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Making Your eBird Data More Valuable PART DEUX

posted by Tim Avery at
on Thursday, September 4, 2014 

Here is my reply to ALL the replies form yesterday post...

Wow, what a great batch of comments, first I must commend Shyloh, Mike, and Kenny for publicly sharing their views.

The 11 anonymous posters had a varied mix of feelings and thoughts, and some obviously didn't want to share their names despite such strong convictions.  I want to respond to every comment so bare with me while I go through them...

Anonymous 1:

This seems like pretty blatant trolling--you say you don't care, but the time you took to post this with your feelings shows otherwise.  You say, "I know what I saw", which is fine, but if your sightings seem questionable, and have little details, their addition to the public data poll is a bit careless.  Like I mentioned, I am okay with people using eBird to just track their personal sightings for themselves--its a great tool for that.  However, for anyone that feels this way, I highly recommend going into preferences and checking the "hide my data" checkboxes for eBird Alerts, and Top 100 under the data privacy section.  If your sightings are just for your personal use as you say they are, there is no need to have them included in these very "gamified" areas of eBird as one other commenter noted.  My last criticism of your response was not having the time to enter a bunch of lists.  You have time to go birding, you have time to enter at least one list, and you have time to comment on this blog.  So time is on your side I would argue, and the little amount of time it takes to break 1 list into 3 or 4 seems well worth it this day in age.

Anonymous 2:

Great comment.  As I mentioned to Anonymous 1 this is the logical thing to do for others, and for yourself for a multitude of reasons.

Anonymous 3:

I see the first comment got you riled.  I have to say I disagree with your first point--eBird has many uses, and personal lists are a valid reason to use the program--its unfair to tell someone to use a notebook because they don't give a shit about science when the software is available for free and their data can be invalidated from the pool.  As to your second point, I do tend to agree, but if someone doesn't use it to help with the scientific effort, their data is so minuscule in the bigger picture, that in 150 years it really won't matter.  Those "Rare" birds they report, probably were mis-identifications, so their exclusion from the data pool is probably for the better.  And as to your 3rd point--haha, spot on my friend.

Anonymous 4:

I think in general in our local area--Utah, or even just northern Utah, the majority of eBird users are aware of what sightings are legitimate, and which are questionable.  I would be lying if I said I didn't brush off a number of alert species based of the observer.  In our community there are a handful of eBirders who don't so their sightings justice by taking photos of rarities they reports, or providing any meaningful information on the sightings for both eBird and their peers.  Before eBird it was much the same with the "RBA" or just on the listserv's. In birding credibility is earned not through documentation.  If a supposed great birder never documents his/her sightings, but constantly reports rarities, it begs to question the legitimacy of the sightings.  IF other give chase and can't track down the reports, it also leaves you to wonder.  But a photo, and re-chaseable birds create reputations and credibility amongst the community.  I expect every level of birder from beginner to expert to provide the same level of documentation in eBird for the sighting to really resonate with me.  This is completely aside of the scientific aspect of eBird, but more on the who is full of shit front.

Anonymous 5:

As I mentioned before, this is an opinion, and someone who just uses it for themselves is not breaking rules or being selfish---eBird has many uses.  I do believe people who use the applications should contribute more, but by no means do they have to, and by no means are they "doing it wrong".  But they should take care to remove themselves from alerts and listing.

Anonymous 6:

This is true--however an X can denote a count that is too high for a decent estimate.  Many birders don't feel comfortable, or can't estimate high counts of birds.  It sounds crazy but I have done this exercise with people to see how they estimate, and counts are wildly off sometimes.  If it wasn't an easy to count exact count, it may be best to leave it as X--this data is still important and useful.  I always try to put a number in, and in 99.9999999% of my individual sightings there is a count, whether exact or an estimate.   It definitely adds value even with estimations though!


Woot an name and a face!  You are nuts, a nutty nut job, blah blah blah.  Just kidding of course, I just figured a name made it easy to call you out!  In general it seems like you feel how I feel.  I'm okay with people using the program how they see fit--I love when there are more details, and it lends credibility, and its better for the data pool.


You really are crazy... Crazy in a good way.  I think a lot of people miss the communal aspect of eBird--whether or not you want to be part of that community, you are if you report rare birds, and take part in the Top 100.  These things are far less important that high value checklists, but they have become a big part of eBird.  You said it best though, "We should all strive to be a better part of the birding community since who can understand the highs and lows and adventures of birding best than other birders?"  Providing better data inherently makes you a better part of the community--and our growing community here is proof of that!


Where do I even start with you man... You're the dude.  You make the point right off the bat, "THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH SELFISHLY USING EBIRD!!!"  And Like I said, I agree--use it as you see fit, its there for many different reasons, so to each their own.

