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eBird Pelagic Protocol

Ahoy, mateys... On land or on the sea, eBird thrives when data are entered with specific and accurate locations. The ability to associate complete checklists of birds with specific locations is essential for understanding species; habitat associations and geographical patterns of occurrence, helps eBirders find birds, and ensures that their lists are correct in My eBird. Birding at sea is somewhat different from birding on land, since marine habitats are much less obvious than those on land. Factors such as water depth and temperature, upwelling, steepness of the ocean bottom, salinity, and currents may be important determinants of where pelagic birds are likely to occur. And while a woodpecker or antpitta may live its entire life within a territory of one square kilometer or less, all pelagic birds must move among ephemeral feeding areas. For pelagic birding, the ideal process for submitting checklists is keeping a series of short-duration counts that represent a "track" of the course taken offshore. This will allow us to begin associating the occurrence of pelagic species with the various factors that influence their distributions on the open ocean. Organized pelagic trips typically include teams of leaders and many dozens of observers. In these situations, it should be possible to work as a team to keep detailed, location-specific lists that are a sum of the entire team effort on the boat. As with all shared checklists, anyone can always delete birds the observer did not see and add ones that did not make the official tally. Ideally, this eBirding effort should be coordinated by the pelagic-trip organizers, and shared with participants, who must provide their eBird username (preferable!) or email address for checklist sharing at the end of the trip.

eBird pelagic protocol
The pelagic protocol applies to checklists that are made farther than two miles offshore; it may be used on oceans, seas, or large lakes. Within two miles (e.g., when leaving the harbor or birding by boat near shore) please use other eBird protocols and existing hotspots, where appropriate.

Count protocol: The pelagic protocol indicates that you are recording birds more than two miles from shore. The protocol is a traveling count of 1 hour or less. Do your best to record (using a GPS or eBird Mobile) or estimate (using average ship speed) the distance traveled, and try to account for potential backtracking or changes in speed. Be aware that knots use nautical miles, and each nautical mile is about 1.1 statute miles (or 1.85 km). eBird distance fields use kilometers or statute miles. There are times where you may be stopped, in which case the distance traveled may be very short or even zero. If you're anchored, use the pelagic protocol, record your distance as zero, and enter the full duration, even if longer than 60 minutes. At the end of each count period, start a new checklist and plot your point at the beginning of each transect. It is strongly recommended to put water temperature and depth in the checklist comments, along with visibility and wave height, as these are important variables. Repeat this process throughout the trip until you return to within two miles of shore. If you have previously-submitted pelagic checklists that match this protocol, please do update them in eBird.

Individuals seen repeatedly: Often, a recognizable individual bird will be seen across multiple checklists. In such cases, it is recommended that you include the bird in your count (which is really a survey of the birds in the area at that time) and consider marking it as a continuing bird in the species comments. Please do not omit the bird entirely from that or subsequent checklist periods, even if it follows the boat all day.

​Work as a team: Anytime you do a pelagic trip, try to find other eBirders aboard so that you can help one another in keeping track of the birds and submitting your lists appropriately. Ideally, you should chat with the leaders before departing to ask if there is an effort by the leadership team to keep eBird checklists. Finding and counting birds offshore is a challenge, so working as a team really helps!

Plotting location: Plotting locations accurately and precisely is among the most important aspects of eBird, and should be stressed at sea and on land. On organized pelagic trips and even on ferries and whalewatch boats, it is often possible to get precise coordinates from the captain. Note that most smartphones have GPS functionality that does not require cell service, so with a GPS app (like Motion-X), one can get coordinates offshore from your smartphone. Note also that eBird Mobile works just fine offshore; choose "Create Offline Checklist". With this option, appropriate species lists cannot be accessed by the app unless you have started a checklist the same county or state you'll be visiting. Submitting a list from the area of the harbor on the day before the trip or on the morning as you depart is one way to get an appropriate checklist to use while offshore (otherwise you will have to use the full taxonomy). Be careful with your coordinates; decimal degrees work best in much of eBird, and the file upload process requires this format. Data can also be submitted online using Degrees, Minutes, and Seconds (DMS), but degrees and decimal minutes need to be converted. A couple helpful conversion sites are:
​Use of eBird pelagic hotspots
​When using the eBird pelagic protocol above, locations will be plotted precisely and accurately. If you have historic lists from pelagic trips, or you were not able to follow the pelagic protocol above, please at least try to use overarching pelagic hotspots. Note that these generally should not be used when the pelagic protocol is being used and are primarily for aggregating data that do not apply to the pelagic protocol.

