Exactly where you plot your birding locations on the map is critical for eBird in many ways. When you are specific with your location information we can perform better analyses, and we can ensure that your birding lists are built correctly. eBird thrives on location specificity, and a good general rule of thumb when entering data is that it's always better to enter shorter checklists from more refined locations than longer checklists from a string of unrelated locations. In this article we'll discuss why being as precise as possible with your birding locations yields the best results.
Every time you enter an observation into eBird you are required to tell us where you were birding. We use the location information you give us to associate the birds you report with the habitat on the ground, to give you the right checklist for data entry, and to ensure that your birding lists accurately reflect where you saw the birds. In the past many birders have collected single checklists for a whole day's birding. These checklists typically involve stopping at many locations throughout the day and sampling a variety of habitats and their associated birdlife. While this is common practice in the birding community, eBird is hoping to steer birders in a new direction. So, instead of keeping one checklist that might include six different locations spread out across 50 miles, we encourage you to keep a different checklist at each stop, and to record each one independently in eBird. Here's why.
Accurate locations are:
Better for analysis
The eBird dataset is growing rapidly, now collecting millions of observations per month. As such, it has caught the attention of many scientists and analysts wishing to use the data for science and conservation. This is great news for eBird and birds worldwide, and through our conversations with these researchers it has become apparent that eBird checklists from more refined locations produce better analytic results, especially for looking at species-habitat relationships. It makes sense when you step back and think about it. When researching what habitats are important for species occurrence and abundance, a single checklist that reports 100 species across 50 miles is far less valuable than 10 checklists broken out into five mile increments. The shorter counts allow the analysts to associate fewer species with more restricted habitat types, thereby creating stronger relationships between the two.
Here's a typical problem scenario to think about. In California, Brandt's Cormorant is a very common bird along the immediate coast, but it is exceedingly rare inland, in fact it is exceedingly rare over land at all! A birder doing a long traveling count from the mountains to the coast who plotted their location at the mid-point of the route, say 25 miles from the coast, would have a mix of high elevation birds on the same checklist with Brandt's Cormorant (and a suite of other coastal species), none of which were actually mapped in the habitat where they occur. Rather, they would be mapped at the mid-point of the route where a suite of middle elevation foothill species is present. So, to remedy this problem we ask that birders try to limit their traveling counts to 5 miles or less. Shorter is always better, and a good general rule of thumb is to not conduct traveling counts that cross different habitats. By doing this, and by paying attention to habitat breaks while birding, you'll generate better eBird checklists and gain a better understanding of how birds are distributed in the various habitats you visit.
Better for your lists
Not only are accurate locations better for making scientific use of the data, they are better for creating your own personal lists. When you enter checklists of birds for specific locations eBird builds lists for each location. Over time you'll have a complete list of birds seen at all your favorite locations, and if those locations are accurately plotted on the maps we can then generate accurate county, state, and country lists for you. If you are less specific about your location then we can only build lists based on larger geographic regions (e.g., states), and you lose the ability to know what birds you've seen at each of your favorite birding locations. Worse, if you cross several counties in a day's birding, and plot your location at the midpoint, then eBird will associate all the sightings with the county where that midpoint falls. Don't shortchange your lists by letting them all fall in one county! In the future, there may even be potential to have finer-scale lists than are currently available (i.e. town lists, or all birds within x miles of a certain location), so the more precise you are now, the better it is for both you and the birds in the long run!
