Thumbnail image: Curtis Marantz/Macaulay Library
[Lisa Kopp] So welcome to today’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Today we’re going to be talking about birds, migration, and conservation. So all really important and fun topics.
But before we get started with today’s webinar hosted by Cornell University, which is based in Ithaca, New York. I wanted to take a minute to read a statement acknowledging the indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this land.
Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohó:no, the Cayuga nation. The Gayogohó:no, are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York state, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogohó:no, dispossession and honor the ongoing connection to Gayogohó:no people, past and present, to these lands and waters.
And for those of you who aren’t familiar, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is home to a community of researchers and supporters from around the world who appreciate birds and the integral role that they play in our ecosystems.
Our mission is to advance leading edge research, education, and citizen science, that helps evolve pressing conservation challenges.
This work, including today’s webinar, is funded primarily by people like you who choose to become a member. So if you enjoyed today’s webinar I would encourage you to consider becoming a member by visiting birds.cornell.edu.
And today’s event is a part of a special series celebrating migration. All of last week and through the end of this week we are celebrating this time of year with a number of programs. And we will put in the chat the website that you can visit to check out all of the archived events, as well as sign up for Friday’s event which will be our last webinar in the series.
I am Lisa Kopp. I’m on the visitor center team at the Cornell Lab and I will be facilitating today’s conversation. And with us we have Tom Auer and Orin Robinson. Hi to you both.
So I just have a couple more quick announcements just to sort of run through how this will work and some technical things. So first, for our Zoom audience, we do have live captioning available. If you go down to the bottom of your Zoom screen and select live transcript, there will be an option for you to either show or hide the subtitles.
Today, I’m going to be asking our panelists a couple of questions. To get started we’ll do some demonstrations as well show you some visuals. But we really want to answer questions from you. So please if you are on Zoom use the Q&A tool for your questions for Tom and Orin. I have some colleagues behind the scenes who will be able to answer some of your questions with typed responses, but others will be answering live as the conversation goes on.
The chat in Zoom is only where– a place for technical issues. So again, we’ve got folks behind the scenes. So if you’re having some issues with your sound, or your video, let us know in there and we’ll do our best to help you out.
And then finally, we are also streaming live on Facebook. So, Hello, to all of you joining from Facebook. We don’t want to leave you out of the conversation. So if you have questions and you’re watching on Facebook, you can use the comment section there to post your questions. But we do– we have had some issues with bots in the Facebook comment section, so please do not click on anything that is not coming directly from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We don’t want to mess with your technology.
So with all of that let’s get started on the good stuff. So thank you again, Tom and Orin, for being here today.
To kick things off, let’s do some introductions. So can you tell us a little bit about who you are, how you got started working with birds, and what you do now at the Lab. We start with Tom and then we’ll go to Orin?
[Tom Auer] Right. Hi, Yeah, I’ve been in the Lab for about six years now, and I’m a bit data scientist and I’m a bit of birder. I’ve been birding for over 20 years, big passion for birds. And marrying that with experience with geography and geospatial data science to analyze all this eBird data, which we’ll talk about today.
[Orin Robinson] I’m Orin Robinson. I have been at the Lab for just over five years now. I much in the same way, Tom, have always loved the outdoors, being outside.
And in graduate school I kind of got pulled to the dark side of the quantitative ecology and really enjoyed that side of it and wanted to apply that to bird populations, and conservation, and management. So that’s kind of how I have married the outside interests in birds and wildlife with my academic pursuits.
[Lisa Kopp] It’s so interesting hearing all of the different paths that brought us to the Lab. There’s people and I think when people hear Lab of Ornithology they sort of assume that everyone is coming from a long history of being birders, and while that is definitely true, there’s also data scientists, and researchers, and there’s educators, and publishers, and all these sorts of backgrounds come together at the Lab and create a really special place.
So speaking of special, we’re going to be talking about eBird which is just this incredible tool. And I’m really excited to dig into Status and Trends, which is what the topic is for today, but we’re going to take a step back and talk a little bit about eBird and sort of what that looks like, what that is, how people use it, and how our audience could can use it this fall as they’re looking at the birds that are coming through their areas.
So Tom, would you mind giving us a little bit of information on what eBird is, generally?
[Tom Auer] Absolutely. So if you’re not familiar with eBird, it’s a project to collect data from birders as they go out in the world and go birding.
So if you’re a bird watcher, you go out in the field and you’re trying to see a bunch of different species, you’re going to go to maybe a local patch or a hotspot that’s got birds you’re hoping to see at a certain time of year. And with eBird we’ve built tools that let you report that information and it can be used in a number of ways.
So you go out in the field, and you got a mobile app that you can open up and start what we call a checklist, which is your list of birds. And it collects a little bit of information about when you’re out, where you are.
And then you enter the counts of the birds that you see and you tell us whether or not you’re reporting everything that you saw. So did you include some of those more common species, maybe like starlings or things like that.
