I blame Nate Swick. For many years now, I’ve resisted every form of listing software available, choosing instead to maintain my world and ABA life lists on a simple Excel spreadsheet. But Nate is an eBird fanatic. At the recent Swarovski Social Media Summit in Arizona, Nate proselytized passionately for the program that both manages your sightings and contributes them to science. His exhortations fell on deaf ears, but once he shared all of our Arizona lists with me, I was hooked!
However, the gargantuan task of exporting my unwieldy list grew no less daunting just because I was finally excited about eBird. In fact, experience proved that the process is actually way more cumbersome and time-consuming than it should be. The agony of eBird is the tremendous barrier to entry to switch over from another format.
In my case, I had to format my excel sheet just so, a considerable task because when I dabbled in Birdstack (gone, alas, but not forgotten) I adopted its formatting as well as the more fluid International Ornithological Congress (IOC) taxonomy, both of which were inimical to that of eBird. After many hours of meticulous preparation, I was ready to import my data, a process that is poorly documented to say the least. Then the fun really started…
The eBird interface came back saying that a whopping 251 species needed clarification. Many interfaces make a process like this easy, but the programmers of eBird seem to have taken special pains to make it tough. A surprising amount of work was required on my part to figure out that what I know as a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan – Ramphastos swainsonii is actually termed a Black-mandibled Toucan (Chestnut-mandibled) –Ramphastos ambiguus swainsonii in the AOU taxonomy. However, recognizing and amending this discrepancy should be automatic for eBird.
The deeper I delved into the list, the more egregious these issues became. For example, we all know that many species had their scientific names changed with lots of familiar genera swapped out. So why did I have to clarify which species I was submitting over and over again for every single Larus, Sterna, Carduelis, Parula, andDendroica on my list? What else would Aimophila cassinii be but Peucaea cassinii? Somehow I missed the announcment that Thryothorus thoracicus became Cantorchilus thoracicus, and to be frank I’m not sorry I did.
Worst of all were all the hyphen issues. The IOC has been on a mission to remove all grammatically incorrect hyphens from common names, but eBird required me to manually return every one to its rightful place. Seriously, why should someone be forced to clarify that a Southern Beardless Tyrannulet is the same species asSouthern Beardless-Tyrannulet. Imagine having to clarify every pygmy-owl, every whistling-duck, every brush-finch… the autocomplete on my cell phone is smarter than this.
eBird doesn’t know what a Black-crowned Night Heron is
Importing locations is even more ridiculous. A contemptuous lack of suggested locations to match the ones submitted forced me to research literally hundreds of locations in the U.S and throughout the Americas just so I could find them on the eBird map — even when the location I listed was a Birding Hotspot on that map! In a sense, the process brought back lots of great memories as I scoured Google Maps to locate places I visited over the last decade. Then again, at 1 in the morning, who cares where Xunantunich in Belize is located. The system might be designed this way in an attempt to extract the most specific data possible, but after going through this process hundreds of times for even common locations like national parks or internationally-renowned birding lodges, I felt abused.
And yet, the ecstasy of eBird is that, once your list is locked in, maintenance should theoretically become much easier. I might prefer the IOC’s generous and frequently updated taxonomy to the American Ornithologists’ Union’s relatively calcified one, but I had to add a new line to my spreadsheet every time I saw a new species. My ABA list suffered from poor documentation, while keeping track of country, state, and county lists wasn’t even a viable option. The eBird interface allows a user to slice and dice lists and sightings in almost every way imaginable. One imagines that eBird has the potential to make a lister out of anyone.
Manually cobbling a list together also necessitates a commitment to keep the taxonomy up to date. The reason my Canada Warbler was listed as Wilsonia canadensis rather than the current Cardellina canadensis is because list maintenance seems about as exciting to me as watching House Sparrows crowd my feeders. The last few years have delivered dramatic, dynamic changes to bird taxonomy and it seems that many more changes are on the horizon. How can a person keep up with this endless wave of revisions? My strategy is to let the software take care of it from now on.
Obviously, I have mixed feelings about eBird. The longer you’ve been tracking birds, the tougher moving to eBird becomes. But entering your sightings into eBird elevates them from mere ticks on a personal list to useful scientific data. Don’t doubt that this data isn’t valued: based on the number of e-mails I’ve already received from eBird reviewers, the data set is monitored closely. Undoubtedly, applications for that data and ways to parse it on the user side are still emerging. One concern when considering adopting a new technology or platform is the fear of having to switch again in just a year or two. But with over 100 million sightings entered, eBird looks like it is here to stay. I’m finally in. How about you? Agony loves company…
Comments on this post are inexplicably disappearing. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment, but please don’t feel ignored if your comment does not show up… I’ll make sure it lands where it should!
It’s been so long since I entered my historic lists that I’ve forgotten the frustration, though the recent trip to Arizona has be looking through my old records and seeing that some are not sited exactly right, being that there are more hotspots available now than there were then.
I may go back and fix it, though I might not. So much as I love eBird (and I really really do), the prospect does not excite me for precisely the reasons you’ve brought up.
