Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Living that #ebird365 life


This year, I'm participating in the eBird 2017 Checklist-a-Day Challenge, aka #ebird365, where birdwatchers are challenged to submit 365 birding checklists within the year 2017. (I think--I hope--that you just have to end the year with 365 checklists, not necessarily one per day. If you need one per day, I'm already out, since I didn't start until January 12.)

To participate, you just submit your lists of seen birds on eBird.org, a neat website which helps you track all kinds of stats. More importantly, the data submitted by amateur birdwatchers worldwide is helpful in tracking migration patterns and bird populations. It's basically a giant, crowdsourced, citizen science project.

365 checklists for the year is a huge increase for me. In 2016, I submitted 74 checklists total. That's about 290 short of my goal this year! But it's turning out to be a lot easier than I thought to stay on track. As I writing this on the 45th day of the 2017, I have submitted 50 checklists year-to-date. I'm ahead of the game, despite my late-ish start!

So, I think it's definitely do-able even if you start now. You just have to get in the right mindset. Here are some tips.

Expand Your Definition of "Checklist-Worthy" Birding


Before this challenge, I would only submit a checklist to eBird if something "checklist-worthy" happened. That is, in one of two circumstances:

(1) If went out specifically for birdwatching, say to a park or nature reserve.

(2) If, in the course of keeping my eyes open in my everyday life, say on my commute or in my backyard, I saw a somewhat unusual or interesting bird.

Now, my definition of a checklistworthy event is:

(1) Keeping my eyes open in my everyday life, even if I don't see any unusual or interesting birds!

I'm pretty sure this is the point of the challenge, from the eBird scientists' point of view. Say in the course of a month I submit two checklists for a certain park, and both times there's a Downy Woodpecker on my list. The folks at eBird don't know if that means there's always a Downy Woodpecker in that park, but I only go there twice a month; or if I go to the park every day, but I only bother to submit a checklist when I see a Downy Woodpecker. If I'm doing the eBird 365 challenge, you better believe I'm submitting a checklist every time I go to the park, even on those days when I only see boring old House Sparrows and European Starlings. Even though I consider those checklists dull, they're still useful data.

The folks at eBird have even confirmed that checklist with no birds counts toward the challenge, assuming you went out and looked and just didn't see anything.

Make Frequent, Short Trips


These days, most of my checklists report only about 5-10 minutes' worth of birdwatching at a time. The instructions for the challenge specify that you can go out for as little as three minutes at a time. This is really helpful when it's cold out!

Work Birding Into Your Everyday Life


The majority of my checklists occur at the same four places, all of which I'd go anyway in the course of a typical weekday:

(1) The backyard behind my building. Specifically, the portion of my backyard that I can see from my window while sipping my tea in the morning.

(2) A little mini-parklet that I pass through on my walk to the subway in the morning. If I'm not running late and it's not too cold, I can linger here a few minutes. I've seen a surprising diversity of species in this tiny oasis of trees and grass.

(3) My subway stop. A small strip of scrubby woods can be seen from a particular spot on the platform, and occasionally there are birds there. I haven't gotten up the nerve to actually whip out my binoculars on the subway platform, but maybe in migration season, I'll have to!

(4) The park near my office, which I can drop by at lunch.

On weekends, I can visit more intentional and interesting places for longer stretches at a time, but I wouldn't be able to make the 365 without the four biggies above. I don't submit a checklist for each place each day, but between these four, I can usually manage one or two a day.

Learn to Estimate Flock Sizes

The rules for having your checklist "count" are pretty relaxed, but the one kind of technical thing is that you have to say how many of each species you saw; you can't just say "check, I saw some Grackles." This can be tough when you see large flocks, or when the birds keep moving around. With flocks, the easiest thing to do is to try to get a sense of what 10 birds looks like, then count the approximate number of tens. Make your best guess; an estimate that's a little off but in the right general magnitude is better than nothing.

Keep Your Tools On You


Here are the tools I try to have on me most of the time when I could be birding (which is all the time):

(1) My smartphone. This is the most important thing. eBird has a checklist app which is helpful for submitting checklists on the go, and means I don't need to remember to submit anything later. If I need to identify a bird, I use the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. With Merlin, I don't feel I need to carry a guidebook.

(2) A compact pair of binoculars. I have a full-size pair which I leave by my backyard window, and carry when I'm going on my big weekend trips, but for everyday on the go, a $40 compact pair lives in my purse.

(3) Lightweight touchscreen-friendly gloves, in winter. Even in temps as high as the 50s, my hands get cold if I have them out a lot because I'm using binoculars on a phone. In summer: sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen.

(4) (Optional) A small pad and pen. As nice as the eBird app is, pen and paper is usually faster.


If you're not already into birding but you're curious, I think this challenge would be a great start because it allows you to consistently work on your skills without feeling like you need to see something amazing. If you live in a city like me, most of what you will see will be typical urban birds such as Rock Pigeons and Herring Gulls, but you may be surprised by what you can find in tiny corners of nature when you keep your eyes open.

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