Friday, July 26, 2013

eBird best practices
Using BirdLog

The BirdsEye BirdLog is an application that runs on your smart phone and allows you to create and submit your eBird checklists right from the field. Brian Sullivan of eBird tells me that about 20% of all eBird checklists in the US are submitted by BirdLog and this number is rising rapidly.

I previewed this amazing technology when it first came out in March 2012: BirdsEye Bird Log: Killer app for eBirders.

eBird has their own best practices for BirdLog but I wanted to write my own best practices based on my experience over the last year or so. I'm using an Android phone; the fine details may be slightly different with the Apple iPhone. I do recommend looking at eBird's pointers, though.

Frankly, data coverage for cell phones is spotty in Oregon. I am using Cricket and they use the Sprint network for 3G data. This means that I have web access to the BirdLog phone application at home, up and down the I-5 corridor, and in major towns in the Willamette Valley and along the coast. When I am birding in areas with web access for the BirdLog app on my Android phone, it works quite well. For most of my countryside and forest birding, however, I do not have web access with my phone, and often not even roaming voice or text messaging. There is no web service in the Coast Range, Cascades, and most of the eastern two-thirds of the state. Thus I use the "Create offline checklist" feature of BirdLog on over 50% of my birding trips.

The main differences between the way BirdLog works with the online checklist and the offline checklist are primarily as follows. The offline checklist uses the entire default North American checklist rather than the local list of expected species for that time of year and county. It therefore doesn't know which birds are rare in your area, and sometimes requests confirmation for every species (a bug in the program of (only?) Android phones (has this been fixed in the latest update I just downloaded?). The offline checklist uses the sometimes inaccurate GPS alone to locate your position, and not the seemingly more accurate interactive map of the online checklist. Thus you can't locate your checklist on a hotspot, for instance, until you edit the location at home later. You can save your offline checklists to your phone, but can't submit them to eBird until you are back in the web coverage range again. These differences, however, don't significantly change the way I use BirdLog.

Start the application

When I first pull in to my birding location, before I even get out of the car, I immediately start up a new BirdLog checklist. Because GPS can be off, I always type in a descriptive location in addition to the longitude and latitude coordinates. I'll check, move if necessary, and rename the location later from within eBird, when I get home, using the "edit location/choose new location from a map" option.

Record species

As I bird, I record the new species I detect. This can get distracting, so I tend to bird slower than I used to--a good thing, as I detect more species! But don't miss birds because you have your nose in your phone! After I step out of the car I record what I can see and hear immediately, then only update the species list every 3 species (three being the number of things I can remember without forgetting...).

There are several ways to record species. You can scroll through the list. This is handy to make sure you haven't forgotten something. But if you are working offline you will have the entire North American list, so better only when you have the local list that comes with web access and cell phone coverage. BirdLog uses the bander's 4-letter code (KILL for Killdeer, AMRO for American Robin, WSJA for Western Scrub-Jay, etc.). But also, BirdLog will auto complete after the first 3 letters. So BAR will bring up Barn Owl, Barred Owl, and Barn Swallow for you to choose from. THR will bring up the thrushes and thrashers [Useful tip: if you have web access and are working online, and you see a bird that has a look-alike, say, one of the brown thrushes, typing in THRU will bring up all the local thrushes, but the most common will be listed first.]

Subspecies can be recorded too. MOF will bring up moffitti/maxima Canada Goose. AUD will bring up Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler. For Red-shafted x Yellow-shafted Flicker type FLI and hold your finger down on the drop down list to bring up further options.

Record numbers

I don't record numbers as I see them. Rather, I wait until I am returning to the car to make estimates. This is done by only looking at the species recorded, so I don't have to scroll through birds I haven't seen. When back to the car I check the numbers one final time.

For unusual birds I add COMMENTS to the field when I see them. One great tool is to be able to record the exact GPS coordinates in the comments field. This is newly computed and different from the initial checklist coordinates that were computed when you first started the checklist. This is a great way to give directions to a rare bird! My phone has both Swype and speech-to-text that work very well rather than typing to add comments in the field.