But I’m glad you’re in, Mike. About time, really.
Yes, Daunting, but mine is done, done, done.
Now, I start with eBird, download each checklist, then put it into MS Access. But, alas, comments and breeding evidence don’t download. I can sort through the taxonomy and hotspot locations some other time, if ever.
But, as you say, eBird is an amazing service, pretty good for only being around 10 years, and extremely useful in all kinds of ways! love it.
I was fortunate in that I started eBirding within about a year of when I started birding, so I didn’t have the challenge of importing a ton of historical data. I entered those few checklists I had good records for, but basically started eBirding from scratch. That’s why I love eBird so much, it has always maintained my bird data for me.
I feel your pain. I was always too cheap to spring for AviSys or any of the other commercial packages, so I maintained my life lists as web pages. I basically had to go back an enter everything from paper notebooks when I took the plunge. It took a couple of years of chipping away at the backlog, but it’s finally done. I feel good, because I’m making a contribution, however small, to the work the scientists at CLO are doing, and I’ve got great ways of exploring my own birding history in the bargain.
From my observation, the eBird folks really appreciate suggestions for improving the system – but there are only a handful of them working on the technical side of it, so sometimes it takes a while for good ideas to filter into the product.
My transfer to e-birding was both easier and tougher. My lists were not always arranged as e-bird wanted them: I kept track of species, not numbers of individuals. in some cases, typically in where I bird often, I kept track of what I saw, but I not exactly when I saw them. This was especially true of checklists of common species. I had a hand-written list of what i saw but that was about it. Sometimes I didn’t even record a date. I know I’m still missing entries and checklists associated with my sightings, but I’m about as done with entering old data in e-bird as I’m going to gett. It is what it is. Current data? Well, that’s easy and fun and I’m constantly checking it to see what other people in my area see and when and where. I love it!
I suppose that possibly ive bin using the wrong site. I’ve only gotten serious this past spring & ive bin using iBird Pro 2 as my field guide. I just up up dated it last week & it has more options now. I have a life list but I won’t start a year list til january so I guess I should ebird soon 🙂
I sympathize completely. I have been birding since ’75, and I found importing to eBird a huge chore. I gave up.
I have always listed every species seen at each location; putting down numbers seen though never appealed to me.
Long overdue is a species common name, Latin name, split, lump translator program. The whole “Latin is immutable” spiel has been thrown out the window, and can at times seem frivolous. Setophaga instead of Verivora? Should we also change the common name to Moth-eating Warbler?
I love eBird for many reasons – maintaining my personal records, the contribution to science, and the help it provides to birders. When I travel to bird, I always explore eBird records to see what has been reported in that location.
I can’t comment on the upload process since I’ve used eBird from the start. One way that I “cheated” at first was to sometimes just enter a state for the location. It reduces the scientific value of the data, but it maintains your personal list. However, I really do like to see people use hotspot locations when available instead of personal locations so that the date will be included in reporting for the hot spot.
I think that in a few years all serious birders will use eBird, so convert now! It is a lot of fun and it will make you get out and bird more often.
The good news is that entering current data is very user friendly. I love eBird, and wasn’t much of lister before hand so my historical data isn’t onerous. eBird is especially useful up here in Nunavut where there is dearth of data, and with the breeding codes in it makes it even easier to contribute to programs such as the Nunavut/NWT checklist program.
Xunantunich huh? Where’s that then?
I am glad that eBird has brought you into line concerning hyphens. If you need any further help with the placement of capital letters, you might want to look further afield.
eBird is such a great resource for someone who travels around as much as I do and it only seemed fair that I contributed something in return. Entering 20 years of birding records from around the world is still on-going.
I especially look forward to reviewers’ e-mails (emails, eMails?). A recent sighting of a Kalij Pheasant from San Francisco provoked a particularly incredulous note.
Agreed, it can be very tiresome to have to clarify sightings and I have been caught out on a few occasions. By copying the latin name into the text box, the correct selection usually appeared at the top of the suggestion list. After days of clarifying, it became habitual to choose the top offering. If a incorrect selection is made, all other sightings of that clarified species will also be recorded incorrectly and e-mails will be issued from reviewers in all the areas that the bird was recorded from. But being frank, I have also been pulled up for completely wrong identifications.
I started my bird listing with David Ringer’s Birdstack, just a few years ago (I took up birding instead of having a midlife crisis). When Birdstack closed, I moved my lists to eBird, but it wasn’t too hard with the nice instructions that David provided. It did take a bit of fiddling to get eBird to accept all my sightings and I got a couple scolding emails along the way from some regional eBird police. Nevermind. I really liked the search mechanism better in Birdstack, but by now I’ve gotten used to eBird. And my sweet husband has made me a personal, custom search using the eBird API to to find recent sightings near home and locations we plan to visit on vacation, including color-coding the results to show whether they’re on my own life list.
I spent months uploading to the rather wonderful Birdstack, only for it to disappear not long after. Now I’m going through the same process with eBird but don’t really have the heart for it. 35,000 records is a lot to go through no matter how good the system. And you’re right: there’s a lot of massaging and confirming records on the way.