January 2019

Lists and "Listers"

Email lists for reporting bird sightings actually predate the World Wide Web. A natural evolution of phone messages and telegrams, they provided avid birders ( not to be confused with rabid birders, which tend to be small fur-bearing mammals at risk for extinction) a means of rapidly communicating the arrival of interesting species in interesting places. They still serve that purpose today.

Most modern email sightings lists have gained a broader following, including beginning birders, regular reports from someone's favorite "patch", and an opportunity for out-of-towners to find out what they're likely to see in a region, and not just what's new or noteworthy. Your columnist did the latter prior to a visit to Alaska, and ended up with an even deeper respect for ravens than previously.

The earliest lists were simple, homespun affairs, managed using off-the-shelf programs that ran on whatever online server was available. The MDAS East Bay Birding list (EBB_Sightings)[1] started in 1998 as the East Bay Birders Circle discussion group, merged with our chapter's website-based group in 2004, and then moved to Yahoo in 2010. Archives for both earlier groups remain on the MDAS website.

Many lists like ours are "private", meaning that non-members can neither post sightings nor even see what members have posted. Others, such as South Bay Birds[2] have open archives. Sightings lists for the entire Bay Area and beyond are available through Sialia[3], which is a digest of nationwide lists, customizable by regions. Through Sialia, incidentally, non-members can see posts on EBB_Sightings!

To avoid a cluttered InBox, many list members prefer to receive a single Daily Digest, containing all the day's posts preceded by a summary. To make sure the list isn't contaminated with off-topic material or spam, new members must be approved by a Moderator, who also has the power to limit a member's postings or to cancel their membership entirely. Birdwatchers being a fairly cooperative bunch, about the worst that slips through is an occasional promo for out-of-area birding tours.

"Avid birders", however, may prefer not to wade through reports of backyard chickadees and rather cut to the chase of rarities. The non-web solution for these folks, who some may call listers, relies on text message alerts through their cell phones. Need an Eastern Yellow Wagtail unexpectedly found in Marin County, California for your lifelist? The Bay Area email groups were running slow just before this column was written, but the eBird Alert[4] system got the word out.

Joining an email list involves some form of subscription, given freely with submission of an email address and, in the case of Yahoo or Google group lists, an account (also free) with the host. Text alert systems require submitting a mobile phone number and, in the case of eBird Alerts, an account with Cornell Lab. The same free account is used for eBird itself, which will be the subject of a future column.

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