One bird, two bird, three b– wait, is that Bird One again?

I’ve always taken notes while birding. These started as personal asides (my blog’s title should betray my tendency to inject romanticism into all), only recording species if they were surprising. I reported peculiarities to eBird, because I thought that’s what eBird was looking for. As a bonus, curiosities are usually easy to count: One. Boom.

But this isn’t the most valuable data. Birds face a grave opponent in climate change, and researchers need to know where species as wholes are found. Vagrant individuals travel heroic distances; while awesome to behold, they generally don’t indicate trends applicable to their entire species. They’re usually outliers, in the most basic statistical sense of the term. It’s the “Usual Suspects,” in all their abundant glory, who betray larger geographical and temporal shifts.

After this concept “clicked” in my bird brain, I began taking more detailed, quantitative notes, trying to record every species. I report lists to eBird as often as I can, and I’d love to do so more. There’s just one thing standing in my way. When I’m dealing with a common species, seen by the dozens, maybe even hundreds, over one birding session…

How the heck am I supposed to actually count these things?

Last week I had a great sit at an indoor viewing area, where I was treated to a huge turnout. I jotted a list of species I saw, and began frantically making hash marks. Initially, I had a system. I’d start with the first species on my list, tally the individuals I could see at that moment, then move to the next species and tally; when I got to the end of the list, I’d return to the first species and start again, adding to the previous tally. Repeat ad nauseam. (Literally. This sometimes makes me nauseous.)

As you may have guessed, this system rapidly collapsed. I was counting cardinals when — Oh! Is that a red-winged blackbird? He’s not on my list yet! Let me write him down… okay… where was I? Cardinals? Or was it titmice? Now who did I count already? Sit still! Were you there the last time I counted, or are you new? Did I skip goldfinches this round? Let me go back to — Oh, wow, a white-throated sparrow! Great, got him. Okay, hang on, did I see you already?

I was left with a list of species and some idea of their relative abundances. I have no idea just how accurate my crazed tallies are. How am I to know if each individual is a new arrival, or has already been tallied? What of those who land, depart, then return some time later? More importantly, does it matter? Does eBird have a resident Dark Wizard of Statistics who recites a mathematical incantation and makes all these inaccuracies smooth themselves over?

A historical depiction of either witchcraft or eBird birding statistics

I’ve never actually taken a statistics class, but this is how I imagine them.

We all know that birds don’t comply with our silly requests, and they seem to hate being counted for some reason. I really want to contribute meaningful data to eBird. So riddle me this: how can I get the most accurate abundance data I can, being only one human with one pencil and two eyeballs?

That wasn’t a rhetorical question, reader. I would like YOUR best tips and tricks, schemes and strategies, and methods to manage the madness of overwhelmingly numerous flocks. How do YOU do it? Please share your advice in the comments. In a way, given the immeasurable value of Citizen Science data… the future of our birds depends on it!

UPDATE! The good folks at eBird have published a couple of helpful articles on the art of counting birds – check them out! They mostly detail strategies to count large flocks on the move. The techniques described are great, but they weren’t extremely helpful regarding the feeder situation I described above. I’ve emailed eBird suggesting that they expand the series to include feeder strategies.

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