from the coordinators of a summer program sponsored by the Youth Maryland Ornithological Society (YMOS) for middle and high schoolers. Some friends of mine who had participated in the program told me about the competition, which they had done with other people in the program. When they first did it, they split up into small teams and did the same competition for one day in the forests and farmland of eastern Maryland. The winning team was the team that had the most points from the point system described above after that one day. They loved the competition and recorded breeding codes for some cool birds, like Chuck-will’s-widow, Dickcissel, and American Woodcock, and we thought it would be fun to try it on a larger scale for the month of July.

How did you keep track of what you had seen and recorded as breeding?

I kept a spreadsheet of the species I had seen and columns for the level each species was at. The spreadsheet had a column for each “possible,” “probable,” and “confirmed” breeding levels, and I calculated my total with a simple “sum” command.

Alex's spreadsheet for keeping track of the points: the Sum Function automatically weights each "1" according to the value of the category.

Alex’s spreadsheet for keeping track of the points: the Sum function automatically weights each “1” according to the value of the category.

What were some of your favorite experiences during the challenge?

I recorded breeding codes for 23 species of warbler in Maryland, and some friends and I ran a Maryland Big Day that broke Maryland’s July Big Day record and netted us a ton of points for our July Breeding Bird Challenge. On our Big Day alone, we recorded breeding codes for five species of owl in Maryland.

Who won last year? Will you and your friends be doing it again?

I won last year with a total of 246 points. I will be away this summer, but some of my friends may be doing it again this year. The YMOS will also likely include the one day competition in its summer program schedule. The youth birders in Maryland I know are a competitive bunch, and I bet they will do some variation on this competition this summer.

What advice would you give to people planning their own breeding challenges?

To see the most birds and get the most points, visit a variety of habitats and locations. Fledgling calls, which are usually high pitched, can be hard to identify but can be identifiable with practice and can at least lead you to recently fledged young, which qualify that species for the “Confirmed” breeding code.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the challenge?

My friends and I did the competition as a friendly, casual competition that helped us get out and bird over the summer. Other youth birders could take a similar approach and do the competition more casually, or they could try to make it a bit more competitive. At the very least, the Breeding Bird Challenge can get youth birders out birding with their friends, with a little competition as an incentive.

Breeding codes are extremely valuable to scientists. Knowing where a species is currently breeding is important when estimating how many individuals there are (since breeding birds tend not to move around as much as migrants). It can also guide conservation efforts by showing preferred habitat and areas with high densities of individuals. More information about breeding codes is available here. Creating Breeding Bird Challenges is a great way to encourage taking a closer look at familiar summer birds while collecting valuable data for scientists. 

To encourage more eBirders to document breeding, the YBN is holding a challenge through the end of the year. Each complete checklist with breeding codes submitted through the Young Birders Network Portal will automatically count as an entry into a drawing for a pair of Zeiss binoculars. More details about this challenge are available here.

-Sarah Toner