Using accurate and specific eBird locations

By Team eBird March 30, 2016

One of the most important parts of eBird is the location where you went birding. Every sighting has to have a location, and every data output in eBird relies on accurate locations. But how do you best select a location when traveling to a new place, or even birding around town? eBird asks for your locations to be as specific as possible, allowing us to understand where birds occur and what habitats they use at the finest scales. From this location-specific information, it is always possible to scale up to a broader level—a good example is the purple squares in the Species Map. However, the reverse is never possible. For scientists and for other birders, more specific locations are always best.

eBird is founded upon accurate location plotting and works best when locations are both accurate and precise. When entering data on the website under Submit Observations, we suggest using the “Find it on a Map” option. On eBird Mobile, you can use “Choose a Location From Map.” These options provide better information about your sightings, benefitting both you, your friends, and the researchers and conservationists who use eBird data on a regular basis—some specifics on that here:

Sharing with others: Imagine you are a birder and receive a report of a Glaucous Gull—a continental rarity—in Morocco. A point plotted in the center of the country that says “Morocco” won’t help other birders, since there is no way to know where the bird is being seen. If you plot your point on a map—instead of choosing “Entire city, county, state, or country”—then not only will birders be more able to refind your bird, but we’ll learn more about it as they track its movements, help understand how long it stays, and help you document this exciting rarity.

Sharing with science: The more specific data is also useful for science. Every migration visualization that you have seen that uses eBird data relies on site-specific information—like the annual cycle of 118 species.

Personal records: More specific data is also better for you. Suppose you submit a list from “New Mexico,” but you don’t keep track of specific locations. Later you move to Bernanillo County, New Mexico, and start tracking your county lists and local patch lists. Even if you had visited the county and its top birding spots before, you won’t have access to your own records because you previously recorded them at a broad scale.

How to plot your location: Zoom in using the tools at top left or by scrolling, and you will see all of your personal locations (blue markers) along with all the hotspots (red markers, with the flame inside). When possible, you should use hotspots—but you should make sure to choose a location that accurately represents where you went birding. If a hotspot doesn’t cover it, then you should make a new location by clicking on the map and giving it a name that accurately reflects your birding location.

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Imagine you visited Brompton Cemetery and kept a complete list of the birds you saw, including a Eurasian Wryneck, which is an exciting rarity for London. Simply click on the map to plot your green pin and give the spot an appropriate name. Plotting your location accurately is critically important for science, for keeping an accurate list of the birds of the cemetery, and for the hordes of twitchers heading out to see your Wryneck!

Note: Some users that have GPS points may opt for the “Submit using Latitude or Longitude” option (found on the main Submit Observations page). However, we strongly recommend you do this from the mapping page, since you can actually type the latitude and longitude using this format “59.5356177,-1.6300964” right in the “Zoom to” box at the top of the data entry page. This will show you the plotted point to help make sure that you haven’t accidentally made typos or forgotten to use a negative sign for the Western Hemisphere (longitude) and the Southern Hemisphere (latitude). We address many hundreds of lat-long errors each year from careless plotting.

Using hotspots: When choosing where you went birding, the first question you should ask is: “is there an existing location that would be appropriate?” Each eBird hotspot can be thought of as representing a route or area with roughly similar birding. A park criss-crossed with a network of trails can be plotted in eBird using the general hotspot. A wildlife refuge with a loop drive that is full of birds and has multiple bird-filled stops to check can also be submitted as a traveling count for the length of the wildlife drive—all entered under one hotspot. But if you want to be more precise, you can keep a list for a specific trail or viewpoint on a wildlife drive, and often these hotspots exist as well. If you do not see a hotspot that matches where you birded, you should feel free to plot a new point and suggest it as a hotspot when appropriate.

Every eBirder should periodically check his or her Manage My Locations page. It is good practice to periodically check for Personal Locations that are duplicates of hotspots and to merge your locations with the hotspot. This will improve the hotspot output and reduce the map clutter on species range maps. As mentioned above though, only do this if you have an actual duplicate, such as a Personal Location for “Holland Park” in the above image from London, England.

Avoid general locations… For your recent birding, it should always be possible to plot your birding at a specific level that matches a hotspot or a location that you create: this just requires keeping shorter lists rather than “day lists”. We realize that some birders may have older data that is too late to break out by location. For this scenario, eBird allows the “Select an entire city, county, state, or country” option. This is meant to be used ONLY when you cannot provide any information that is more specific. Always pick the most specific option that represents your birding. If you criss-crossed state boundaries and you do not recall what birds were seen where, then perhaps “country” level is the most specific option you can give. Using these locations comes with this warning: “Please consider using more precise locations when reporting to eBird so that your observations are more valuable for analysis.” Note that records entered at country, state, or county locations are for your personal data and are not shown on the maps and other data output. This is because plotting a point for Great Shearwater seen in “United States” would place it somewhere at the geographical center of the country, maybe near Kansas and definitely far from where Great Shearwater has ever occurred. Similarly, we would not want to plot a Pelagic Cormorant or Black-vented Shearwater that you saw at La Jolla, California, as a submission from “San Diego County” since this would place a marker for the species high in the mountains in the county’s center and far from where you were positioned at the time of the sighting. Of the four options available in“Select an entire city, county, state, or country”, selecting an entire city is the most specific. However, it is almost always possible to be more precise: was your birding restricted to a specific park or pedestrian walkway? If so, try to find that hotspot instead. These types of records are still useful for your personal lists, but if you have noteworthy records that you want to make sure appear on the maps, be sure to enter as precise a location as possible.

The right way to be lazy: As we say above, you should avoid general locations…except when you can’t. Sometimes you just don’t have the exact location (as in the case of many old records). Or perhaps you are leading a tour and you just don’t have the time to keep specific locations for every list. That’s okay too. You can select an entire State, County, or City and submit your data that way. These data won’t show up in the eBird output (maps, bar charts, etc.) or in the data we share with researchers, but they will show up in your personal records. The important thing is to be precise and accurate when you can. When you can’t, select an entire state or county.

Keeping your lists in the field: As a general rule, you should jot down the end time and stop your current bird list anytime you get in a car (or other vehicle) to get to another location for a birding stop: once you arrive at a new site, start a new list. We often recommend that traveling counts be 5 miles or less, but this is mostly because most birders cover five miles or less on their birding outings. The goal is mostly to prevent visits to multiple discrete sites being lumped together on the same list. If a wildlife drive is 8 miles and you cover it in one birding event and your birding style is similar throughout, then an 8-mile count makes sense here. If you do a ridgetop hike in the Sierra Nevada and know it is 6.5 miles, then that makes sense to include as a single count. But even on day-long hikes it is almost always best to start a new list at any natural breakpoint: before lunch and after lunch, or the forested part of the hike and the open tundra: this ensures that your birds are more tightly associated with where you saw them.

eBird Mobile helps make location selection and accurate plotting more straightforward, using your location to provide a starting point on the map. While the app will provide an automatically generated name for each location, we generally recommend renaming it to something more helpful to others.

If you have read this, and feel discouraged that you haven’t been keeping lists in this fashion—do not worry! At eBird we fundamentally believe that every sighting has some value, helping expand our global knowledge of bird distribution and abundance. With that in mind, there are still always ways to make the value even greater to everyone who uses eBird as a resource. With improved location plotting in eBird, the data will be more useful to everyone, including yourself!