And then that becomes a really valuable piece of data that we can use in science and conservation, which we’ll talk about more today, but the process of collecting that data is really fun and the data is also available for birders to use, to go find birds. Which is useful too.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. Thank you. Yeah, it’s pretty incredible to hear that you get the benefit of keeping your own list. But then it’s also actually contributing to science. And we’ll see that in action as we talk about the Status and Trends maps.
So Tom, for somebody who’s unfamiliar with eBird, interested in this idea of being able to keep their life list all in one place instead of perhaps in multiple notebooks scattered around the house, could you walk us through what that looks like? How somebody could get going on eBird?
[Tom Auer] Absolutely. So if you go to the ebird.org website that was put in the chat you’ll see our home page and you can see some of the stats about my own personal birding. Which is really fun. You get a lot of stats about how many species you’ve seen, how many checklists you’ve contributed, whether they are photos or audio recordings that you’ve contributed, and how many days you’ve been submitting checklists in a row.
And so it’s really fun to get these stats back from all the work that you’re doing. And those are built upon these eBird checklists.
And so here’s a page of an eBird checklist that I did recently out in Massachusetts with my mom. We stopped and we had seven species with a quick checklist but got to take a nice photo of a Pine Warbler on the way. And you can see that I’ve got all the counts there and we call it a complete checklist.
The mobile app does a really great thing, it keeps track of where you are. This is a really key piece of information for science, is knowing exactly where you went birding because it lets us connect that with information about the landscape, right? Habitats, human impact, elevation, topography, weather information. So having that information come out of the eBird mobile app makes it really useful to science.
And so it’s fun to have this kind of information available for yourself. And then this becomes a really important data nugget in the database that we pool all the checklists together and can use for analysis.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. Thanks, Tom. First of all, nobody should be intimidated by your statistics.
Those are pretty impressive. I know that when I started at the Lab I was completely intimidated by all of the incredible birders. And being sort of more of a naturalist with an interest in birders, I was a little bit scared of using eBird and I wasn’t quite sure about this complete checklist concept. And if complete checklist meant that I had to identify every bird that I saw or if it just meant that I was putting in the birds that I did see.
So can you just sort of make sure that we’ve got a good understanding of what that is? And then we’re going to switch gears and talk to Orin for a second.
[Tom Auer] Yeah. So that complete checklist concept it’s about what you can identify. So if you go out in the field, and you see a couple little brown birds escape from you, and you can’t identify them, that’s OK. But as long as you’re going out and you’re giving us everything that you’re seeing, for example, if you go out in your backyard and you see six or seven species but you really only were excited about the cardinal and you just put the cardinal on your checklist, that’s not as helpful especially if you saw goldfinches or chickadees at your feeder at the same time. We want all of the species that are present. That’s really helpful.
[Lisa Kopp] Right. So it’s great because you can still submit that information, that cardinal that you were excited about seeing, to your own personal checklist and keep that on your life list, but it’s not then going into the eBird database because it wasn’t a complete checklist.
[Tom Auer] Right. If you submit just a checklist with just a cardinal on it you would mark it as an incomplete checklist, you’d say no to that question. And then it goes in your lists, kept all those records there but it isn’t then used in our data analysis.
[Lisa Kopp] OK, great. So Orin, I’m a beginner birder, I’m starting my checklists for the first time, what happens if I am convinced that I see a flamingo in my backyard, in upstate New York? And I submit this as a complete checklist, I just saw one bird while I was out there and it was a flamingo. How does that not mess with the data that scientists are using in eBird? What are the sort of checks and balances to keep things from being wacky in there?
[Orin Robinson] So the first thing that would happen, especially if you submit it from your mobile app is there would be a message pop up that basically says, are you sure about that? And it would ask you to provide more information, describe the bird, what was it doing, exactly where was it, what makes you think it was a flamingo?
And after you do all that, that checklist would then be reviewed by an actual person. A reviewer who would probably get in contact with you to chat about the bird, the sighting, and you would go from there to make sure that is in fact what you saw in your backyard.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s really amazing that there’s real people.
Ultimately being a part of this it must be a huge network of people who are participating in that to make this data as high quality as it is.
[Orin Robinson] Yeah, and that’s really important. Because the initial question was, how does that not affect the analysis we can do with the data if it weren’t for those reviewers or all of those filters? It would. It would absolutely affect it.
[Lisa Kopp] I’m seeing quite a few questions in the Q&A coming in about Merlin. And so I just want to mention really quickly that Merlin Bird ID is another free app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And we actually have a really fantastic webinar from a couple of months ago about the newest feature that came out of Merlin, which is Sound ID, where you can use your phone as a recording device to identify birds that are making sounds, calling, or singing.
So Merlin is a separate app from eBird. But there’s a ton of great information on that webinar and our website about Merlin, which is an excellent way to hone your birding skills and potentially help you build those checklists to be even more complete over time.
