Other Animals

eBird Rolls Out Fun New Feature That Serves as a SparkNotes for Species

On a clear, cold October morning, for the first time in my birding life, I watched hundreds of American Robins migrate in a single, synchronized stream. Typically, I see a solitary robin or a small group of them pulling earthworms from the soil. But what I witnessed that fall day in Washington Square Park in New York City was a more intentional scene—one that made me think of the historic flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets that used to fill the Eastern skies.

The experience with the robins sparked my curiosity. I knew how to identify this common bird, but didn’t know much about its behaviors: where it breeds or winters, when it’s most likely to be seen in my area, and so on. Fortunately, I could look it all up on eBird, with the new Explore Species feature.

Just two weeks old, Explore Species makes it easy to visualize (and listen to) multiple facets of a species. It provides a portal to the same ID tips, range maps, checklist stats, spectrograms, multimedia, and reference information that can be found on other parts of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website—but through a single, artfully organized page. The tool is also mobile-friendly; I found it nimble to navigate around, even on my vintage smartphone.

So, what can you use the feature for? If you’re a birder on a mission, go ahead and type in the common or scientific name of your chosen species (the search bar auto populates, and is easily accessible through the Explore page). The database includes every species in the world.

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Before you kick off your search, however, I recommend you log into eBird, or create an account if you don’t have one. This will help calibrate the page to your submissions, sightings, and life list. You can also set a location if you’re interested in regional information; otherwise, the specs are preset to automatically show you global data.

Once you’ve settled on a species, browse through the different categories of data. There’s an ID section that headlines the page, with taxonomic backgrounds—order, family, common, and Latin names—images showing various sexes and ages. The main photograph is captioned with a summary of the bird’s appearance, behavior, diet, habitat, and range (so basically an abbreviated version of Cornell’s All About Birds listing). Any available song and call clips are also included here.

If you’re logged in, you’ll see a robust stats roundup, contrasting your contributions (number of sightings and media uploads) to those of the entire eBird database. Clicking on your contributions values will reveal the date and location of each of your observations of that species. Media submitted by birders in your region is prominently displayed, too.

The tool is also handy for birds that aren’t on your list. I don’t have any Eastern Meadowlark records, so I see big fat zeroes in the stats box. But by looking at the range map and the weekly bar chart (the latter shows the frequency of the species in a given place, in a give part of the month), I can figure out where and when my best chances for snagging that meadowlark are. (November is the last window to see it in my area this year.)

The bar chart is one of my favorite elements on Explore Birds. I used it to better understand the mass of robins I saw in October, and learned that I’d come upon the tail end of peak migration in New York, New York.

Another tip: It helps to zoom out on the range map to get a continental snapshot of the bird of interest. The Explore Species page doesn’t distinguish between breeding, year-round, and wintering distributions, but you can find that information on the matching All About Birds profile. By piecing together facts from both sites, I figured out that the robins I saw in Washington Square Park were likely heading to their wintering grounds in Florida.

When you don’t have a specific bird in mind, you take a spin with the search bar’s Surprise Me option. It’s like Google’s I’m Feeling Lucky, but better, because birds. One of my roulette results was the Saffron-cowled Blackbird, a mid-South American species.

All told, eBird has done its users a service by centralizing its information on one page. I have a wish list for Explore Birds 2.0, though. I’m a fan of the “sticky” navigation bar—it moves as you scroll—but it’d be better if it indicated the current species, to act as a “breadcrumb” while you move down the page. Second, the location settings are limited to city level or greater; a finer scale would be a great sidekick for dedicated patch birders. And finally, I’d appreciate a “Similar Species” element, like that on All About Birds. Incorporating look-alikes would make this new tool a hotspot for exploring the bird world.

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