For most of my lifetime, the activities of bird watchers have focused on two activities. The first is recording rare or unusual observations. Recently, for example, two birds from western states have caused excitement among my local birding colleagues. One is a spotted towhee seen just across the Niagara River in St. Catharines, Ont. The other is a yellow-headed blackbird in Honeoye Falls, south of Rochester.
The second activity is recording the first date annually for migrants. During each recent year, for example, I have found my first Baltimore oriole in Amherst State Park within a day or two of May 1.
Both of these activities have provided useful information. For instance, first arrival dates have moved earlier and earlier over my lifetime in birding, in some cases by more than a week. Those advancing arrivals, similar to those that have been recorded around the world, have proved important evidence for global warming.
While the accumulation of those records has been of value, those activities leave large holes in our ornithological information. They say little or nothing about changes in bird populations, about the distribution of birds within regions and about what times of year individual species are most common.
Because I write this column, I have been fortunate in having correspondents tell me about their interesting observations. For example, Bill Larson in West Falls writes: "At this moment, I am watching wild turkeys in the back yard and this morning we have had goldfinches, cardinals, juncos, crows, four woodpeckers -- hairy, downy, red bellied and pileated -- pine siskins, chickadees, starlings, mourning doves, nuthatches, blue jays, titmice and a flicker at our feeders. We have even had six pileated woodpeckers feeding together."
Now we have a way to share such observations more widely and in the process of accumulating them, to provide a better picture of both local and national bird distribution. Individuals like Larson can submit check-lists of the birds they observe at their home or anywhere else they look for birds to the eBird Web site -- www.ebird.org -- managed by Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology with additional support from the National Audubon Society.
Then, whether or not you have posted observations, you can make use of that Web site to gain all kinds of information about birds. For example, suppose you would like to find some of those white-winged crossbills that have appeared in this region this winter. You can go on the eBird Web site, click on "View and Explore Data," then on "maps," type in the species name (the site helps with spelling) and click "continue." When I followed that procedure in preparing this column, I first received a map of North America, which demonstrate that this incursion of crossbills is a national phenomenon. More clicks then took me to a map of where those crossbills were being recorded in Erie County. In this case, four markers appeared for observations during January. Joseph Mitchell reported them along Crittenden Road in Alden, Greg Lawrence in Amherst State Park, Bert Filemyr in White Chapel Memorial Park in Amherst and Susan Petherick less specifically in Erie County.
Now clearly those are not the only places where these birds have been seen but, as use of this valuable online tool increases, so too will its benefits. And not just to birders when we seek to find where exotics like those crossbills have been reported. Observers who are recording their observations on the eBird Web site are serving an important role as citizen scientists. The mass of data provided nationally by this means is serving as a rich foundation upon which ornithologists are building a better picture of our national bird life.
I urge you to join eBird and to record your own observations. These can simply be casual sightings like the snowy owl Joseph Ott found in the abandoned Media Play parking lot on Transit Road. Even more useful are full checklists of birds seen on a given day at a specified location. Larson can record the birds he finds in or near his home and you can do the same for your neighborhood and for other areas you visit.
I urge you to visit the eBird Web site and follow the instructions to add your own observations.