So Tom, eBird data is made up of all of these individual birders, submitting these checklists, this data is completely community driven, which is really incredible. How is it then being used? What are scientists or what sort of analysis is being done with all of this data?
[Tom Auer] Yeah. So we have a project as part of eBird called, eBird Status and Trends. And this is really an effort to fill the gaps in. This is an effort to take the information that we got and try to understand where the birds are at all times. And so let me go ahead and show the website here.
Right. So birders are out in the field and they’re birding on different days, different times of the day, they’re going to places that they really like, and then we take that information and we combine it with remotely sensed data satellite, base data about the environment.
And then we use statistical and machine learning, you could call that artificial intelligence methods, to learn where these birds are on the landscape. So we might look at a species like Northern Cardinal here and be able to really tease apart where the bird is in greater abundances at different times of the year. Or for species like Northern Cardinal which is a resident throughout the year.
So we can see that there’s more abundance here in the south. The darker purple is higher abundances, the lighter purple are places where the species occurs more infrequently.
But this is really that key piece of information that’s standardizes all of that variation across different types of birders, different places, places where we have more information or less information, and creates a usable product that scientists and conservationists can use in their research and management of species.
[Lisa Kopp] Yes, this is really like in the field guide. This is a range map 2.0, because it’s not just where a bird will be but it’s how much of that bird is there, right?
So the darkest colors are going to– you have the highest likelihood of spotting a bird, you know, a cardinal on that spot.
[Tom Auer] Yeah, absolutely. And so that’s a really transformative product, this abundance estimation. As you said, range maps which look a little bit like this one you might see here for American Robin, where we’ve got the seasons colored as different times of the year. So red is the breeding season, blue is winter, and purple is where they overlap.
You know, those range maps don’t have information about the abundances and that abundance information is really what drives a lot of the science and decision making that can be done with these data.
And the fact that we are able to generate this information at really high resolution, really find detailed information, is part of also what makes it really valuable.
So I’m going to hit play on an animation here of the American Robin migration. Right now it starts during the winter but you can quickly see as the species migrates North and spreads across its breeding range and then comes back South in bigger numbers.
How much information and detail there is here. So the yellow is really low abundance and the dark blue is really high abundance. You can see them in cities, in the East, and then migrating in big numbers throughout different parts of the Midwest and the East. And then again back North spreading out during the breeding season as they’re on territories. And this is just a really rich and powerful information that can be used in so many different ways.
[Lisa Kopp] It was so cool to get to see the movements of a bird in action like that. We have a really interesting question that someone asked which is, if you have multiple birders reporting a single bird or the same birds over and over, are you going to get sort of an expanded number or is that really just going to give you a different kind of information when you’re looking at the data?
[Tom Auer] Yeah. We get that question occasionally and the repeated checklists that maybe 10 people go to the same site and see one bird and one day. But what we’re estimating here is how many birds we would expect somebody to encounter. So we’re going to average that information out.
If 10 people go to the same spot and report the same bird we’re not going to say there were 10 of them there. We’re going to say how many on average were counted and if there was one, let’s say everybody ran out to see a Bald Eagle, we’re going to say that on average on that date, at that location, there was one Bald Eagle.
So it also helps too to have, especially when you’re doing complete checklists, information from different types of birders, different people with different skill levels or people who maybe cover different areas. That really helps us fill in different places.
[Lisa Kopp] Great. Another good question, is this abundance information available on the eBird app or is it just on the desktop version?
[Tom Auer] So right now the mobile app does not have this information about abundance. This is currently something that you can get to through the desktop app only. We have started to think about ways we could incorporate this sort of information with the apps like Merlin or the mobile app to really help inform what should be around? What should you be keeping an eye out for? Looking for, especially in places where we don’t have a lot of checklists from other birders. But that’s down the road a little ways.
[Lisa Kopp] Great. Yeah, I can only imagine the kind of data use having something live like this in an app would take. I also see we’re getting a lot of questions in the Q&A sort of about specifics of eBird reporting? Like how do you– if you hear a bird, but you can’t see it, do you report it? Things like that.
And while we would absolutely love to cover all of that information I want to recommend that everyone check out the eBird course on the Bird Academy site. It’s actually a free course that will teach you the basics of bird and some of those best practices, as well. And we can make sure that we put that in the chat.
So these maps are amazing. And I know that this is really just– this demo is just sort of scratching the surface of the map capabilities that we have thanks to eBird data. So I’m wondering if you could dive into some of the Status and Trends maps sort of the meat of what we’re going to be talking about today.
[Tom Auer] Right. So the Status and Trends maps are really making that estimate at every 2.96 kilometer pixel on the– well actually we’re doing it globally now, and showing relative abundance information throughout the full annual cycle. So we’re making estimates for every week of the year and we’re doing that across every species full annual cycle.
So here we’re seeing one of these animations for Barn Swallow. And as you can see the species breed throughout the North America during the summer. And then return South to the South America and Central America to winter. And this is really one of those incredible migrations that is just so strong and amazing to think about the fact that they go as far South as they do when we see them.
