Tom McNeil, May 2014 eBirder of the Month

By Team eBird June 12, 2014

Tom McNeil and his partner Cathy Myers at one of 117 locations where he submitted a checklist during May 2014.

Please join us in congratulating Tom McNeil of Elizabethton, TN, USA, winner of the May 2014 eBird Challenge, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optic. 328 birders submitted at least 100 checklists during the month of May making them eligible for this contest. Tom’s name was drawn at random from this group. Some of you may be wondering, how is it possible to enter 100 checklists in a single month?! We asked Tom to let us know how he did it. Here’s what Tom said: “Wow!  This is still a total surprise!  I’m surprised at both the luck in being selected and in the fact that I submitted over 100 checklists for May 2014!  Haha….I double-checked the numbers to make sure (which is one of the things that is quick and easy to do on eBird). This past January marked 25 years that I have been birding, so I will think of it as an anniversary gift as well.

I became interested in birds as an undergraduate biology student at East Tennessee State University. Actually, prior to taking an ornithology class under Dr. Fred Alsop in 1989, I was not-at-all interested in birds. Dr. Alsop informed us that the course would change our lives forever…and he was correct! Once, on a coastal field trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a naturalist at the NC Aquarium asked us if we were birding as a club or a class. Dr. Alsop calmly answered “It is just a way of life”. For me, those words are even more true today than they were at that time. After finishing graduate school at ETSU, I began teaching biology classes at Northeast State Community College in Blountville, TN, and have been there ever since.

In describing how I use eBird, I thought at first that it might be easier to tell you how I do not use it. I was going to make the statement that “I do not use eBird for grocery shopping”. But then, I suddenly realized that I have submitted several checklists from grocery store parking lots in multiple states! I guess eBird has become “just a way of life”. May the 2nd is a good example of a somewhat typical day. Before leaving for work on that day, I spent a few minutes birding on the back deck. I arrived at work a bit early, so I birded along the walkway to the building entrance. After class, I drove to a local park for some birding time. Then I stopped briefly on the way home. Once home, I opened the doors and windows and began an afternoon list, which can often be quite different from a morning list.

 I have been using eBird for less than two years, but in that time I have submitted over 2,500 checklists. Many of those checklists were from the boxes of field-cards that I have saved over the years. That shoe-box data is now archived and available to anyone that would need it. It is also contributing to the scientific understanding of birds distributions. Plus, I can access the data in lots of different ways. With just one click, I could pull-up every American Robin observation that I have made at an individual birding spot or in the entire world! That is awesome! The Bar Charts are one of my favorite eBird tools for looking at data for a particular area and making predictions about arrival/departure times.

But, the tool that has made me such an avid eBirder is the BirdsEye BirdLog app. Taking notes in the field and then returning home to enter them in a data base can be quite time-consuming…especially if you have birded multiple locations on a single day. That was the primary reason that I was resistant to using eBird for so long. But with BirdLog – I record the data, add details if needed, and submit directly from the field. My phone has replaced my pad and pencil. The locations can be quickly accessed by map, species can be pulled-up by band codes, and individuals can be added by simply tapping the number. Also, I can quickly generate a complete tally at the end of the day. These time-saving tricks make record-keeping quick and easy.

I did enjoy a great deal of birding in May. My partner, Cathy Myers, and I traveled to Arizona and Texas for a couple of weeks of exciting birding. This was her first time traveling west of Oklahoma, so she added a total of 118 species to her life list. I was able to pick-up 17 life birds. And yes, eBird played a major role in allowing us to find some of those species. The View and Explore Data features are fantastic for narrowing down precise spots to look for specific species. Prior to leaving, I spent a few days using these features (especially the Range/Point Maps and Explore a Location). Using that data, we were able to quickly find Burrowing Owl and Tropical Kingbird in Tucson; Elegant Trogon and Whiskered Screech-Owl in Cave Creek Canyon; and Olive Warbler in Flagstaff… many other species. We monitored the Rare Bird Alerts on eBird as well.

We submitted checklists at every location we birded, even at the interstate rest stops!  Another nice eBird feature is the ability to share a checklist with others in your party.

Here are a dozen areas we birded:

Buffalo Lake NWR

Kachina Wetlands

Upper Lake Mary

Coconino NF–Schultz Pass

Oak Creek Canyon–West Fork

Grand Canyon–South Rim

The Arboretum at Flagstaff

Sweetwater Wetlands

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Lake Cochise

Cave Creek Canyon–South Fork

Pedernales Falls SP

Also, our local bird club (Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society) annually recognizes members who reach 200 species in our five-county area. Cathy and I made an attempt to reach that number before we headed west (and we made it). Of course, that extra effort also helped boost the number of checklists submitted for May.

My sincere thanks goes out to the entire eBird and Cornell Lab team for the fantastic job that you do!

— Tom McNeil