eBird on the Road with Birds of Passage

By Team eBird July 20, 2014
Ocellated Quail

Kathi Borgmann and Josh Beck have been eBirding on the road for the last 12 months, logging birds nearly every day from Baja California to Panama. They have submitted over 520 checklists, observed over 1,125 species, and even ranked as the number one eBirders for Mexico in 2013. How do they eBird on the road with unreliable or nonexistent internet access? Kathi and Josh tell us how. All images and text from Kathi and Josh.

We are on an amazing journey; birding in nearly every country from Mexico to Chile and submitting all of our bird sightings to eBird along the way. We left San Diego, California on June 22, and were only 10 miles south of Tecate when we started logging birds (American Crow barely makes it into Mexico, better pick it up in the border zone!). We log birds nearly every day and have submitted over 520 checklists to eBird from Baja to Panama. In addition to submitting checklists to eBird, we are recording bird sounds for the Macaulay Library at Cornell University as well as documenting new and well-known birding locations, conservation issues, and more on our blog, Birds of Passage. We have seen, logged to eBird, and frequently photographed or recorded many lesser-known

Rosita's Bunting

Rosita’s Bunting

and rarer species during our Journey such as the elusive Sinaloa Martin, Vizcaino (Le Conte’s) Thrasher, Townsend’s Shearwater, Aztec Thrush, Sumichrast’s and Nava’s Wrens, Spotted Rail, Ocellated Quail, and many more. With so little known about some species of birds it is very exciting to be able to document the presence of a species as well as record their vocalizations. Although Spotted Rails are not that uncommon we found ourselves birding in a lesser-known location in the Yucatan peninsula and found a Spotted Rail where previously none have been reported. Perhaps our observations of the Spotted Rail in Campeche will help expand what is known about this species.

eBird has been a fantastic tool for us and we use it whenever we can get internet access. It seems that there is always something we want to look up or research on eBird. When we are looking for a regional endemic or other sought after species we often use the range and point maps tool on eBird to help us figure out where to start looking for our targets. But we also look at species lists from the Hotspot tool to see what species we should expect to see at specific birding destinations. Or perhaps we heard a bird and we couldn’t nail it down between two closely related, similar sounding species, and we want to see what other people are reporting at that site. There is so much information in eBird that helps us plan our journey, find birds, and learn. Not only can we find out where birds are located, find birding hotspots, but we can also find out who are the active birders in every country. Meeting up with local birders and making friends has been one of the most rewarding parts of our journey. We have met some truly amazing people during our journey with whom we have had the opportunity to share birding experiences, learn about and occasionally contribute to local conservation efforts, as well as just exchange stories!

Lanceolated Monklet

eBird really does make birding on the road so much easier but keeping up on our list submissions is another story. While many people use phone applications such as BirdLog to log their birds in eBird on the fly with ease, these phone applications can be challenging when there is not consistent cellular service and when you’re birding outside of the US. Although it is possible to download checklists offline and log birds while offline, doing this can still be difficult when birding in remote locations. I guess the truth of the matter is that I still love my notebook and the old fashion way of recording birds. When birding in a whirlwind mixed species flock in the tropics, sifting through the ~2000 birds in North America for each of the 30+ species you’re trying to log is way too cumbersome when your eyes should be on the canopy picking out the quieter, rarer birds in the flock! We log our birds in our trusty moleskins every day and import checklists when we get internet access.

[Team eBird note: In BirdLog, if you start a checklist for a state you know you’ll be birding in tomorrow–like Campeche–you will then have access to that bird list (less than 2000 species) by using: 1) Create Offline checklist; 2) Default checklist = recent checklist. If you can plan ahead in this way, this process gives full access to site-specific eBird filters, even when offline. But using notebooks are great too! Back to Kathi and Josh…]

eBird has an online data entry portal, but we find that it is much easier to import our checklists using the excel eBird record format because we do not always have reliable internet access and there are far, far, far fewer page reloads, clicks, searches, and the like required. We recently entered over 1100 records across a

Unicolored Jay

Unicolored Jay

week of birding that comprised nearly 20 checklists. For those of you that eBird, you know how long that would take. It took us well under an hour. Entering our data in excel, which requires typing out each species name, might at first appear time consuming, but it’s actually quite speedy thanks to excel’s auto complete functions, the glories of cut and paste, almost no need for the mouse, and no need to wait for pages to load while on a slow as molasses connection in a remote part of the tropics. We simply start typing the name of the bird we saw and excel will auto complete the field if we have an entry for this species earlier in our excel file. Then it’s only a matter of hitting tab a few times, dropping in the number of individuals we saw that day, hitting enter, and typing the next species. At the end of a checklist you duplicate the details of the location, time, effort, etc. Location details are fairly easy to add when you have a GPS receiver to record your location in the field, but if you do not have coordinates you can always pick a location off the map during the import process, although this takes a bit longer. When we have finished entering our lists we save the excel file as a csv file and import our file to eBird. The best thing about the import process is that eBird finds your typos and tells you if you typed a bird name incorrectly. It can be hard to remember if it is currently Common Black Hawk or Common Black-Hawk, or if you have to enter Crowned Woodnymph

Agami Heron

Agami Heron

(Violet-crowned) or Crowned Woodnymph (Violet-crowned Woodnymph) or if the current name for the species is Yucatan Parrot or Yellow-lored Parrot! When we get a name wrong, we simply fix the name using the eBird tools and we are done. A few things cannot be done using the bulk import functions. You cannot attach photos during the import process and you do not get a notification that the bird you are reporting is rare and therefore requires more documentation. We do unfortunately cause a bit of work for the regional eBird reviewers as we frequently report rare species in eBird without fully realizing that our observation was not very common. As a result, we get a lot of emails asking us to verify our observations. Who knew that relaxing in the afternoon at the edge of a clearing at a remote site in the Yucatan, watching scores of Scaled Pigeons commuting to roost in the evening constitutes a rare sighting, or that a Rock Wren on a dry, rocky, scrubby hillside in the middle of nowhere in northern Nicaragua is noteworthy? Those issues

Kathi and Josh

Kathi and Josh

aside, the bulk imports are really easy to use and make eBirding on the road much easier. There is a great tutorial on how to use the bulk import tool on eBird for first time users.

Our birding adventures can be followed on our blog where you will find information on birding locations from Baja to Panama (thus far, eventually all the way to Chile and Argentina), birding tips, eBird lists, and much more. Happy Birding!