Discovering eBird

Ebird 1All the true birders out there are going to say, “It’s about time you got with the program!”

And they’re right. It’s been a couple years since a friend and colleague introduced me to eBird, the wonderful app developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

I’m not sure how long eBird has been around, but it’s a massive project, logging data from more than 100 million observations every year from all over the world. It’s a perfect integration of natural history, modern technology, and citizen science – all leveraged to better understand the population dynamics of some of the most charismatic and ecologically important organisms on the planet.

And it’s so easy!!

Cornell Ornithology offers two apps that can make every individual a birder and citizen scientist: eBird and Merlin. They are free, and unlike so many apps in the app store, free means free means FREE. There’s no optional $3.99 upgrade for “special features” that actually make the app worthwhile. All the bells and whistles – and there are many – come with the free versions.

eBird is phenomenal. Just open the app and press the big green button to start your checklist. You can program predetermined locations or have the app locate your position. If you use the location feature, eBird will track as you go, recording the length and time of your hike. It also automatically downloads a list of common species for your area, making it much easier to determine what you might be seeing.

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eBird maps one of my routes

For beginner or amateur birders like myself, Merlin is truly a wizard’s tool. It allows you to identify almost any bird with 5 simple pieces of information: Location, date, size, color, and habitat. Enter these five bits of information and inside of a few seconds, Merlin kicks back photos of about half a dozen species that you might be looking at.

Merlin has worked for me every single time, even with fairly nondescript, fidgety, sparrow-sized things that are notoriously hard to identify. Along with photos, Merlin also supplies natural history information and sound recordings so you can match song as well as appearance to your bird.

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve done six walks with eBird and Merlin, identifying 8-11 species per walk for a total of 28 species in the Kansas City area. A lot of those species are birds I already knew well, like the Northern Cardinal, the American Robin, and the ever-present Canada Goose.

But I’ve had some very special treats along the way, as well. I’ve discovered there’s a Cooper’s hawk living in my neighborhood – who’d’ve thought? Also in my neighborhood, I met a lovely, shy little bird called the warbling vireo. (Probably shy because of that Cooper’s hawk!) I’ve seen indigo buntings at Jerry Smith Park, which are not new for me, but I never tire of seeing their deep, soulful purple flash through glades and over prairies.

The most special moment of all happened this past week in Saeger Woods, when I came upon a pair of summer tanagers, the male in his scarlet plumage and the female a fiery yellow-orange. They perched on some branches just overhead, calling at me with their characteristic chicky-tucky-tuck and hanging around long enough for me to be absolutely sure of what I was looking at.

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Summer Tanagers, male, female and immature male from The Birds of America by John James Audubon.

I was in awe, because while summer tanagers are not uncommon in these parts, the encounter was unexpected and these birds are of special significance to me. The center of diversity for tanagers is the Neotropics. They are characterized by extraordinarily bright colors, and there are rare and endemic species scattered throughout Central and South America. During my years in Costa Rica, they became my favorite group of birds.

The summer tanager is one of just four species found north of the U.S.-Mexico border, and one of only two that can be seen where I live now. Summer tanagers are migratory, spending summers in North America and winters in Central and South America.

This post was supposed to be about eBird, and eBird is about birding, but the truth is no part of our lives is completely separate from the other. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the meaning of migration in my own life, and how the fact that I have moved away from the tropics does not mean the tropics have left me.

This is one of the many questions that has been on my mind since the divorce: How much of my love for the Neotropics was mine and wholly mine, and how much of it was an outgrowth of the very special relationship I had with my ex-husband? How much of the Latin American style and spirit would I now lose – would I have to let go of – in having lost him and the life we once led together?

It’s taken a very long time to answer this question, but the most important questions are worth the time it takes to find the answers.

Latin America, especially the region from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn – with its diversity, passion, history, resistance, and resilience – that beautiful, sometimes chaotic, and always extraordinary place is an indelible part of me. It has been since I first stepped off the plane in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1988, an intrepid undergrad with a rudimentary command of Spanish, about to begin a long and fulfilling career in field ecology.

As awful as divorce is, when all is said and done, the event for all its trauma cannot change who we are. It might alter the strategies with which we address life, making us more cautious in some spheres and less risk-averse in others. But the fundamental dreams of our hearts, the elements we need to surround ourselves with in order to keep the fire of who we are alive, remain constant.

For me, Latin America – its people, cultures, and landscapes – are part of the spark that feeds my soul. During my post-divorce journey, I’ve realized that like Eolyn in The Silver Web, who must always return to the South Woods to renew her magic, I will always need to find a way back to the place I called home for so many years. I may never live there like I used to, but one way or another, I will stay connected.

These were the thoughts running through my mind that morning when two summer tanagers suddenly appeared on the edge of Saeger Woods in Kansas City, Missouri, and perched just above my head.

We know you, they seemed to say as they tilted their heads to get a better look at me. We’ve seen you before, back in our southern home!

I laughed, mist filling my eyes as I recognized my old friends.

“You’re right!” I said. “That was me.”

And like the summer tanagers that follow the turning seasons back to their winter home, someday when the time is right, I’ll fly south again. Until then I know a part of the tropics will always be with me.

Moral of the story: Get eBird and Merlin! Use the tools that help you listen to the creatures around you; you never know what they might have to say.

7 thoughts on “Discovering eBird

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      1. We should! We’ve never been to the state nature park at the end of Sandfiddler as a group before. I think Mary has been, and Sara. I know Signa has. Let’s plan it!!!

        Liked by 1 person

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