At the end of the day it really doesn't matter--like I told you, they're just birds man.  But I like to think that striving for a strong community, with birders that respect one another includes some great self checking, as well as community checking--which helps build a great data pool.  If someone reports rarities often, or even not so often, but rarely produces chase-able birds, or documents their sightings it effects not only the data pool, but chasers and listers--the community.  Regardless of how people use eBird, if you report a rarity on a checklist, you should expect some level of scrutiny from others, that's just human nature, and a big part of birding--and quality documentation and information helps eliminate some of that.

I would never tell anyone "this is how you should use eBird", but I sure as hell think there are ways we can all make our checklists more valuable not only for the community but for ourselves!  And I think that is a lot of what others are getting at too--just a tad more forceful.

Anonymous #7:

Shyloh, wanted to tell you "LOL"...

Anonymous #8:

Holy moly.  I will just say this, well played sir.  You hit the nail on the head.

Anonymous #9:

This is a great point with all others aside--as volunteers, having to wade through the muck, it sucks.  Whether a user cares about listing, or conservation, or whatever, a sighting that lacks documentation makes their lives harder.  I have talked to several moderators who routinely throw out specific users sightings because they are so riddled with mistakes, and absolutely no documentation that it's better for the data pool to just remove them.  I can see eBird eventually coming up with a way to block certain users from the data pool based of reviewer recommendations because of just that.


Let's just be real about our sightings for a second--on a personal level.  In the end on either side (community/data pool versus selfishness), it comes down to do you care about being right, or thinking your right?

I personally would rather be able to look at my sighting, have documentation, and be able to say I am 100% sure of that--and so is everyone else that sees it, than have a sighting with no documentation that begs the question, is this reliable data.  Simply putting a tick mark on a checklist for a rare birds shows a lack of understanding why that bird is rare/flagged, and the importance of documentation for data quality, especially when its not just a checklist for keeping a life list, but one used for building a data set for a location.  In the end the reviewer can simply invalidate the sighting, but then it seems counter intuitive to the whole process.  I don't think its asking to much for even a crappy photo--almost everyone carries a digital camera with them, and rarely are birds so flighty that even a distant, blurry, out of focus, or partially hidden bird can't be photo'd.  It seems so simple, and useful to the whole idea of building the data pool.

One solution to this is creating user groups in eBird for different types of players in the "game".  For the selfish, I use it to keep my life list, there could be a user type where all data is separate from the community pool.  Then there could be scientific users, and typical users, so on and so forth.  You could even go to a pay model which is a whole other blog post...

No matter what reason you watch birds, if you are using eBird you have made yourself part of that community, and we're glad to have, and I hope we all can work to make the community stronger in the long run! At the end of the day every birder is different, and uses eBird for many different reasons--I just hope that everyone realizes that we can all strive to make things better!

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Blogger Mike Hearell said...

Speak for yourself on the 'rarely...a bird can't be photo'd' front. When attempting to photograph birds in flight or bouncing around in a tree, I'd say 50% of the time I touch the shutter button there isn't even a bird in the frame! 75 of the other 50% looks like some sort of abstract art!

September 4, 2014 at 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Michael Lester said...

Many good points, but I'm just going to focus on a minor point for now--The "X". The only problem with using the "X" is that X = 1. It is not seen as "too high for a decent estimate" from the data analysis perspective. So you could be looking at 10,000 Eared Grebes, but by entering X, you might as well be entering 1. Of course getting an exact count would take a lot of time and dedication, but even estimating 500 is much better than saying X. If you're using an X, you clearly know there is more than one individual so why not just estimate? If your estimate is ridiculously high, then hopefully the filter will catch that (i.e. the number will come up as flagged) and maybe you'll re-think the estimate. If it's too low, well, it's still better than X.


September 4, 2014 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


Agree to disagree :) I think if you see a bird for 60 seconds, you can get at least one identifiable shot--if you have an SLR. With the point and shoots its definitely harder, and there is probably a much lower % of success. Lots of Art though... always lots of art...

September 4, 2014 at 3:08 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


X does NOT = 1; X COULD = 1, or it COULD = 100,000--according to eBird.

Thanks for sharing the link--I didn't know that eBird had changed its stance on this. I have been using the program for 10 years and the initial use of X's was widely accepted for the reason stated among others. Like I mentioned though, I don't really use them for that reason exactly. I personally don't think its hard to estimate #'s even in the 10's of 1,000's, but if you are unable to come up with a number that makes sense, 500, and 1 are equally bad on 10,000. Neither is representative of the flock size, and although 500 is closer, its still HORRIBLE. eBird could look at all X's and basically look at all other checklists for the same week at a location (if available), and come to a mean value for the X. It wouldn't be that hard to write an algorithm to do that, especially for a species where there are 10,000 individuals being submitted on other lists.

