Where the (e)Birders Are

By josh • Maps for Birders, Nature, Wildlife • 11 Feb 2014

Just four years ago I stood in front of a group of a dozen or so members of the local chapter of the Audubon Society.  These folks were (are!) among the best birders I’ve met- collectively they have hundreds of years of experience birding locally and have outstanding ID skills.  Several of them have traveled the world in pursuit of birds and have life lists well into four digits.  Though I was almost certainly the least experienced and least skilled birder in the room at the time, I was there to talk about what I saw as the future of the avocation.  Only one other person present that night had ever used eBird.

That year (2009), Addison County, Vermont saw 1518 checklists entered into eBird, with 231 species reported.  49% of those checklists were contributed by just four users, one of which was me.  Though most of those folks in the room that night still don’t use eBird as far as I know, uptake of the tool has grown exponentially in Addison County and across Vermont.  The Vermont Center for Ecostudies has created a slate of annual awards for checklist contributions and species records, and citizen science devotees have proselytized at every opportunity on the VTBIRD email list and at events around the state.  I think eBird is helped greatly by its inherent list management utility and by the regular publicity that citizen science has received in recent years, largely thanks to VCES.

In 2013 there were 5619 checklists and 274 species reported in Addison County.  52 people contributed 10 or more checklists last year, and one birder contributed more checklists than everyone combined did in 2009!

Uptake of eBird hasn’t been uniform across the United States though (sorry Canada, not enough time).  Here’s a map showing eBird checklists submitted by county in 2013, which I’ve normalized by km².eBird checklists by county, 2013If you know where people live in the US, you’ll note that the map looks an awful lot like a population density map.  There are a few (expected) exceptions, of course, like southeast Arizona, the lower Rio Grand Valley, and some of the northern tier in Minnesota, the UP, and northern New England.  Still, it’s pretty easy to pick out places like San Antonio and Austin, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Boise on that map.  With that in mind, here’s a 2010 population density map:

2010 Population DensityClose inspection (click on them to embiggen) will probably be rewarded with some interesting localized observations.  A quick glance reveals that eBird usage doesn’t seem to keep up with population density in most of the southeast (excepting Florida, much of Texas, and in the piedmont running from Atlanta to Washington, D.C.) and in the central Midwest.

If we normalize an eBird checklist contribution map by population density rather than area, the differences become even more stark.  2013 eBird Checklists by County (normalized by pop density)While densely populated areas of the northeast, upper Midwest, and Florida come back to Earth, the extremes of low population density in much of the west and southwest make this map of dubious utility.  It does reinforce the point about eBird usage east of the Rockies though- eBird simply isn’t used much from southern Minnesota to Georgia, from the Texas panhandle to West Virginia.

Unsurprisingly, the pattern holds when raw numbers of species reported are mapped.  The more people bird, the more birds they find.  Here’s a map of species reported by county without any data normalization.

2013 eBird Species by County

Here it’s even easier to pick out birding hotspots- southeast Arizona, Big Bend, lower Rio Grande Valley, south Florida, and even the Jersey Shore.  Incidentally, I was skeptical of Nate Swick’s contention that San Diego County might be the birdiest in the USA, but it led the nation with 520 species from over 12,000 checklists.  Los Angeles County was the only other county to break 500 species (504) from an amazing 26,000 checklists!

15 counties had 0 checklists in 2013- more on those in a later post.  Also coming soon, maps showing change in eBird usage between 2012 and 2013.


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