This is a species you’ll see in fields, in your backyard. And then to think that they leave during the fall and migrate thousands of kilometers down into South America is just a really compelling visualization.
[Lisa Kopp] So we were sort of, maybe speaking from a– looking at the first map was more than just North America, how much data do we have for South America, for Europe, you know, where are things when it comes to international information? Obviously we have it for some.
[Tom Auer] Yeah, we’re constantly growing. I think you can see a little bit in this map how there’s a light gray area and a dark gray area in South America. And those dark gray areas or places we lack sufficient information to kind of model this information about abundance.
So we need to keep growing in South America but this most recent year was our first year that we started modeling species outside of the Western hemisphere. So we even have some examples from Europe. Here’s one of my favorites. Really common species throughout Europe if you’ve been there. European Robin.
Again, you can kind of see the edge of our information there throughout Russia on the Eastern edge, but we’ve got a really good pattern of the full annual cycle at that high resolution detail throughout Europe.
So we’re really excited to be doing more of these. We’re going to release more of these results later this fall. And we’ll have 1,200 species so even more from lots of places like India, and Australia, New Zealand. It’s really becoming a global product.
[Lisa Kopp] Wow. we have a couple of questions about climate change. And will these maps begin reflecting changes from wildfires, or warming temperatures, how much data is sort of real time data versus archive data, or what kind of time are we speaking about when we look at these maps?
[Tom Auer] Yeah. So when we look at these maps, we’re looking at an estimate for the previous year. So these are for 2019. So it’s kind of estimating a snapshot of what things were like in 2019. We do have a whole research team that’s really focused on the Trends component of this. Understanding how species are changing through the years.
And I’d encourage everybody to keep your eye on the Cornell Lab materials because we’re hoping to have some exciting results about that out in the next few months.
It takes a lot of work to deal with the fact that people are birding different places in different years. We’ve got to adjust for the fact that maybe people aren’t going to the same site every year. But you know we have a lot of brilliant statisticians working on this and we’re going to have some results come out in the near future that I think will really excite a lot of folks. So it’s in our wheelhouse and we’re working on it.
[Lisa Kopp] It’s great. Is there anything that, and I know that you’re largely on sort of the data side of things, Tom, but anything that’s come out of these maps that’s been really surprising or someone has a great question about anything from these maps sort of been alarming to you or to scientists generally? And then we are going to get into sort of conservation talk with Orin in just a second.
[Tom Auer] Yeah, we’re always learning things from these maps. And I think alarming– I’m not sure with these relative abundance estimates I’ve seen anything alarming. I think the Trends work that’s coming might show some alarming things.
And I think some species that are really range restricted, that only occur at a few sites, it’s really surprising to see how limited their ranges are. How vulnerable they are to things like habitat change.
But some of the things that we learn that are really exciting are more subtle and kind of– we wouldn’t have been able to see them unless we did this at this scale.
So I’m going to play the animation here for Orchard Oriole which has an Eastern population and a Western population in the United States during the breeding season. And so as this animation plays pay attention to kind of put your eyes on the Eastern US, Pennsylvania, West Virginia.
But then also keep an eye on Nebraska, South Dakota, and just pay attention as migration begins and see if you notice any differences here that we see really strong difference in abundance and also a really strong difference in the timing when the species show up.
And you know this is stuff that we wouldn’t have realized otherwise. In the East, it’s a fairly kind of run into one or two Orchard Orioles but if you look out West it’s going to be more abundant in the right habitats. And it’s stuff that we just wouldn’t look at unless we put this picture together as a whole.
[Lisa Kopp] Wow. Really is fascinating the nuance and the detail that you can dig into with this.
[Tom Auer] Exactly.
[Lisa Kopp] So the maps are obviously incredible and show all sorts of new information but, Orin, I want to talk with you a little bit about how this information is being used by scientists. So you are a researcher Orin, speaking from your perspective, why do these why do these maps really sort of move the needle in terms of conservation work?
[Orin Robinson] So the biggest thing with these maps is the resolution and just the amount of data that’s there. These maps really help to fill in gaps and a very fine spatial and temporal resolution. we’re looking at slightly less than three kilometers squared and weekly resolution.
We have that information like Tom was showing for the entire Western hemisphere for many species. And without this kind of data we would never be able to study species at that scale.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, it really is amazing to have the timing be so specific, right? That’s what you’re saying, is that we’re getting this on a weekly basis? Yeah. So do you have any specific examples of how this information is being used for conservation efforts?
[Orin Robinson] I do. I will share my screen to show you guys a couple of things. So these maps are from a project we’ve worked on with the US Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Center. So this was with a group that is tasked with studying Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles. And issuing permits to anyone who wants to build infrastructure that may interact with Bald and Golden Eagles.
And they use a map of risk essentially to delineate these permits and determine whether or not someone could build say, a wind farm in a given area.