Pelagic hotspots: Many ports that have regular pelagic trips should now have a series of hotspots for use on pelagic trips. These hotspots are of the following types: Overarching pelagic hotspot: These hotspots are usually named according to the port of departure and plotted at a location along the typical route for the pelagic trip. If you are entering your historical data from a pelagic trip, but are unsure exactly where the trip went, please use this hotspot. Please make sure to include only species seen at least two miles from land within this hotspot. Any records of landbirds or other species associated with the immediate coastline should be entered on a different inshore checklist. Examples include:  Habitat-specific hotspots: Most pelagic trips head for specific locations that are known to be good for seabirds. These are often submarine canyons, seamounts, or reefs, or simply the continental shelf edge or a zone of deep water. The eBird hotspot editors have established pelagic trip hotspots to represent these major marine habitats. For birders who don't follow the eBird pelagic protocol above but want to provide location-specific data as best they can, we recommend using these hotspots.

​Off Monterey Bay, California, for example, there are 10+ hotspots available among which to divide your pelagic lists appropriately. Prior to your pelagic trip, we recommend reviewing these so you are familiar with how the data should be collected in this area. Most pelagic operators in the area are aware of these eBird hotspots and will offer to share checklists with you for the trip. But, understanding what these sites represent and familiarizing yourself with them is important.

​Fig. 1. eBird hotspots off Monterey, California. These hotspots are broken down by county (Monterey Co. to south.; Santa Cruz Co. to north) and habitat, with several nearshore locations listed as well as offshore destinations that are often visited by area pelagic operators.

Final notes

States and counties offshore: Within eBird, we use a strict closest point of land (CPOL) rule to assign a country, state, and county to offshore observations that are within 200 nautical miles of land; observations outside of this area appear in the Location Explorer and eBird as the country (and state) "High Seas" with code XX. As long as you plot your points accurately and keep your lists short, eBird will assign them automatically to the correct region. This standard matches U.S. Federal law and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as listing guidelines of the American Birding Association and other similar bodies around the world. Nate Dias explains the policy and some of the nuances. Within the United States, all state Bird Records Committees except New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, Mississippi, and Alaska have adopted CPOL for their avian records.

Plotting rarities: For extremely rare birds, it is very important to get specific information on the location. If you take a specific lat-long for a rare bird, please enter that in the species comments so that it is always clear exactly where the rarity was seen. In such cases, recording the water depth and sea-surface temperature is also recommended. You can also consider creating an additional eBird checklist specifically for this rarity, which can be an "Incidental Observation", just to make sure it's plotted exactly where you saw it on the map, and that it gets tagged with the appropriate state and county.

​Documentation, documentation, documentation: The distributions of many pelagic birds are poorly understood, so providing photos for your observations is very helpful, especially in record review. There are new discoveries to be made even in well-covered pelagic areas, such as the regular occurrence of Hawaiian Petrels off California and the presence of late-summer Barolo Shearwaters off New England and Atlantic Canada, both phenomena which have been demonstrated only in the past decade. When in areas with less well-known pelagic avifauna, providing detailed notes and photos on anything unexpected is especially important.

Fig. 2. eBird range maps for Manx Shearwater (upper) and Audubon's Shearwater (lower) off the Northeast U.S. coast. Cape Cod, Massachusetts, forms the northeasternmost point of land and regular pelagic trips conducted there have used the eBird protocol. This accounts for the linear sets of Manx observations obvious in the top image. Those pelagic trips head to the edge of the continental shelf, and it is here that Audubon's Shearwaters are found. Note the striking differences in occurrence of Manx (often seen from shore; when offshore, over the continental shelf and common north of Cape Cod) vs. Audubon's (seen from shore during hurricanes only; when offshore, mostly south of the continental shelf, and almost unknown north of Cape Cod except in deep waters far to the east). Several of the inshore points for Audubon's Shearwater are imprecisely plotted records that were actually found far offshore, which highlights the need for more accurate location plotting of pelagic observations.
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