To List or Not to List: But what program?

Happy New Year!

Like two ships passing in the night, dawn on New Years Day features drunks coming home and birders heading out to get those first frantic ticks out of the way for the new year.

The listing season has begun! 

Actually it never ends.

Many of us have life lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, location lists and backyard lists.  Some of us even take these breakdowns further and like any good drug dealer, there are several programs out there ready to feed your addiction.

There are several that are on-line, require no software installation on your end and are FREE!

E-Bird:  This site and project is backed by the good folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  This is much more of a scientific information site, so be prepared to answer questions such as mileage, time of day etc.  There is a casual observation form, which only requires the date.  What I like about E-Bird is that it keeps State, Country and other Western Hemisphere lists (and New Zealand now), with the rest of the world to come possibly in 2009.  Not only that is has incorporated Google Maps, allowing you to pinpoint where exactly you saw a bird, or your backyard.  The program then automatically keeps your sightings there, but also adds them to the appropriate county and state lists as well!  I have found this program extremely easy to use and enter data and if you bird with others, you can share checklists with each other and have the data automatically updated into your lists or theirs!

As far as features go, E-bird could use a few more.  One I would love to see is a checklist feature, which would allow you to print a checklist for a state or location or the ability to customize your checklists (IE birds I have not seen in Albany County in 2008 etc.)  Overall I think that is less important and may come in time.

One aspect however that E-bird has a leg up over the other sites, is its attention to data.  If you report a rare or unusual bird in E-bird, first off a warning message will appear before you submit your checklist to make sure you didn’t click on the wrong bird.  A day or two later, you will receive an e-mail from an e-bird reviewer, normally someone who is familiar with the area the bird was seen in and what is normal/rare/unusual for that location.  He or she will ask for details concerning your sighting (if you see a rare bird you should document it as best you can anyway!).  If you have a photo, that makes it easy to confirm and your record will be saved for all to see.  However if the reviewer doesn’t have enough evidence of a sighting or that a more common species cannot be ruled out, they reviewer may elect to remove the record from public view (this is usually done with quite a bit of communication between you and the reviewer), however the sighting will remain on YOUR checklists and reports as long as you want it to.  This goes a long way in keeping fraudulent and silly sightings out of the program, keeping the data collected somewhat useful.  After all who hasn’t seen Gray Jays in Miami before?

Birdstack: Those of you who follow bird blogs regularly have likely already heard about this program.  The made a big splash recently with their Birds of the Solstice promotion.  In many ways Birdstack is a lot like the other bird listing programs out there.  What makes it popular at the moment is that it a) caters more to a world wide audience and b) has some ‘fluff’ features, allowing users to post their sightings and life lists on their blogs and websites.  What I dislike about Birdstack is that there is no regulation of the data entered and your lists are certainly on the ‘honor system’.  Now I believe that most people out there are honest when they enter their sightings in, but (as far as I can read on their site) there is no way to weed the rare bad egg out of the system, which makes every sighting on the program to me suspicious.

Now Birdstack has a feature that allows you to import your data into E-bird, but my question is why not just use E-bird in the first place?  So unless having your life list or trip list appear on your blog or website is important to you, I think you are better off using E-bird.

Bubo: Similar in many ways to the previous two, but with less ‘fluff’ than Birdstack is Bubo Listing.  This site very much caters to a world wide audience with both AOU and BOU listings.  Like E-bird, you can get very detailed with your checklists and sightings and I found the site easy to use and navigate and get the information I wanted.  Unfortunately like Birdstack, the integrity of the data is suspect in my opinion.  A quick search of the top Lister’s for North America (some well up into the 500’s), showed nothing terribly unusual or unexpected but absolutely no details to the sightings.  No dates, times or locations.  I have no idea if the observer saw the bird yesterday or 50 years ago.  The site also lacks the ‘fluff’ features of Birdstack and has all the looks and feel of an on-line database (ie looks like something you would do at work).  Now the creators of Bubo have recently been making attempts to build support for their program by introducing themselves on list servs such as NY Birds and Vermont Birds.  The program seems much more popular in the UK and Europe than here right now and I’m not sure it will catch on.  Many serious birders may find their data better served in E-bird, while casual birders will find Birdstack far more colorful to use.

