Best Practices for Entering Your Yard Sightings in eBird

By Kent McFarland January 18, 2016
bird feeders

Recording yard birds on a cold and windy day. / K.P. McFarland

Many birders do a lot of their birding at home, especially at this time of year. We can easily be distracted by other things – phone calls, chores, family members, or even a sudden hockey goal or touchdown. One of our most frequently asked questions is how best to report checklists of birds noticed in discontinuous chunks of time throughout the day in your yard and around the bird feeders.

Below are some guidelines to making the most of entering checklists from your yard, office, or other similar situations:

Option 1: Submit an effort-based checklist (e.g., Stationary or Traveling Count) each time that you focus on observing birds for a continuous duration; the resulting series of checklists then covers the distinct periods you were birding in your yard each day.

Option 2: Submit one or two (or more) effort-based checklists when you were observing birds for a continuous duration, and add an Incidental checklist for all the others species seen that day but not reported on those effort-based checklists; the effort-based checklists add value to your data (see below), and the incidental checklist lets you add the birds to your yard list that were encountered outside your more focused observation periods.

Option 3: Submit only one Incidental checklist with all the birds seen in discontinuous chunks of time throughout the day.

Within eBird, all sightings have value and we try to use all sightings in analyses. But checklists with more information (i.e., complete effort-based checklists) are easier to use in many cases, especially for more advanced analyses.

Complete, effort-based checklists and why they are important

The best checklists you can submit are effort-based checklists that include all the species you were able to identify over a defined, continuous, duration and distance. In most cases, this means choosing a stationary or traveling count and reporting all the species you identified. These protocols have these requirements:

  • Distance is important because you will detect more birds as you travel further. Of course, you don’t need to enter distance for stationary counts because you don’t travel more than a few meters.
  • Duration is important because with more time in the field, you will detect more birds.
  • Start time is important because it dramatically affects how easy it is to find birds. Aside from a few owls and nightjars, you are unlikely to see much at midnight. But at the same location at dawn, you may detect a dozen or more species in under a minute. At midday, many species become hard to find, but you are more likely to see soaring raptors. And at dusk you may tally impressive roost counts of herons, ducks, swallows, or starlings.
  • Reporting all species that you detected within that time, distance and start time allows us to understand what species you did not detect. With the accumulation of many checklists we can either infer absence, or infer the times of day when a species may be very difficult to detect. We often refer to checklists that report all species as complete checklists.

By gathering effort information from hundreds of thousands of checklists, we can understand how detectability varies for different species, how it is influenced by distance, duration, start time and how these interact with each other and variables like location and habitat.

Best practices for effort-based checklists (Traveling, Stationary)

To make your data most valuable, we encourage you to enter a different checklist each time you go into your yard and are focused on birding. It might sound daunting to enter these as separate eBird checklists, but these data add a tremendous amount of research and conservation value to your observations. You may also be surprised to see what you learn about times of day. When do you detect the most hawks? Do sparrows or woodpeckers start vocalizing earlier in the day? When do they become quiet? Do some species sing more in the evening than others? How does this change throughout the year?

Consider using eBird Mobile, our free data entry app for smartphones, to make this process as easy as possible. To start, you may want to do one short (5 – 20 minute) effort-based count each day. Try making it a game: how many species can you detect during your daily 15-minute count? Can you improve your species tally by changing the time of day? Once you are used to these occasional short counts, try doing a couple on weekends. With time, you might start doing a few short effort-based counts from several different locations each day.

Non effort-based observations from your yard (Incidental) 

What should you do about birds that you see at various times throughout the day?

Many of us note birds as we go about our day in the yard or at work, whether it be doing yard work or while washing dishes at the sink, or spotting birds out of the office window or from a meeting. At times, we may even listen carefully for birds and try to detect all the species we saw, but these observations are broken up throughout the day and maybe we don’t have time to enter a dozen different checklists. These observations are valuable for establishing the presence of a bird at a given location and date, and are best entered using the Incidental protocol.

But wait. I am reporting all the species I saw, but just not the effort information. Incidental doesn’t let me indicate that I am reporting all species. What do I do?

The question “are you reporting all species you observed” assumes that you were paying close attention for birds throughout your eBirding, and that the observation duration was continuous. While a list of birds seen throughout a day does have an associated duration over which observations were made, it does not have “effort” information in the narrower sense of information about a continuous period of time in which birding was the primary goal. Who knows what you might have missed while vacuuming and during your midday siesta! The reason we ask for you to report all species is to be able to assess why some species were not detected. But if we don’t know when you started, how long you were birding, or how long you were there, we can’t meaningfully understand why you may not have detected other species. And if the observation times are widely discontinuous, then we lose the ability to tie your observations to the time of day when they occurred.

Many eBirders opt to do one or two effort-based checklists, and then submit another Incidental list of various species seen throughout the day, which is a great way to eBird your yard (or any other location where you make interesting observations throughout the day).

The most important thing is to preserve effort-based protocols (primarily Traveling and Stationary Counts) for the best information that can be provided while eBirding. On these lists, Start Time + Duration signify continuous effort, distances for Traveling Counts describe how much ground was covered, and the “complete checklist” question lets us know if you in fact reported everything. If your list lacks any of the key variables—Distance, Start Time, and Duration—or if the effort is discontinuous, then the data are still valuable, but should be entered as Incidental since they don’t really equate to a focused birding effort with continuous effort.