The data that they had been using was kind of a mash up of Christmas Bird Count, North American Breeding Bird Survey, various nest surveys from state agencies, midwinter aerial inventory. So they had to cobble together all of these different data sets to make these risks maps for eagles.
And like I said, these maps were used in determining where infrastructure for something like wind energy– wind energy was the big driver, but it’s really for any infrastructure. Where they would have the highest or lowest chance of interacting with Eagles. And the spatial resolution of these maps was incredibly coarse. Something like the scale of a state or an entire bird conservation region which can span multiple states.
So if you wanted to build a wind farm in a place– a relatively small area, but they’re making these decisions at the scale of a state the size of Montana and there were Eagles 400 miles away that your infrastructure might interact with, they would make you go through this three year observation period before you could actually build your infrastructure to make sure there were no eagles that were potential to be harmed in that area.
What they did then was take the Status and Trends maps and the data behind them to try to create a much finer resolution map. They wanted to refine this map and get it down to a much smaller resolution. So they compared these Status and Trends data with these cobbled together data sets that they had, and what they ended up finding was that the eBird Status and Trends data gave them not only the same answers to these policy questions about high risk versus not high risk as the other data sets did but it did so at a much, much finer resolution.
And the final products are seen here. So the top map we’re looking at is the Status and Trends map. The map that they used in their policy making is the lower map, they took the 50th quantile of the abundance from the upper map and made this their low risk map. So anything in green is considered safe from interacting with eagles. And someone in those places would be able to build without going through that two to three year observation process.
And this is the first of hopefully several examples of Status and Trends being used in actual policy. Like this data is now cited in the Federal Register, in the policy for eagle permitting process.
[Lisa Kopp] Wow. Yeah, I mean, it’s really incredible to see the– I mean, if you overlaid those two maps on top of each other it’s clearly the Status and Trends information is dictating exactly what they’re working off of. And yeah, it probably is a win for all parties involved, right? There’s not that two or three year long process, but also it’s going to be much more accurate and conserving the eagle populations, right?
[Orin Robinson] Yeah, absolutely.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. Are there other sort of projects like this that you’re working on or that you’re hearing about in the industry–
[Orin Robinson] There are. I can show you an example of another project. So this project is on shorebirds in the Central Valley.
So shorebirds species migrate through it at slightly different times and then the people who are managing for these species want to know when they’re going to be around and when they’re going to be needing some management intervention, right? This is that dynamic conservation idea. The needs of the species change by region and season. Here where we’re in the same region so we’re only concerned with season.
So each line we’re looking at represents a different shorebirds species that migrates through the Central Valley in California. And you’ll see that we have every week of the year marked. And all of this data came from those weekly animated maps that Tom showed. So this is another way we can display this data.
And what we can look at is a species like Western Sandpiper comes through in a very specific time and you see one big peak right here in the spring. So if we’re concerned about Western Sandpiper this is when we need to be providing whatever management Western Sandpiper needs in the Central Valley at that time.
Whereas something like Long-billed Dowitcher is there for a much longer period of time at its highest abundance. And it’s typically there throughout the end of the summer and the fall. So these are important things to know.
Again, we see Lesser Yellowlegs and Marbled Godwit have roughly the same peak in the spring, right. But in the fall they look completely different. So this also helps us kind of get more bang for our buck. When are the most species there is another thing that’s going to tell us, right? If we can line up the peaks we know that we’re going to be doing the most good for the most species at that time.
So this Status and Trends data is being used to answer questions like that as well. And currently we are doing things like this for waterfowl also. So I don’t I don’t have those visuals to show you but very similar work is being done for waterfowl, and what we’re doing there has been comparing what Status and Trends is showing us throughout the weekly– or weekly throughout the year rather.
And comparing that to the traditional aerial waterfowl surveys that are being done, that are very expensive and can be dangerous. So if the idea being that if we can use Status and Trends to help augment these aerial surveys, they may be able to do fewer of them which would save money and risk to pilots and observers. And we would also be able to show what aerial surveys may have counted in places where aerial surveys don’t happen. So those are some of the other conservation management type of things we’re doing with the Status and Trends data.
[Lisa Kopp] It’s so interesting to hear how this just gives conservation and so much more information to make educated decisions about where to put their dollars. I think I heard you mention the word or the phrase, dynamic conservation. Obviously there are limited resources and conservation. And so giving land managers and state officials this kind of information really does allow them to use their resources in a smarter way to save more species.
And it’s really nice to hear a positive story because I feel like there are just so many calamities when it comes to climate and conservation, right now. Orin I’m curious, because I feel like these are, again, some bright spots about how information and data can be used to help species. Is this a new trend, since speaking of Status and Trends, is this a new trend in conservation work or in research sort of using this applied research or do you see this sort of growing in popularity over the years?