How to improve your location mapping
Use "Find it on a map"
The eBird mapping tool is great for plotting specific locations and for selecting from existing ones. Use the initial page to restrict the view to a county or state. Once you're looking at the map you'll see a bunch of red markers and, if you've used eBird before, a few blue markers. The red markers are existing eBird "Hotspots", while the blue ones are your personal locations. eBird hotspots are public locations shared across the entire birding community for data entry and data output. The term "hotspot" may imply that it has to be a great birding location, but in fact it is a misnomer. A hotspot is simply a shared location, some of which are excellent birding locations, others are small city parks etc. These have been created by the eBird community and now there are many thousands in our database. Chances are if you are birding a well-known location, it's already in the database, and should be on the map represented by a red marker. Zoom in and click on one of the red markers. You'll see the name of the location appear in the "Location name" window to the right of the map. If this is where you were birding, you're done, simply click continue. If you don't see the location here, you can easily plot a new one. Zoom the map in to its fullest extent (to ensure you're mapping as accurately as possible). Amazingly, on Google Maps you can see individual trees and houses in some areas! Click once on the map to plot your new location. A green pin with a white dot in the middle will appear. To reposition your new location just click on the map where you want to move the pin. Once you're happy with the location type its name into the "Location name" field and click continue. If the location is one that you'd like to share with other birders, you can select the 'Suggest as birding hotspot' box, but only do this if the location is not private or personal to your birding (e.g., your backyard).
A frequent question is, "What do I do if the hotspot is too vague or broad to be useful (e.g., Kruger National Park in South Africa)?". In this case, you should plot a new location. Hotspots are often too vague, and you would add to our knowledge by creating what we call a 'sublocation' within an existing hotspot. In the example above you might plot your location exactly on the map and label it "Kruger NP--Satara Camp". This way it will be grouped with the other Kruger locations on the data output tools, and will be easily selected as part of the Kruger group for consolidating output. The general rule to follow is that when in doubt, create a new location and be specific!
Use latitude and longitude
Using a GPS to find your location is a great way to be accurate. When Team eBird goes birding, we often do so using a GPS. We stop at various places throughout the day and at each one we take GPS coordinates (setting the device to decimal degrees is easiest). This is really helpful for a long string of "stationary counts" or for getting the position of your traveling count. GPS models are fairly cheap these days, the most basic ones running well under 100 dollars. Your iPhone or Android will even give you GPS coordinates, and with the ability to use eBird Mobile to note your observations in the field, this is often already done for you!
Don't use "Find it by city, county or state"
This feature of the eBird location mapping system is meant to be used as a last resort, mostly for old records where specific location information is lacking. When you enter data at the state or county level, the data will be excluded from all public outputs (e.g. Species Map, Explore a Region, Bar Charts). Likewise, entering data by "City" is not recommended, since it is always better to be more specific and actually map your birding location within the town. As you can imagine there are big differences between the habitat of your town in general versus a city park or even your backyard. Plot your location in the park if that's where you were birding, not at the city level.
When dealing with old records, don't try to force your sightings into too precise of a location. If you only know that you were in Jefferson County, Colorado we recommend using find by city, county and state. That way your record will be tagged as being at the city, county or state level – even though the data quality isn't as good as it could be, you should never make something more specific than it actually is.
How detailed should we be?
Every eBirder will strike his or her own balance, but we will always appreciate those that keep multiple, very refined checklists. How refined you get is up to you. Above all though, we don't want to lose contributors who end up feeling like eBird is too much work. For all our encouragement to keep multiple short lists that report all species and contain effort, more than anything we'd like to keep you using eBird at some level. If you need a break after a day of submitting checklists from 6 or 8 specific locations, then go ahead and put in a list from a less specific location and consider it a well-deserved break! Switching from keeping daily lists to keeping location-specific lists can be difficult, and each additional list you keep and enter in eBird adds to the "workload". Don't burn out--make sure that birding and eBirding continue to be fun.
Fixing your existing locations
Now that we've convinced you to be more specific with your new locations, what do you do about the old ones that you plotted incorrectly? Luckily eBird has a suite of tools that allows you to refine your locations. Read more about those here. You can merge duplicate personal locations into a single personal, into a hotspot, or even move the location of individual checklists from one broad location to a more refined one. Many eBirders used "Find it by city, county or state" when they first started, but really have been recording birds in their backyards the whole time. Simply plot a new location and then move your existing data to the more specific location. This will help analysts make better use of your data, and allow you to create yard lists!
At eBird we know that we ask a lot of our users, and we appreciate all that you do to become better eBirders and citizen scientists. By taking a few extra steps while in the field you can make the most of your birding, and help scientists make the most of your data!