Time and Distance

I estimate how far I walked. Then I hit CALCULATE to record the time, which keeps track of my birding time from when I started the checklist. Since I always start the checklist when I arrive at a birding location, the time is accurate. 


I SAVE the checklist, but don't SUBMIT--even if I have web access. Invariably, as I drive away I'll see something in the parking lot that should be added to the list (or remember a bird I left off). So I'll wait until I am away from the birding area and back in cell coverage submit the list.

Since BirdLog is so easy to use, I create numerous checklists as I travel through the woods or country, often stopping at good looking habitat and doing a 5-15 minute Stationary point count.

More checklists. Checklists right from the field with no copying notes into eBird later. BirdLog is an eBirder's dream.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What is a County Birding Blitz?

On June 22-23 the Oregon2020 project ran its first County Birding Blitz. The purpose is to inventory the birds in a small location (county) on a single day or weekend. It is apparently modeled after a Bio Blitz, a word coined in 1996 by a US National Park naturalist for a public-assisted biodiversity census in Washington DC.

Twenty-seven birders participated, generating 436 eBird checklists throughout many areas of Polk County (results summarized here to OBOL email birding list). Polk, a county in the central Willamette Valley, was chosen as it is near a large number of birders yet under-represented in eBird.

As an example of the data they gathered, look at the eBird map of sightings for Chipping Sparrows in the northern Willamette Valley during May and June 2013. Throughout their range they like pine/oak, but in the Willamette Valley Chipping Sparrows here are hard to find and their preferred habitat is hard to explain. Generally, they like overgrown Christmas tree farms, filbert orchards, oaks, and small 5-acre horse "ranchettes," preferably all together adjacent to wheat fields. Such locations are found scattered around the foothills of the Valley, and I usually have to take several visits to favored locations near my home each spring in order to find one for my local county for the year. But look at all the Chipping Sparrows found on the Birding Blitz by hitting more randomized locations:

Chipping Sparrows on Polk County Birding Blitz (west of Salem)
Blitzing a county is sure to produce surprises. When the next Birding Blitz is scheduled I want to make sure to attend!

But even though I missed this one, I made sure to imitate this by making some "random" stops when I am out birding and record birds for 10-15 minutes at a stationary point for eBird (point count), especially when I am in unusual (not frequently birded by locals) habitats. I did this last week in my home county in agricultural areas hoping for Vesper Sparrows (found none), and later in the forest at several different stands of noble fir and clearcuts where I found Townsend's Solitaires and Hermit Thrushes).

More stationary counts and less traveling counts in eBird!

Friday, July 12, 2013

ID: brown swallows

A family of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, 19 July 2011, Forest Grove, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
The identification of swallows is generally considered a "beginning birder's" identification problem. As Kenn Kaufman explained in Advanced Birding, it is not so much that swallows are misidentified, rather many swallows go unidentified as they fly by overhead twisting and turning, swooping and diving. As an eBird reviewer, however, I think that some misidentification is happening with swallows--and not just by beginners, either. The ID problem I want to highlight is the 3 brown swallows. Yes, three. Northern Rough-winged, Bank, and Tree swallows. Wait--Tree Swallows? Yes indeed!

You see, the first set of juvenile feathers on Tree Swallows are brown. Then these 3 or 4 month old swallows go through another complete "preformative" molt in fall--basically into an adult-like plumage. However, many of the first-year females have a dull brown plumage. They keep these feathers until the next autumn, so some first-year females arrive on the breeding grounds in spring a rather drab brown color. Thus, at any time of year you may encounter brown Tree Swallows. 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Rather evenly brown above. The throat and upper chest are pale brownish merging into white belly. Long winged and graceful languid flight. Call is a rough flatulent-like sound "pbbbt." Nest in single or small groups of burrows in sandy or muddy bank.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 9 August 2010, Forest Grove, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
Bank Swallow
Brown back with contrastingly darker wings. Underparts, including throat, white. Dark, full brown neck collar, sometimes with a central "spike" going down the belly. A small swallow; wings shorter and more triangular. Flight more direct with rapid wing beats. Call is a rough buzz like electric line, "bzzzt," or "prit-prit." Nest in large colonies of burrows in sandy bank or cliff.