[Orin Robinson] So in terms of using Status and Trends in the applied conservation world, it’s very new because Status and Trends is very new. But it is definitely growing. We get a lot of interest from a lot of different groups. A couple of times a month I get emails about, can you help me out? Here’s my questions, I want to use Status and Trends to answer them. So it’s definitely growing and it’s exciting to see more and more people using this data.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, and I feel like I’ve repeated it many times, but it’s just still really amazing to think about where this data is coming from which is just people going out and observing birds all contributing to this and making this kind of information possible for scientists.
So we have a very active Q&A. We’ve gone through the questions that we all talked about so I want to jump in and talk about some of the things that people are asking about.
One great question that someone brought up is, how often are eBird species lists updated? And what happens when those get updated, as new data or as new information becomes available about genetics? How does that affect some of the data that is being collected in eBird. Tom I think you’d probably be the best person for that.
[Tom Auer] Yeah, one of the really great benefits about eBird and the fact that it’s at Cornell is that we work with a lot of taxonomists as well. And every year we do a taxonomy update. So what those lists of birds are, how they’re related to each other, and whether there’s new species or species have been lumped together is that we automate that process in eBird.
So if you have a big list of birds and there’s new ones that get split off, some species it gets split off to full species, we handle that information. So bird listers really love it because they don’t have to worry about keeping track of those things.
And so we have that as part of our process every year is to update them and make that available to everybody and then we use that Status and Trends to have the most relevant species information.
[Lisa Kopp] [INAUDIBLE] –any sort of structures or sort of big decisions that have been made as a result of Status and Trends or eBird data. And I can give a little sneak preview for Friday’s webinar with Bird Cast and Andrew Farnsworth, which is that there have been some sort of big changes about turning lights off during specific times of migration. And again, I’m not going to give away the farm, you guys can tune in on Friday for the full discussion of that. But there have been some pretty big movements that have gotten some traction about turning lights off on nights that there is intense migration activity to help protect birds. So that is definitely something that we’re seeing come out of some Lab resources.
Orin, do you know of anything else sort of big like that? Again, you mentioned this is all sort of just at the beginning stages of this work so it’s just picking up speed.
[Orin Robinson] Yeah, so the one thing I talked about that the US Fish and Wildlife Service now has Status and Trends as an official policy in their eagle permitting, I thought was a pretty big deal.
The Mottled Duck surveys that the US Fish and Wildlife Service were canceled last year due to COVID. And we had a postdoc that used eBird data and some Status and Trends stuff to help essentially estimate based on eBird and Status and Trends what those surveys would have counted. So they were able to fill in for the aerial surveys for Mottled Duck and that was successful enough that they’re doing it again this year.
[Lisa Kopp] Not out of a pivot but out of intention this time around.
[Orin Robinson] Right.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, that’s great.
[Orin Robinson] That involved a lot of theoretical and quantitative stuff that nobody wants me to get into.
But it worked out very well. So hopefully that will be a model going forward of how to use this stuff for other species too.
[Lisa Kopp] It’s great. This is a behind the scenes question that someone asked, but it’s a good one, and Tom maybe you can answer it. How many people are working on this kind of thing behind the scenes? I’m assuming the audience is picturing a building full of hundreds of data scientists. But you want to speak to how amazingly efficient and awesome your team is?
[Tom Auer] Yeah. Well, we do have a reasonably sized crew working specifically on these Status and Trends estimates. About 8 to 10 folks in total who contribute throughout the process.
But, you know, it’s really built on the backs of a really bigger team, a 50 to 60 person team, that makes the eBird website, and the mobile apps work, and the databases function, and keeping on top of all that project managing– making it available globally, in different languages, and adding new features all the time. So we have a crew of maybe almost 70 people that we need to make this whole process work and couldn’t do it without them all.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. We have a really interesting question. Someone who is starting up a new conservation project in a city park. And they are curious if there’s someone on the eBird team that they could reach out to understand some of what we’ve been talking about, using these maps to be able to sort of make the best decisions for their work.
I don’t actually know who would be best to answer, Tom maybe?
[Tom Auer] Yeah. We could try to see if we can find a fit there to help you out with that. I think it’s often as highlighted, there’s some places where it helps to work together with folks and other people that it makes sense to point them to specific resources.
I think I answered one question in the Q&A that we do make a lot of these data products available for download. So if you have the ability to sift through data you can do that yourselves. But Yeah, we shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org– I think that’s it, right? email@example.com I think will get an email to us. Put Status and Trends in the title and we’ll connect.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. So there’s a very specific question, I think, Tom, this will be for you again. EBird said that they have 80 plus percent of the earth covered but only 4% is statistically significant. What does it take for us to get our areas statistically significant?
[Tom Auer] Yeah. So that really requires more data. But you know what it really requires– and I don’t have any maps on hand that I can show this real quickly, but it requires spreading out a little bit, if you can. If you have the time and you have the resources to hit different places, go places where other people don’t bird maybe at all, go out, drive a road and then stop in the middle of some random spot, feels random to you.