What would perhaps be a BETTER solution would be having a list type of "Hisotrical" where X's are acceptable, but on all other checklist types users would be forced to enter a #.

September 4, 2014 at 3:16 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

It does at times take an extra and dedicated effort to take a photo. Sometimes when you're on a flock of birds it is tough because you want to make sure you don't miss anything else. I struggled to get a picture of a recent American Redstart. I was 1 for 10 in my efforts and on more than one occasion gave up to watch the other birds passing through. I eventually got the 1 shot I needed for documentation - but it did take that extra effort. I feel like it is a mindset that one has to adopt and make a priority in order to be successful, but in my experience I have had much more success documenting the rarities than not. I of course prefer it if others try - partly for verification of sightings and partly just cause it is awesome to see photos of the rare and unusual. There is no one right way to bird, but that is my personal preference.

September 4, 2014 at 3:21 PM  
Blogger Mike Hearell said...

I've been mostly successful at getting photos of the rarities I've found. The ones that I didn't get a photo of I usually didn't have a camera with me, and those days I usually had no plans of birding or I would have had it.

September 4, 2014 at 3:54 PM  
Blogger Shyloh Monster said...

What Mike said.

Here's a few more examples of reasonable bad listing:

Carrying a long lens into the understory to get a better look at that Northern Waterthrush is IMPOSSIBLE to photograph in the dark at 5' range. (not the hypothetical Farmington Bay waterthrush, but they do occur on Farmington Creek during both migrations.)

Or a mis-timed quiet Pacific Wren that is visible for all of one second? Or a good bird that pops out for long enough to ID, then vanishes for hours. How long should one keep searching when other good birds are making their presence known? Why do I want to concern myself with ISO, shutter speed and aperture when I'm buried in my bins trying to get pieces of a puzzle? (Think Hooded Oriole... I wanted a photo of that bird so bad, yet nada. I saw the whole bird for all of a nano second.) One thing I dread is culling 1200 images after 12 hours in the field. I personally view bird photography and birding as separate endeavors. While taking that photo, you sometimes rob yourself of an opportunity to practice the fine art of field identification. I believe it's a dying skill. Shoot first, ask questions later. No thanks.

Another recent example of good birding that could lead to a tarnished reputation: Last weekend we camped at Bear Lake and I witnessed my first ever bona fide fallout one day and amazing migration the other two days. Birds everywhere! Because I really wanted to absorb all I could and not worry about anything but WATCHING birds, I put my camera away (how dare me!), pulled out my chair, hoisted my bins, and enjoyed the hell out of my enjoys. It was a glorious of-a-lifetime event!!! In the the meantime, I got my eyes on several rarities and several other probable rarities. I didn't keep notes, but ticked away in BirdLog and referred to my field guide often. Every bird I could ID got reported. I missed hundreds of amazing photo ops and I don't care a bit. Sorry if I flooded your needs alerts with bad notes and no photos. None of these birds would be chasable, most were gone by late morning, and we were on private property. Does that make my data any less valuable to eBird or our local community? I hope not. Should I have kept my 72hours of straight birding private? Nah.

How bout this; have you ever saw a bird so good you literally crapped? I'm not saying I have or haven't, but on two occasions I've ran out of Bountiful Lake like a penguin carrying an egg! Would you consider something like this before deciding a person's bird expertise? An extreme example, but you get the point.

Here's another example: innacurate eBird filters. You know you've encountered them. (Nothing against the creators of the filters, they do fantastic work and I fully appreciate the effort.) Sometimes tire of ticking the same box repeatedly for a common species.

If you're lucky enough to watch birds full time, entering data can get onerous and lead to lazy lists. I'm VERY guilty of this. (In fact, I only submit to eBird half the time nowadays... for other reasons.)

All this talk about reputation is based on subjective matter and innuendo. How do I know how another ID's birds based on the quality of their eBird reports? I don't. I have to assume. Therefore, reputation means very little to me. I'd rather be known as the village idiot than an excellent birder.

In the meantime, I'll keep my eyes peeled for the next good bird.

Hopefully I haven't irked anyone with my remarks. Mostly I like to stir the pot and play devil's advocate. Birders assume too much about other birders and we gossip more than any blue-haired bridge club or quilting bee.

All that said, who knows how many checklists have been fixed, edited, deleted, or otherwise after the community has already deemed the person 'out of the minds'???

This is a great topic. Although I carry a different view, the food-for-thought is delicious! Thanks for the fun conversation. I hope to see birds with you all soooooooooooon.


