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How to Make Your Checklists More Valuable

As the eBird database grows by leaps and bounds, it is becoming ever more valuable. Your observations are making a huge difference in our understanding of birds at many levels. Scientists are now analyzing your data to find new patterns in bird distribution, abundance and population trends. Although every record submitted to eBird is valuable, only observations with effort data can be used in these more rigorous analyses, so we would like to promote several bird survey techniques that we consider most valuable in this regard. Make the most of your birding by conducting traveling counts, stationary counts and area counts in a more meaningful way. In this feature we'll give examples of how to make your observations count for bird conservation!

Recording All Species

The first step is to make sure you record all the species that you detected on your outing.  The most valuable checklists are those where you answer yes to the question “Are you submitting a complete checklist of the birds you were able to identify” found on every checklist page. We know that no one will detect every bird, and we also know that no one can identify every bird seen on all occasions. This question simply aims to see if you are reporting all the birds you encountered to the best of your ability. This way, when we run an analysis, we know the reason you didn’t report any European Starlings was because you didn’t identify or encounter any—not because you simply don’t like them! The important thing is that you only report complete checklists when they are in fact complete, not just because you feel the data should be included in this dataset. We would much rather have lists that are incomplete than ones that are omitting sightings but marked as complete.

eBird offers four different methodology choices.  We have ranked these from most to least valuable in terms of analysis.  It should be stated that any count where you have associated effort information greatly trumps simple "Incidental Observations."

Ways to Count

Traveling Counts

Traveling counts have proven to be the most effective type of observation for modeling bird populations at large scales.  By doing these counts birders often detect a good proportion of the birds in a given habitat.  It is critical, however, that your traveling counts not be too long.  Our analysts are able to effectively use traveling counts that are ≤5 miles.  Most birding that is conducted on foot easily falls within this window, but traveling counts by car can often be longer.  Please consider breaking up your long traveling counts into shorter distance ones. It's best if these shorter counts are in a relatively consistent habitat, or does not pass through habitats that are too different. For example, a logical point to break a longer route into segments would be a transition between forest and farmland, as the birds found in these two habitat types are vastly different. Doing so would make information associated with each location — such as vegetation information from satellite images — more informative.  Plot your location at the center of the area traveled, not at the start point or end point.  It's okay to stop and spend time searching flocks of birds more thoroughly on traveling counts, as we are not assuming that you are traveling at a constant speed.  You're birding after all!  Note: when back-tracking on a trail, record the distance traveled only in one direction, but do record the total time you spent birding as you traveled out and back. 

Stationary Counts

Stationary Counts are a great way to quickly sample a suite of birds in a given habitat by essentially standing in one place (don't walk more than 30 meters!) and counting everything you see and/or hear.  With stationary count data we are able to link the birds you report with the habitat on the ground using remote sensing of vegetation layers.  In general, shorter counts from more locations are better.  But longer stationary counts are appropriate for birding events such as hawkwatching and seawatching, or for counting large numbers of shorebirds, gulls, or ducks on a lake.  We recommend a 5-minute stationary count at minimum.  A string of 5-minute counts along a road or trail is even better! We often use a GPS for location information and then put the data into a spreadsheet, ultimately uploading it to eBird using the "Import Data" option.  Also consider doing a point count in a randomly selected location near your initial stationary count (within .5 miles works well). Pairing stationary counts like this provides valuable additional information about bird occurrence in habitats less frequently visited.  Birders tend to stop and conduct counts in places that they think look good for birds. By pairing these targeted areas with random ones, we have a better idea of the overall habitat in the area, and how birds are using it. Oddly, some great birds have turned up using this technique, and birders find some interesting new birding spots using this random spacing approach. Stationary counts are most informative when birds are also reasonably stationary, such as on territory. During migration and possibly winter, when birds are quieter and moving over larger regions, traveling counts may be more likely to encounter all of the birds that are in a general  area. At these times of the year 10 or 20 minute stationary counts work better.

Area Count

Area Counts are highly valuable because you are giving us an estimate of the area you've covered and a count of all the birds you've found within that area (fly-overs are okay!).  This is desirable because it allows us to calculate density, or the number of birds/area covered. Area counts should be at least 20 minutes long, and the more thoroughly you cover a smaller area the better.  Place your point at the center of the area sampled. We rank this count type as third best not because it is flawed, but because it is the least frequently selected option among eBirders.

Historical Protocol

Birders often have complete checklists of birds from their local area or trips abroad. These can be entered as Traveling or Stationary counts if reasonable estimates of start time, duration, and distance can be entered. Historical Protocol indicates that effort is uncertain, but birding was your primary purpose. This is most appropriate for, as the name would suggest, entering your lists from the past before you collected the effort data for Traveling or Stationary counts. Historical Protocol should be used as infrequently as possible, and is applicable when birding was your primary purpose (separating it from Incidental Observations), but you have no associated time or distance data. 

Incidental Observation

Too many birders choose incidental observations (previously called "casual observations") simply because they don't understand the techniques above or feel that they are unqualified to provide effort information. In reality, any time you leave the house with birding as your primary objective, chances are the time you spend in the field can be categorized as a traveling, stationary or area count. Incidental Observations are to be used primarily for bird observations made when birding was not your primary purpose. For example, if you saw an Osprey flying over while checking the mail, or intermittently observed some birds in your yard while doing yard work throughout the day. The importance of using Incidental Observations only as a last resort cannot be over overstated. Data recorded without effort are of use for more limited analyses, typically mapping and seasonal distribution information. 

In a Vehicle – Traveling vs. Incidental

If you are driving along en route to a birding site and see two Peregrine Falcons and a Common Buzzard out the window, what kind of a count is it? Even if you were keeping your eye out for anything you saw, it isn't possible to be detecting species with the assumptions of a traveling count – so you are logging an Incidental Observation. If you drive slowly down a road with your windows down for several minutes and count everything you see, perhaps even stopping periodically, then that is a Traveling Count. The difference between the two situations is when birding was your primary purpose.

A Note on Estimations

While we always encourage you to do your best to measure your distance traveled using your GPS, odometer, pedometer, or online tools like or the Gmap-pedometer, we’d like to stress that it is OK to estimate. Many people tell us that they are not good at estimating distance, but if their estimations are within the right order of magnitude they can still be useful for analysis (e.g. 0.2 miles, 0.5 miles, 2km, 3km, etc). Please do not shy away from estimating distance and instead end up using our arch nemesis—The Incidental Observation.

When you observe rarities, it is very helpful to add notes or photos so that our reviewers can review and confirm your observations. To learn how to upload photos, click here. For more on our data quality process, click here.

Please consider trying one of the above techniques to help make your observations more meaningful for our analyses!  And don't hesitate to email us if you need help trying to figure out how your day to day birding fits best into these categories.
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