That stuff actually helps us fill in spaces that we wouldn’t have otherwise. So you can get away from some of those hotspots sometimes, and I’m not saying you got to do this all the time, but if one checklist in a week or one morning in a week you can go someplace you haven’t gone before, that helps us get statistical significance. Because we need to fill in those gaps, cover different types of habitats, different configurations and different regions, and spreading out we’ll do that.
[Orin Robinson] I’ll add, even if there aren’t a lot of birds there it helps.
[Tom Auer] Absolutely.
[Orin Robinson] Right? Because knowing that there’s nothing there is just as important as knowing that there is something there.
[Tom Auer] Yeah.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, Tom you mentioned that dark gray area in the map and that is just not reported versus the light gray area in the map which means that there’s absence, correct? Is that–
[Tom Auer] Yeah. So those light gray areas are places where we say, we can assume that the species is absent. We have enough negative checklists, negative observations, as we would say to say, no, bird’s not there. But if we don’t have that we don’t know.
[Lisa Kopp] I don’t want to put you on the spot, Tom, because I feel like the numbers are constantly changing. But just to get a sense for scale, do you have one of those like crazy mind blowing statistics of how many checklists were submitted in the last year, or how many individual sightings were submitted in the last year? You can say no, because we didn’t talk about this in advance. Like I said, those numbers are constantly changing.
[Tom Auer] They are always changing. Although I will be honest, I was floored the other day I went to– if you go to the eBird website and scroll down there’s a list of how many complete checklists, we are almost at 60 million complete checklists, which blows over 60 million checklists, I’m not sure they’re all complete. But 60 million checklists just in general blows my mind. I know we crossed the 1 billion observations threshold in the past year. And so the numbers are really growing fantastically. .
We do some analysis every year when we pick up, you know, we kind of do this as a yearly process. We pick up the data. And I’m always impressed where we’ve got really great growth. Places we’re growing at more than 20% per year. Places in India, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, Eastern Europe really grew this year a lot, so those numbers are always increasing. And it’s fantastic. Makes this possible.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s really amazing. I’m seeing quite a few questions about two things. One is how to share information about eBird with youth audiences? And I would just encourage you all who are asking those questions to check out the Lab of Ornithology K-12 program. They have some really great lesson plans for youth audiences using eBird, and looking at both how to use eBird for recording and creating checklists, but also information about how those are then used for data analysis and in conservation efforts.
The other thing that I’m seeing some questions on is, all of the interconnections between all of the Lab products that exist. So people are talking about eBird, and Merlin, and Macaulay Library. So I thought we could do a little, very quick, summary because again, they are all incredible resources in their own right but they are connected in some ways.
So if you download Merlin and use the free app to either identify birds using sound or the photo ID or just through the five questions that you ask, the images and the sounds that you’re going to look at come from the Macaulay Library.
If you are in eBird and you are submitting a checklist, you can include your photos, recordings, and videos in your checklist. And when you submit those go into Macaulay Library. And anything that’s getting submitted into Macaulay Library is helping train Merlin to better identify things.
So I saw in the chat somebody asked the question, if they could transfer their Merlin list to eBird. And you guys can correct me if I’m wrong because you’re on sort of the technical data side of things, I don’t believe that that’s in the works. But there obviously is a lot of connection already existing behind the scenes with those different platforms. And we’re so happy to hear that you’re using all of them so much.
Did I get that right? I know Tom you’re like a power user for eBird.
[Tom Auer] This will show how not familiar with all the aspects of Merlin I am. But I know you can save your sighting and there has been discussion about having that go into eBird. Actually I think it does. But don’t hold me to that. I think that’s either soon or happening. But I use eBird to record my observations directly. But you can do both.
[Lisa Kopp] Great. So Orin, I have a fun question. What’s that bird on your slide? We have had multiple questions ask– multiple people ask that question.
[Orin Robinson] I believe that is LeConte’s Sparrow.
[Lisa Kopp] Great. Tom, you mentioned this in one of your previous question– in one of your previous answers, but someone just asked the question about eBird being open source. So can you talk a little bit about how the data can be used or how it is used by scientists? And what information is open source? Because I know there are some elements that are and some that aren’t.
There’s some restrictions like species that might be threatened by trapping, or hunting, or poaching. We kind of hold that back so that we don’t endanger those species. But otherwise, for most species you can get all the checklists that everybody has ever submitted. We call that the raw eBird data.
We do have some restrictions, again, on commercial use, or uses like building websites out of the data, that sort of thing. But you can check out that download through Status and Trends and get access to the data if you’re a user that wants to get into that.
[Lisa Kopp] That’s great, thank you. And thank you to all of our audience members who are better versed in Merlin than we are, who are saying that they are connected. So–
Yes. That was probably highlighted in the Sound ID webinar that I did not do– I did not host. So that’s my excuse for not having done my homework on that.
So we’re getting a couple of questions about habitat. Tom, I wondered if you wanted to maybe show off some of those habitat maps and talk a bit about those.