Bank Swallow
Bank Swallow, 29 May 2013, Malheur NWR, Oregon by Greg Gillson

Bank Swallow, 28 May 2013, Hines, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
Tree Swallow
Adult males have metallic steel-blue back and wing coverts, black mask, gleaming white underparts. Females are duller. Some first-year females are brownish rather than blue, but usually have some blue feathers on the bend of the wing, at least. Juveniles are brownish with white throat and an indistinct (usually) grayish breast band. In flight the breast band can be conspicuous, but not as strong as Bank Swallows. Rather long wings and graceful flight. Calls are a liquid twittering. Nest in tree cavity or nest box.

juvenile Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow, juvenile showing Bank Swallow-like breast band, 10 July 2013, Hillsboro, Oregon by Greg Gillson.

female Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow, first year female, 17 April 2004, Forest Grove, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
Tree Swallow, male, 16 April 2010, Forest Grove, Oregon by Greg Gillson.

In 2008 Don Roberson wrote an article, Identification of brown swallows, on his Monterrey, California birding pages that provides additional ID tips.

Monday, July 8, 2013

eBird best practices
Recording hybrids, subspecies, and spuhs

There are many times when you are birding you may wish to record more than just species in eBird.

For instance, the mouth of the Columbia River is the center of the breeding range for hybrid Western and Glaucous-winged gulls. In winter these hybrids are quite common in western Oregon and Washington--perhaps more so than either parent species. You'll want to add Western x Glaucous-winged Gull to your checklist.

Throughout the Pacific Northwest the common Dark-eyed Junco is the Oregon form. However, one might encounter Slate-colored, Pink-sided, or even Gray-headed forms. These used to be considered separate species, but are now all considered varieties of just one species. But if you see an individual of the Slate-colored subspecies, such a unique sighting deserves to be recognized in your checklist as Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco, not just as a comment under Dark-eyed Junco. [One caution. Don't record subspecies based only on range if you really can't identify them. For instance, in North America the default Osprey is the American form. There are other forms in Eurasia, the Caribbean, and Australasian regions that you can choose from eBird. But don't write down "Osprey (American)" for a bird in Idaho unless you have specifically identified that form and eliminated the others.]

What, though, is a "spuh"? Well, say you see some kind of swallow, but aren't sure exactly what species. Then the species is undetermined and you would record: swallow (species unknown), more often just abbreviated as: swallow (sp.), pronounced "swallow spuh."

You can add hybrids, subspecies, and spuhs to your checklist at any time. If they are common in your area, they may appear on the default area checklist already. If not you can add them. But how do you know if what you want to add exists in eBird? When you "add species" when submitting a checklist, a menu drops down. But what if the bird you want doesn't seem to exist in the list? One way to check is to broaden your search.

For instance, I just clicked the Add Species and entered Goose. All geese in the world come up. From there you can choose from several domestic types, hybrids, subspecies groups, and species pairs that often do not appear on the default checklist.

Remember, when you add a species to a checklist (hybrid or subspecies) it will go the the local eBird Reviewer for verification. So be sure to include a brief comment on how you identified it in the comments (size and shape, plumage, behavior, song, and habitat).

More help on this subject is available from eBird.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Inside Birding: ID Videos

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a new feature. It is a series of videos for newer birders to learn bird identification.

Presently there are four videos on this page. The four videos are:
  1. Size and Shape
  2. Color Pattern
  3. Behavior
  4. Habitat
These 10-minute videos are really well-done. They accompany the Birding 1, 2, 3 section of the Cornell site teaching how to identify birds. Check these out!