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Understanding Observation Types

We've noticed at eBird that many observers are choosing the "Incidental Observation" methodology when in fact they are actually conducting more rigorous types of surveys while birding. Incidental Observations are of limited value because there is little effort information required, which allows them to be used in fewer analyses because we know less about how you went birding. It's important to let us know what kind of effort you put into making your observations. Please read on for a better understanding of the eBird methodology choices, and to learn how to make your data most valuable.

In this short overview we'll discuss the different types of observations, and why it's important to provide us with as much information about your birding event as possible.

Letting us know how you went birding is an important part of completing the data entry process. By filling out simple effort information we can learn more about the presence of birds in your area. For example, if you simply choose "Incidental Observation" when in fact you did something more rigorous, we won't know because you are not required to fill out the effort information. You might have seen a Bald Eagle fly over your car on the way to work in the morning, which is truly a casual observation. This is valuable information. It tells us that a species was at a location on a specific date. On the other hand you might have seen a Bald Eagle while birding for an hour at your local refuge and you might have reported all the species you observed, but still selected "Incidental Observation" as the methodology. By submitting a complete checklist of birds and telling us how much time you spent and how you collected the data, we can learn much more about the birds in your area. If you answer "yes" to the question, "Are you reporting all the species you observed," then you probably didn't perform a casual observation. From this type of observation we can learn about the abundance of Bald Eagle relative to the other species on the checklist, and we can know how much time you spent trying to find the birds on that checklist, which provides information on detectability. Think about how easy it is to spot and eagle compared with say, a rail! If you still choose "Incidental Observation" as the type of observation, these important data will not be included in many of our analyses and output tools. Be sure to understand the type of survey you're conducting, and don't be afraid to choose something more rigorous than "Incidental Observation," especially when you are the ones doing all the work!

Incidental Observation Observations that involve no time or distance/area components are classified as Incidental Sightings. Examples of an Incidental Sighting are: an oriole that flies by while you are checking your mail, a hummingbird feeding in your backyard while you wash dishes, a grouse just off the side of the road while you drive to work, or a flock of waxwings that move through your yard while you are weeding your garden. Required Date/Effort fields: Date.

Stationary Count Observations made over a known period of time, but without any distance/area components, are classified as a Stationary Count. This does not mean you must stand completely still as you record the birds, but you should remain in an area approximately 30 meters (30 yards) in diameter while you are recording birds. If you move much farther than that, you should consider entering your observations as a Traveling Count or an Exhaustive Area Count. Examples of Stationary Counts are: a hawk watch, lake watch, or sea watch, or even sitting in your backyard for a period of time identifying birds. Required Date/Effort fields: Date, Start Time, and Duration.

Traveling Count Observations made over a known period of time while traveling a known distance are classified as a Traveling Count. You should be able to estimate the distance that you traveled during your outing, which can be walking, driving, or even by boat. If you do have a reliable estimate of the area you covered while you recorded the species, consider entering your observations as an Exhaustive Area Count. If you aren't sure of the distance or area you covered, please enter your observation as a Casual Observation. Examples of Traveling Counts are: walking a trail at a local park, driving an auto loop at a National Wildlife Refuge, participating on a pelagic (boat) trip, or even birding while jogging through your neighborhood. Required Date/Effort fields: Date, Start Time, Duration, and Distance Covered.

Area Counts are made while thoroughly searching a given location or area. These types of counts are sometimes used by biologists when monitoring a specific site, however, they can be appropriate for casual birding if you are able to estimate the size (acres or hectares) of the area you searched. The key measure of effort is the size of your area. Secondary measures of effort are time (duration) and distance traveled. If you are unsure of the size of your search area, but have a reliable estimate of the distance you traveled, consider submitting your observations as Travel Counts. If you are unsure of the area you covered, but have a reliable estimate of distance, consider entering your observations as a Traveling Count. Examples of Exhaustive Area Counts include: actively searching a local park or woodlot for breeding birds or canoeing back and forth through a marsh to count wading birds. A birding trek around your neighborhood or privately owned property can be an Area Count if you are able to estimate the size of the area you searched. Required Date/Effort fields: Date, Start Time, Duration, and Area Covered.
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