eBird: Agreeing to agree

Cameron RuttBirding, General Rant2 Comments

Snow Geese Flock

Estimating the size of flocks like this is no longer a private endeavor with eBird shared checklists.

eBird has done countless things to revolutionize birding, not the least of which includes elevating birding to a scientific pursuit, where a once recreational activity now has meaningful implications. What was once relegated to a single day of birding for most regions over the course of the year – the Christmas Bird Count – now occurs on a near daily basis. This, of course, hinges upon whether or not we choose to accept this mission, but I’m assuming this a foregone conclusion for most of us out there. It is for me at least. But with any change, no matter how disproportionately the pros outweigh the cons, there will always be unforeseen compromises

Like many birders, I enjoy the camaraderie of birding with a flock. A small group of observers can enhance the complete birding experience, from spotting more birds and more efficiently canvassing large concentrations for oddballs, to providing a wealth of outside knowledge and different perspectives to broaden my own dreadfully confined horizons. I have a wealth of such rosy memories that unequivocally prove the many benefits of group birding. There was, however, a distinctly different aspect to this type of birding in the not-so-distant past: we could bird together but we didn’t actually have to come to any sort of consensus. Once upon a time – before such things as shared observations – the finale of a group outing would have found me tallying up species lists and counts in my own personal notebook, unaware and without the faintest idea of woefully disagreeable counts or anything I might have missed. Sure, when compared to our compradres, nobody likes to miss species or have tabulated wildly disparate estimates, but this used to be no big deal. However, I fear this painless ease of group birding, steeped primarily in blissful ignorance, may now be part of a bygone era.

Now, giant concentrations of birds, be it a high volume of waterbirds or a local fallout of migrants, brings with them an added layer of awareness and apprehension. Yes, it’s marginal, but it is perceptible nonetheless. How many geese were there really? Did anybody count those distant gulls wheeling in the distance? What was the breakdown of ducks, gulls, or shorebirds? For me, these things take time to accurately count or estimate. Inevitably, though, the group must go on and I know that conversation is coming. Whether it’s my penchant for accuracy or the need to play devil’s advocate, the fact of the matter is that I’m simply unable to sit quietly by while disagreeing. You saw *what*? You thought that were *how* many!?! Spirited discussions ensue, concessions are made, compromises are eventually reached. But this familiar charade invariably pits the conservative against the liberal in an eternal struggle. Ultimately, I hope this means that we all move towards the middle, towards the truth. In any case, it at least means that my shared eBird checklists now have that undeniable evidence displayed so dispassionately: “Additional species seen by…” and my counts/estimates/guestimates inseparably entangled with everyone else’s.

Unless we are willing to do the unthinkable and not submit checklists from our biggest and most exciting birding days (and, let’s be honest, who is realistically considering this!?), submitting shared checklists is here to stay. Agreeing to disagree might have been feasible in the past, but it just doesn’t cut it nowadays. eBird has compelled us, whether we like it or not, to agree to agree.

  • Delia Guzman

    When my bff and I or my sister and I go birding, we each keep a tally and share as we go–sometimes agreeing, sometimes arguing until counting accuracy has been achieved–and then we review our counts again afterward before entering them in eBird. I haven’t been birding with a bigger group in a while, so this way is much easier–but I agree with you that, if this is truly going to be regarded as “citizen science,” it HAS to be scientific, and thus accurate.

  • Lindsey

    It was actually eBird that inspired myself and another birder I was sharing a scope with last winter to photograph a rather large group of wintering gulls to go back and count every single one while staring at the photos on our computer monitors. I’m not sure I ever would have done that without eBird’s existence, and I’m glad it happened since I used the method a few times to figure out my margin of error in estimating.