Other Programs (Not so free):

Birder’s Diary:  Formerly owned by Thayer Birding Software, this used to be the premiere bird listing software.  It had a steep price (usually over $80), but you could do almost anything with it.  I purchased a copy nearly 7 years ago and used it all the time until my hard drive crashed earlier this fall, thus losing all my data (silly me didn’t back up).  So I had to start all over again (not a bad thing) with E-bird.  As such I cannot comment on newer versions, but the old version you could do almost anything with, from listing to creating your own checklists to creating a checklist of birds you hadn’t seen yet this week, month, year or life.  I will admit the program had a steep learning curve and was not practical or easy for the casual lister.

Other programs have included Avisys and Lanius Excalibur (bonus points if you can give the English name of this bird), both of which are much older programs and by no means flashy in any way.

Of course you can make your own database using Microsoft Access or similar product.  There are many guides on the Internet and in bookstores to help guide you through the process.  In my opinion you can make a better looking database then many you can buy, so if you don’t mind doing some tedious work, this may be an option for you!

Lastly lets not forget about the notebook.  There is something great about going back through a notebook and reading through your entries.  Each year I buy a 5 subject Notebook to keep track of all my sightings, it provides a hard copy for all the data I enter on-line (in case something disastrous happens and E-bird or another program crashes).  Sometimes just looking at day, the people you bird with and the birds you saw can make the memories come flooding back.  And that my friends is what makes birding an awesome hobby!

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6 responses to “To List or Not to List: But what program?

  1. Nice round-up of the options. I have occasionally thought about trying to design a database to meet my own needs, but mostly I just use eBird. The trouble with trying to design my own is that there are a lot of problems that other programmers have already worked out.

  2. Good job summing up the programs. Some years back I started with AviSys, and have been using it ever since. I like the flexibility it has (you can put in as much or as little info as you want – equivilent of a tick or all your field notes) the fact that you can add-on features (specialized check-lists), can run any report you canpossibly think of. (“Yeah – I think I have that bird on my March 3rd list for Essex county) as well as “birds not seen” lists for anyplace. As long as I enter some data faithfully, all the info is easly accessable. OH, and they have recently added a feature so that you can dump the info into eBird as well. (which I’ve not done yet, but will soon)

    Now I am going to go back-up my database- I don’t even want to consider what I’d feel if I lost it!

  3. Other than the trusty notebook and checklist, I use Birdstack because of the code you can use on the blog. I don’t spend enough time on it to get my yard list in chronological order, listing most recent first. I’ll have to do that some day….

  4. As one of the people behind BUBO Listing, thanks for the mention. We like to point out that if birders want to submit bird observations that can contribute in a meaningful way to monitoring and conservation, they should certainly use E-bird (or in the UK, the BTO’s BirdTrack). BUBO Listing is just a bit of fun, and should be considered as such, and is aimed solely at the “sport” side of birding. You’re right that we don’t check all the data going in – there are only two of us working on it and we only have a few spare hours a day to do so (unlike E-bird which is a professional undertaking with the resources to match). We probably have going on for a million records entered in the last couple of years, so there’s no chance we could check everything anyway. We do currently insist on dates and places for British rarities, but haven’t implemented this yet in North America (partly because we’d have to decide which species were rare and which weren’t).

    Anyway, good birding everyone!

    Andy Musgrove (UK) and Mike Prince (India)

  5. As the other person behind BUBO Listing I’d like to add to Andy’s comments. We do now insist on dates and locations for rarities in North America, according to the status accorded to the species by AOU, ABA or individual state authorities as appropriate. It’s a difficult balance between ease/speed of data entry and capturing as much data as possible for interest. eBird, BirdTrack etc. have to have their stringent checks on data quality considering the important uses to which the data is put, whereas we feel that the ‘lighter side’ of listing and comparing your lists with other listers can get away with more self-policing.

    Pleased to see we are getting a few American listers on board now: the top ABA area list we have on currently is 764!

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