Part 1: The Data
Many experienced birdwatchers are familiar with the use of eBird as a tool for collecting, reporting, and storing their personal sightings. Available either as a website or mobile app, designed and supported by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird has become the standard for amateurs and professionals alike. The eBird compiled data has also become an essential reference for many kinds of academic studies, both of bird behavior and of population dynamics.
Less familiar to many casual users, however, is the depth of "data-mining" which they are able achieve using the simple search tools eBird provides. For these purposes, no account, app, username, or log-in is required, just a browser and an internet connection. This is the "science" of the "citizen science" which volunteer eBird checklist reports has produced, brought to you free by Cornell. Enjoy!
A good place to start is with the Explore pages. Although the first screen might seem a little daunting with all the choices, it's best to treat it like a gigantic buffet, and plan on taking a little of everything just to start. One way to not lose your place in all this wealth of info is to keep opening everything you click on in a "new tab". Browsers offer this choice with a control-click, right click, or press-hold on a mobile. This way, everywhere you've been is still there, so it's hard to get lost.
You could try the "Explore Species" option first, perhaps with a bird you recently saw for the first time. You'll not only get a photo, range map, and audio sample for the species, among other choices, but there's also a bar chart available for any region of your choosing. If you select where you saw your new bird, you'll have a good measure of how likely your sighting was at the time and place you made it. On that same page will be the opportunity to choose other regions where it might be found, or even other species.
Returning to the "Explore" page (hopefully waiting for you on another tab), you can select the region where you saw the bird, and find the most recent sighting reported of the species, with a link to the checklist submitted by that eBirder, which shows what else they saw, and how long they were there. It's from each of these millions of sightings reports that this entire scientific database is constructed!
Of course, there's much more. The eBird Science page (a Favorite) lets you see in-depth analyses of all the data regarding your bird, from animated abundance maps to abstract habitat association charts for any given region. Although this level of study might be more suitable for trained ornithologists, it just shows us why our individual observations can be so cumulatively valuable. Plus, it's fun to try to make sense of what the experts are talking about. It helps explain why, if we do submit reports, our amateur field IDs are some times questioned. More about this issue next month when the checklist process is discussed.