Thursday, January 26, 2012

eBirder interview: Shawneen Finnegan

Name: Shawneen Finnegan
Home town: Portland, Oregon
How long birding? 29 years
How long eBirding? 4 years

Why is eBird important?
eBird has several levels of importance for me. First, it is easy to use and allows me to track my personal observations. Admittedly I have always been a chronic list keeper. The most important aspect of using eBird is that it allows me to easily contribute to the understanding of bird status and distribution no matter where I go. While my individual sightings may not be significant, when added together with those of other observers, it can make a huge impact. Many people watch birds everyday, be it out their kitchen window or birding hard all day long. Consider the database we might generate if all of these people kept track of what they saw and entered it into eBird. The number of data points collected would be staggering and invaluable in monitoring trends. This is citizen science at its best. No matter how many scientists are working on collecting scientifically-based data, they can't match amount of data that amateur birdwatchers can generate if we all start contributing our checklists to the eBird database. Fascinating animations are already being created using our data. One of my favorite animations is that of the Pacific Wren / Winter Wren pair. It helps one visually understand why the species was split. See

The most valuable type of data comes from observations made during regular (daily/weekly) visits to the same area, especially if you cover that area using consistent protocols (i.e. covering the same route at the same time of day). Keeping track of what you see in your backyard, home patch, or a favorite birding locale can provide valuable information. For example, Wink Gross recently shared a program at our local Portland Audubon Birder's Night about what he has learned by keeping track of the birds he sees and hears during daily dogwalks in the neighborhood around Pittock Mansion. Wink has been recording his observations over many years, thus his data reveals population changes in some species that wouldn't necessarily be evident otherwise. Entering this sort of collection of observations into eBird makes it easy to do and gives those interested in analyzing the data access to your information.

Somewhere in my storage locker are trip lists, birding notes, and rare bird writeups that eventually I would like to enter into eBird. Though my notes vary in detail, eventually having that information go into a database means that there is some greater use for my notes than just keeping track of lists.

How has eBird changed the way you watch birds?
It has greatly enriched my birding experience and taught me be more observant. I always kept track of what I saw, but now instead making a list at the end of the day I keep lists for separate locations. It makes one look more closely at age and gender, which really helps one learn how to identify birds. Counting birds was never something I enjoyed doing, but now it is fairly automatic and rewarding in its own way.

In what areas has eBird not changed the way you watch birds?
It hasn't changed at all the fact that I love to look at birds, or my appreciation of them.

How has eBird changed the face of birding?
I believe that eBirders become much better birders faster. It changes the way you look at birds. It has provided a citizen-science platform more accessible to all of us than any other that I am aware of. And the data we provide helps us understand what is going on with birds in far more detail than ever before. Data is now being submitted for many Christmas Bird Counts and Point Counts.

Why should someone start eBirding? What's the incentive?
For starters, I think it's fun. It is easy to keep track of what you see and where. If you bird with other people it is simple to share both note taking and data entry duties. For example, if you are birding with a friend or a field trip full of people, you can share your combined sightings with them either by emailing them a copy of the list or if they are already an "eBirder" then the list can automatically be added to their eBird account. Did you see something the other person didn't? Just add it in. If they spotted something you didn't see, it's just as easy to delete that species from your copy of the checklist without affecting the person's list who entered the data. It is fun to look at a map to see how many different places one has submitted notes, not only in one's local haunts, but virtually anywhere one travels.

Do you have any personal eBird goals as respect special birding locations or species?
I want to try and keep better track of what is going on in my neighborhood and at the house. It is pretty slim pickings at my abode so it isn't much work! eBird makes me want to explore more. There are many far flung corners of Oregon and even in my local area that is underbirded. By looking at eBird generated maps the rarely birded areas become more obvious. There is a good article recently posted to the eBird website showing such examples at:

How do you use eBird data?
In a variety of ways. I am signed up for several bird alerts--my local county, Oregon, and the USA so I can see what interesting birds are being seen. One very cool use is for navigating to an interesting location or rare bird. Using a smart phone or other GPS device one can click on a sighting and get the map and directions with just a few keystrokes. When traveling one can also use this technique to get to locations that you are not familiar with.

I have used the "Explore Data" links to research bird occurrence for trips, at my job, and in the past year since becoming a subregional editor for North American Birds I mine the data for interesting sightings and date spans. The national alert helps me track new sightings for BirdArea, a global database I have worked on for over 20 years.