[Tom Auer] Yeah, I saw that question too. Let me see here. Let me share my screen. Find a good species real quick to queue up. Yeah, so the habitat charts are really kind of a fun piece of information that comes out of our modeling workflow. So I’ll just quickly play the animation here for Magnolia Warbler. You see that it winters in Mexico and then migrates North through Eastern US before breeding throughout the Boreal forest and then returning South slightly more westward.
If we jump over to these regional charts, these habitat regional charts, you can choose these are summarized by states and provinces, and also bird conservation regions. But you can pick one of these, maybe a place that you’re from or interested in and click on that.
And what you see here we see that Magnolia Warbler passes through Georgia during spring migration. And we can see it also comes through in Fall in bigger numbers so there’s that difference in migration route I was hinting at a little bit there.
But what you have is above the zero line here are habitats the species is associating with. And below the zero line are habitats the species is not associated with, it might be avoiding those habitats. And we have a legend on the right, a little color scale that tells you what these are. But you can also mouse over and get these really specific bits of information about it.
And what we see is that there’s actually a positive association with roads and with nighttime lights. And so we know that our work with BirdCast is saying that light pollution is problematic for migrants and we see this actually in the eBird data that the species are attracted to these places during migration.
If we jump up to one of the breeding maybe say, Ontario in Canada, we see a different pattern. During the breeding season these gray and black lines here indicating roads and nighttime lights, those are negative associations. Those are places that the birds are avoiding. They’re out in the forests, better habitat quality. And we’ve indicated that here with mixed broad-leaf slash needle-leaf forest. And so that makes sense for Magnolia Warbler they like to nest in conifers, maybe mixed with other forests.
And so that having this information across space and time is really valuable to researchers to understand what species might be vulnerable to different human threats, but also where you might find them and how we could manage landscapes to improve them for species.
[Lisa Kopp] Wow. Another tool in the toolbox for researchers, and scientists, and related to the work that Orin is doing too, I’m sure.
[Tom Auer] Absolutely.
[Lisa Kopp] We got a question about how is eBird funded which I don’t think I can broadly sort of give my little spiel from the beginning of the webinar, which is that the Lab is funded primarily through donations from people out and about. We have a really wonderful member base and a long list of generous donors.
So again, sort of looking in the same way that the data from eBird comes from a community of people, the Lab is also a reflection of the community that used to provide their donations to us. So we appreciate that to all of the members and donors who are watching right now.
So we’ve got time for probably one or two more questions. So one question that came up is, are there models for future spread of invasive or introduced species? So looking at sort of things that might be negatively affecting, or species that are sort of maybe negatively affecting ecosystems that they originally weren’t a part of.
[Orin Robinson] So I know of some work where people are using eBird to model invasive species like Eurasian collared dove and things like that. But as far as projecting– is that’s how I understood the question like, are we projecting? Not to my knowledge. That’s a really hard thing to do. It would require a lot of assuming this is what the landscape is going to look like in five years, or 10 years, and things like that.
So it can be done by simulating those things and just saying, this is our best guess, but we aren’t doing any of that right now and I’m not aware of anybody else who is.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, it sounds a little bit like you need a crystal ball to do that.
All right. Well we only have 1 minute left so I want to take a second to thank Tom and Orin for the really fascinating conversation and all of the great information and resources that you shared. And for the work that you do, putting all of this information out into the world and applying it in the way that you do is clearly helping preserve the birds that we love and the ecosystems that they rely on. So really thank you for the work that you do.
And thank you to our wonderfully engaged audience. We really appreciate all of the thoughtful questions, and seeing how much you care about these products, and how you use them, and how they bring joy into your lives, it’s really rewarding for all of us to hear that.
We will be sending a recording of this talk to everyone who signed up over Zoom in the next few days. We’re going to be sending that probably Friday or Saturday of this week. It will be an email that will actually include all of the recordings over the past two weeks. All of our Migration Celebration programming.
And you will also see, when you click over to the recordings, a place that you’ll be able to find some of the links that we’ve link to in the chat. For privacy purposes we can’t share the chat or the transcript but you will be able to visit some of those links when we list them out.
And like I said, we have one final webinar coming up on Friday that is a part of the series. And we will be talking more about migration data sort of similar to eBird. And we will put in the chat one last time the link to register for that. So we hope to see you there.
And thank you again, Tom and Orin for joining and hope you have a great rest of your day. Bye, everyone. Thanks so much.
[Orin Robinson] Thanks.End of transcript
Have you ever wished for a birding crystal ball? Thanks to eBird’s massive citizen science database, both scientists and birders better understand the migration movements of birds. eBird’s Status and Trends maps will help you learn where and when a particular species is most likely on the move this migration season. Join Team eBird to learn about these magical maps and more!
This event is part of our virtual Migration Celebration. Visit the Migration Celebration webpage for the full schedule of events, migration resources, and family-friendly activities.