Birding into the 21st Century

A joint CEED and Eremaea-eBird conference (UQ, March 2015)

The times, they are a changing. Science is no longer only the realm of an elite body of academics locked in their ivory towers. Today, millions of people from all sorts of backgrounds – artists, teachers, tour guides, computer analysts – are volunteering their time to gathering scientific data as ‘citizen scientists’. Many of these people want to achieve conservation outcomes in their local area or worldwide; many others just want to learn something new, and some just want to find new friends or share their knowledge.

One such citizen-science program is Eremaea eBird (see Decision Point #77). CEED recently hosted the first ever Eremaea eBird Conference, ‘Birding into the 21st Century’ at The University of Queensland. The conference brought together Eremaea-eBird reviewers and users, the web-site committee, researchers and other stakeholders, to meet and promote discussion and collaboration on citizen-science applications and research.

On the first day, 45 participants coming from as far as India and the USA, participated in a range of talks about eBird and the usefulness of citizen science for conservation. These talks were followed by an afternoon spent developing a strategic plan for Eremaea eBird in Australia, and a unique opportunity to discuss web-portal development and engagement of citizen scientists. A wide range of stakeholder groups attended, including academics, the Atlas of Living Australia, NGOs such as BirdLife Australia, and employees from several state government departments such as the Queensland Threatened Species Unit.

Conservation in the US

Brian Sullivan and Steve Kelling from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology described exciting new conservation and learning applications for eBird data. One way that eBird is helping to inform conservation decisions is through The Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership, a partnership of Audubon California, PRBO Conservation Science, and The Nature Conservancy (and see http://blog.allaboutbirds.org/2014/10/31/moneyball-for-shorebirds-how-precision-analytics-are-changing-habitat-conservation/ ).

This project, called BirdReturns, combines big-data analytics from eBird – fuelled by more than 230,000 birder checklists submitted to eBird from California – with NASA satellite technology to locate the places likely to be important for migrating birds. TNC economists then use a market-based mechanism to choose which farmers to pay to provide bird habitat, through short-term flooding of their fields at the time and in the place that they are most needed by the migrating birds. This is the first time incentives such as these have been trialled using citizen-science data, and the ability to do this was solely due to the efforts of thousands of volunteer citizen scientists keen to count birds and help deliver conservation outcomes. (see the box on ‘Big BirdReturns’.)

In Australia

Citizen science is also helping inform decisions about conserving birds in Australia. Nancy Auerbach and Jeremy Simmonds, PhD students at the University of Queensland and members of the Society for Conservation Biology’s UQ Chapter, recently started a project that aims to create habitat for threatened and declining species on the University’s St Lucia campus. The project is using eBird data to learn about restoration success of riparian areas in Brisbane. (Their research is supported by a grant from the Everyone’s environment urban wild spaces pilot project).

Citizen science data are also being used to inform where to conserve mobile species such as nomadic birds, and to better understand the vulnerability of these species to extinction.

And around the world

But citizen science is not only expanding in the USA and Australia. Suhel Quader, a scientist representing Bird Count India, showed the potential of citizen scientist programs such as eBird in developing nations. Since December 2013, eBird India has harnessed the contagious quality of citizen science and new submissions are growing exponentially. With the number of new users also growing at a rate of 6% per month in a country of more than a billion people, the possibilities are huge (see figure 1).

And consider eBird’s recent Global Big Day.

Figure 1: Growth of eBird India. Note: a ‘record’ is an observation of a species at a particular time and location.

Figure 1: Growth of eBird India. Note: a ‘record’ is an observation of a species at a particular time and location.

Data quality

The second day of the conference was spent on workshops attended by 16 dedicated volunteer reviewers of eBird survey data. Using a combination of automated data filters and a network of local experts, eBird tackles the issue of data quality in citizen science. The review process is continuously updated and improved as knowledge of bird distributions, taxonomy, and ecology improves.

Having a fast and efficient system is essential because the number of lists from Australia has grown exponentially. We now receive around 9,000 per month.

eBird is increasingly being used by scientists and conservation, so it is important to provide those communities with an accurate dataset. The eBird review process intentionally errs on the conservative side; ie, more likely to treat a possibly correct record as not accepted than to treat a possibly incorrect record as accepted. This means that the maps and graphs in eBird can be trusted to be correct and that we can vouch for any record in the system.

The next phase

Now that the conference is finished we can start planning the next exciting stage of Eremaea eBird: finalising the Strategic Plan, using the data we have already to assess where and how we might need to recruit more volunteer effort, and analysing the surveys to inform decisions about managing the numerous threats to Australian wildlife.

If you’d like to learn more about eBird or download data (did we mention it’s free!) visit http://ebird.org/content/australia/.


Big BirdReturns

An aerial view of Snow Geese in a flooded rice field, Central Valley, http://centerforopenscience.org/stats_consulting California. (Photo courtesy TNC and Drew Kelly)

An aerial view of Snow Geese in a flooded rice field, Central Valley, http://centerforopenscience.org/stats_consulting
California. (Photo courtesy TNC and Drew Kelly)

During the workshop participants were introduced to a ground-breaking conservation application called BirdReturns that is being informed by eBird observations. In BirdReturns, The Nature Conservancy compensates farmers to flood fields at the time and in the place that they are most needed by migratory shorebirds. eBird observations were used to identify key shorebird habitat. Precision big-data analytics from eBird, based on observations from more than 230,000 eBird checklists, were combined with NASA satellite technology and a market-based mechanism developed by TNC economists. This is the first time such incentives have been trialed, and the ability to do so was due to the efforts of thousands of eBirders keen to count birds and help inform conservation outcomes.


More info: Ayesha Tulloch ayesha.tulloch@anu.edu.au

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