A Do-It-Yourself Personal Ohio Big Year? Ok. You’ve thought about it and then shoved it to the back of your mind. Too much responsibility and not enough time, you tell yourself. Or maybe you’re a birding novice and just need a place to start but you don’t have any idea how to go about this. Or maybe you’d like to do a personal big year but don’t have any inclination to make it competitive at the extreme level. Whatever your thinking, I am hoping to give you at least one or two angles on strategies for making your goals a reality.
I am going to be using eBird data to start us off. Have you heard of eBird? It is one of the great Citizen Science projects of our time. Birders’ sitings are loaded into a large, online database in almost real-time and available to everyone around the globe. It is already a fantastic resource!
The following is a quick-and-dirty representation showing some of the potential power of eBird. What I am going to show you all here is one way of planning that can be used to increase your odds of success. Doing a big year is all about probability. There are no guarantees with birds. It is all about doing enough research to put yourself in the best location at the best time of year for your target species. Let’s get started.
First, I went out to eBird and clicked on the “Explore” tab. I chose the option with the bar charts, then selected Ohio and Entire Region. I got back a list of 402 species listing their abundunce by week. Abundance is calculated as frequency of checklists. Say that 10 checklists were submitted and 3 of those checklists had Yellow Warbler checked. This disregards the number of Yellow Warblers seen. It only factors in whether or not the bird was seen. So the frequency of checklists (or abundance) would be 30%.
At the bottom right hand side of the bar charts is an option to download this data to a spreadsheet. I chose that and saved it as a LibreOffice Calc document (an open source spreadsheet similar to Microsoft Excel). Next I formatted the data with month & week # titles. Then I used the MAX function to find the highest value (of all 48 weeks—eBird breaks up each month into 4 wks/month) for the year—this represents the peak value for the species. I used the FIND function to figure out what the column title was so that I could match the peak value with the month & week of the year.
Now back to our Yellow Warbler expample. I find with this data that Yellow Warbler’s maximum abundance is 50.7% in May Week #2. Just over half of all checklists in Ohio in the second week of May have Yellow Warbler. But what does 50.7% frequency of checklists mean? What are my chances of finding a Yellow Warbler in the second week of May in Ohio? Technically, you are almost guaranteed a sighting of this species if you go out birding to two different locations. Of course, birders don’t usually just go out randomly birding in May. They are out looking for warblers or shorebirds or returning breeding birds—well, you get the picture. There is usually purpose involved. So really, if you went out birding with an Ohio birder, after a couple locations you will probably have seen a Yellow Warbler. Some may see Yellow Warbler on their first try. And some may take several tries if you were unfamiliar with this species. But that is pretty technical. What if you had to describe what kind of chances a birder from another state (or country) had in finding a Yellow Warbler during the second week of May in Ohio? If you have worked with eBird maps, you’ll have noticed the legend in the bottom right of the screen with darker purple showing a higher percentage. I have taken the liberty of using these categories and assigning them my own names to try to clarify the probability of a birder actually seeing a particular species. For the 40-100% range I have assigned the title “Very likely”. I have done the same for the other ranges. They are listed here:
When you actually look at the list you may see what you think are obvious discrepancies, especially if you have been birding in Ohio for a few years. Let’s look at the first bird on the list which is sorted by month and week, then by peak abundance (most common species listed first; rarest species listed last). The first species is Great Black-backed Gull. Peak week listed is the first week of January and is in the Doubtful category (2-10% frequency of checklists). If you live in northern Ohio and visit Lake Erie during the winter months you will most assuredly take issue with the status of Doubtful as you can see them all along the lakefront all winter long on most every trip. So how could this species get a rating of Doubtful? Remember, this is from eBird sightings for the entire state of Ohio. Go ahead. See how many times you can find Great Black-backed Gull in any county that does not border Lake Erie. It’s amazingly difficult! So this is an example of a bird that is fairly common, but extremely local in the state. This first pass on using eBird data makes no attempt at optimizing locations; only the timing by month and week of the year.
There are other inconsistencies, too. Some birds are uncommon and present regularly, but don’t get chased like species that are far more rare. I’m not saying chasing is wrong by any means. I’m only making you aware that when you look at this data, you should think twice about how birds get reported. My vote for the most under-reported Ohio bird goes to Rock Pigeon. Peak abundance is December, week 3. It’s status is Maybe (10-25%). Really? You have got to be kidding, right? Less than 1 in 4 checklists has Rock Pigeon checked off? Hmmm. Third week of December. That would be the beginning of Christmas Bird Counts when you have to list and count all your species. Haha. Oops. I might be guilty of overlooking this species myself. But now I see the need to be more precise with my bird counts. Rock Pigeon is pretty hard to miss in much of Ohio. To properly represent the relative abundance of other species, birds like Rock Pigeon should not be ignored.
I have not changed the status/category of any bird. I only have listed the species exactly as they have been reported to eBird. So if there are real errors, then we should do what we can to rectify any problems. The more we care about the status of our birds, the better our reporting should be. I’m not saying any of is or can be perfect. But if we can just keep improving our counts and increase our reporting it will, in the end, help in saving our birds. The more you care, the better thy counting shall be. Sorry. I don’t mean to be preachy. Um. Yes. Yes, I do. <grin>
You can download the list here. Remember that this only provides the best/peak timing of the year without regard to location or habitat.