September 4, 2014 at 4:05 PM  
Blogger Shyloh Monster said...

PS - I believe in Utah, we have a VERY STRONG birding community.

September 4, 2014 at 4:11 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

I personally kind of suck at ebird. I admit that many of my good lists are because they are shared from others. One list for all of Antelope Island? Yep - I've done that. X's for species too numerous to count? Guilty. Writing: "because that's what it was" in the filter for "add more details"? Afraid so. I have never used the "needs" alerts on ebird. I rely mostly on ubird for sightings and especially enjoy just going birding on my own to find birds. There is always something to see wherever you go which is why I love birding. Like I said, there is no one right way to do it and no one owes anything to anyone as I see it. There are many paths to the top of the mountain. The Dude should abide and he should have a beer with other dudes while watching for the next good bird.

September 4, 2014 at 4:35 PM  
Blogger Stephanie Greenwood said...

I'm guilty, too, of putting X's in my checklists, but, thanks to the reminders of people in the community I'm trying to pay more attention to counts and at least try make an estimate. Our community is great, we all bring different perspectives to the table and keep each other on our toes! I love birds and Youuuutahbirders! :)

September 4, 2014 at 8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You can explain why you use ebird as you do but there is no reason not to post your rarities to the local list serves especially when it seems you use them to chase rarities yourself.

September 5, 2014 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger Shyloh Monster said...

Dear Anonymous,

Are you joking? Check the listserv again.

September 5, 2014 at 9:55 AM  
Anonymous John said...

I'm just catching up on this whole chain and the recurring them here seems to be document your sightings to make data valuable, which inevitably turned into document your sightings so the data is more valuable, but also to self police, and for the benefit of other birders.

Am I missing something? That seems pretty reasonable, and something the majority of respondents seem to agree with. Although I take photos, I am hardly a photographer, I am a birder and that is the purpose of my outings to look for birds. Photos are secondary, I usually only take pictures when I am blessed with an incredible opportunity, or when I see something rare. I immerse my self in the birding, and thoroughly enjoy watching and interacting with the birds, especially rare ones. For me getting a photo of a rarity completes the loop of finding, identifying, and recording the event. I love that aspect of birding. The rush of finding something rare! Being able to relive it through a photo is an amazing feeling to.

But I have made some big ID flops over the years, and photos in many cases have righted the ship. Flycatchers, sparrows, warblers, vireos, all the green, gray, and brown birds can be difficult to ID, so I am thankful for being able to go back and look at the picture later to confirm or correct what I thought I saw in the field. I'm not a photograph it to ID it guy, I love studying the bird, but there is no way I can remember every detail correctly by the time I get home or to a field guide to check, and be sure. And I think this is true of every birder. So later today I'll head out to look for bird, with my camera on my shoulder just in case.


September 5, 2014 at 10:50 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Man John, another hammer on nail head comment. Don't get me wrong, I consider myself both a birder and photographer. BUT, when I go birding the primary focus is to look for birds--however I take lots of pictures for many different reasons. One is that there is almost always something cool to photograph. Be it a plumage, a position, an interaction, a pose, a rarity, etc, if something is worth photographing I take pictures. Rarities especially. I have a huge collection of pictures of rare birds I have taken over the years. They range from god-awful terrible, to kinda blurry, to kinda shaky, to a little soft, to identifiable, and in a few rare cases stunning. Getting a picture of a rarity is a thrill for me. Often its just one shot, other times, its a whole series, every time it creates a permanent memory of the sighting, Gawd, just thinking about some of the stuff I've seen, I hop over to my website, do a quick search and am looking at the pictures. It brings back all the memories from that day--I can remember the weather, where the sun was, how the bird moved. It sounds lame, and to non-birders, probably crazy, but for me being able to relive those moments is very important to me. I take lots of pictures for that reason alone. I definitely want to be right though too, and on numerous occasions, my photos have shown that what I thought I had in the field was not what I actually had--the smallest details misinterpreted, were easy to have corrected after-the-fact.

This was hardly my intent with this blog post, but it has really driven a great conversation about the topic at hand, and various other related things. The opinions and feelings that have been shared have been insightful into how different birders think about things differently and shows a good mix of birders in our community. This is a major reason I enjoy birding--the enjoyment it brings me, can be shown to others and vice-versa. It's a unique thing we've got going on!

September 5, 2014 at 11:04 AM  
Blogger Cindy Dy said...

Nice article love to read the whole new way of your writing this things.


September 6, 2014 at 2:39 AM  
Blogger shyloh monster said...

Revisiting this post was AWESOME! Can't say my views have changed any.

April 28, 2016 at 10:10 AM  

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