eBird and Alabama: Details About Which Counties Use It

By Anne G. Miller, President, Alabama Ornithological Society (AOS)

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database is based on checklists of bird sightings submitted from the field by amateur birders as well as ornithologists. eBird uses these checklists to document where each species of bird is found throughout the year, making eBird an essential tool for making important decisions about conservation priorities. Also, birders use the eBird database to plan their birding trips, and these trips are important sources of income for local economies. So it’s important to make sure eBird has a complete record from every region. But the database for Alabama is quite spotty, due to the small number of checklists submitted compared to other states. I’ve spent the last few days delving into the eBird database to learn more about what is needed here in Alabama.

What I found is both good and bad news. About half of Alabama’s counties have good numbers of eBird reports from around the year. Dedicated AOS birders of North Alabama like Damien Simbeck , Steve McConnell, and Sue Moske have made sure that most of our northern counties are pretty well documented. AOS birders in Jefferson and Shelby Counties and Montgomery and Lee Counties like Scott Duncan, Larry Gardella and Geoff Hill have also been actively reporting observations to eBird. Eric Soehren and John Trent, Biologists with the Alabama Department of Conservation stationed at the Wehle Land Conservation Center in Bullock County, have done an awesome job of reporting in their area and elsewhere around the state. And of course, the highest number of birds, and eBird checklists, come from our two coastal counties, where AOS members Howard Horne, Ben Garmon, and Andrew Haffenden are among the top eBird reporters.

But as I examined the eBird database closely, I realized that nearly half of our counties are seriously under-reported. I based my conclusions on three different factors: the first is of course, the number of bird species reported for each county. The highest species count was for Baldwin County (393), and the lowest was Lamar County (84). The second factor was the total number of eBird checklists submitted from each county. The highest number of checklists was from Mobile County (11,867), and the lowest was from Choctaw County (19). The third factor can be found by selecting an Alabama county in the eBird database, and clicking on the bar chart link.

The bar charts show the county-wide occurrence of each species week by week throughout the year. They make fascinating reading when the species is well reported. For example, in Madison County, a bulge shows the spring arrival of Eastern Wood Peewees, and then there is a drop to a thin line as many of the birds move north, leaving behind a smaller breeding population, followed by a bulge again in the fall as the migrants move south through the county before disappearing entirely in the fourth week of October.

The bar charts are used in many ways to help researchers and ordinary birders locate and study a particular bird species. But they are only useful if eBird receives enough checklists to fill out the entire year. This is where Alabama’s ebird reporting is weakest. Twenty-four Alabama counties have no eBird reports for at least ten weeks and as many as 38 weeks out of the year! It’s not just the remote, out of the way places, either. Take for example, the Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge in Bibb County: from the last week of August until the end of the year, no one has ever reported to eBird except for one week in October.

Below you’ll find a list of Alabama counties and their eBird totals for the three factors just described. It provides a fascinating look at the behavior of birds and birders in our state—for of course the human factor has a heavy influence on eBird data, and counties with the largest human populations have the highest bird counts. eBird checklists from regular and frequent visits to favorite locations can be extremely valuable sources of data. So if travel around the state is not a possibility for you, ‘patch’ birding checklists can contribute valuable information if you can send checklists from a favorite location weekly, monthly, or even quarterly.

However, we also need to explore underserved areas to provide a solid database for the birdlife of our state. Long-time AOS members like Sue Moske, Larry Gardella, John Trent, Ken Wills, Rick and Ron Kittinger, and Don and Judy Self show up on the eBird records of many counties. We need more birders willing to explore these under-reported counties, timing their visits seasonally to fill in the major gaps. Counties most in need of attention are listed in bold. As I suggested in a previous article for the YellowHammer, you can make your eBird reports especially useful if you choose to report from sites on the Alabama Birding Trails system.

As I said before, the news is both good and bad. The good news is that many dedicated Alabama birders are already using their skills to observe and report on the state’s birdlife to eBird. This is important scientific work that is especially urgent at a time when so many bird species are in decline. Each checklist we submit has long-term value for understanding and protecting the birdlife of Alabama.

The bad news is that many, many other excellent birders are just not taking the time and trouble to report to eBird. So if we talk about it, think about it, and do it, maybe someday all of us Alabama birders will get the habit of reporting our sightings to eBird. As President of AOS, I see this campaign to create a solid ebird database for Alabama as a major goal for our organization, on a par with the Breeding Bird Survey. It will take years, and real effort by our members, but it’s important and rewarding work.

But whether or not you are a member of the Alabama Ornithological Society, if you’re interested in birds and birding, I hope you’ll join eBird (ebird.org)and start contributing to the database. eBird is free, and open to everyone. Once you register, every checklist you submit will be used in the general database, but your checklists will also be stored for you so you can access them at any time. You can also explore the database to find out more about where to find birds around the state and around the U.S. and abroad.

I’ll wrap this up with some more good news: there are lots of first sightings still to be reported around the state that should be easy for any competent birder. First sightings, and the birders’ names, become part of the permanent record on the eBird database. Also, each county or hotspot lists the birders with the highest numbers of birds reported from that location. There are plenty of opportunities out there to leave your mark by observing and reporting to eBird in those under-reported counties. Here’s one to think about: no one has ever reported a Swallow-tailed Kite to eBird from Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge, although the birds are known to breed in the area.

eBird Rankings for Alabama Counties

Rank. County, # Species,  #Checklists, #Weeks not reported                      

  1. Baldwin    393          10,655       0
  2. Mobile    365            11,867        0
  3. Lauderdale   289            1,994 0
  4. Colbert    282            1,814 0
  5. Morgan    280            2,179 0
  6. Limestone    276            1,772 0
  7. Barbour    263            1,012 0
  8. Montgomery    260   3,725 0
  9. Madison    254        10,216 0
  10. Lawrence    248              831 1
  11. Marshall    247          1,010 0
  12. Jefferson    240          4,892 0
  13. Shelby    240          1,922 0
  14. Lee    230    2,378                0
  15. Elmore    216          2,106 1
  16. Jackson    214              845 0
  17. Covington    208              629 0
  18. Hale    206 500                     3
  19. Bullock    203          1,983 0
  20. Macon    193          1,371 0
  21. Geneva    190              362 1
  22. Russell    187              142            14
  23. Winston    184          2,580 0
  24. Tuscaloosa    181            532 1
  25. Cahoun    180            984 0
  26. Perry     180            649            14
  27. Cherokee   177            165 9
  28. St. Clair    177            675 2
  29. Lowndes    176            325 1
  30. Houston    173            641 0
  31. Cullman    172            437 3
  32. Wilcox    171 97            14
  33. Monroe    164            337            10
  34. Franklin    161            188            20
  35. Marengo    161            738 0
  36. Dale    169            659 0
  37. Clarke    156            901 6
  38. Cleburne    155            211 9
  39. Sumter    155            150            13
  40. Henry    153            324            14
  41. Chambers    152      148 8
  42. DeKalb 152            767 8
  43. Butler 150            120 9
  44. Tallapoosa 150       354 7
  45. Talladega 149            635            17
  46. Autauga 147            380              0
  47. Dallas                147              90            10
  48. Etowah 146            225 6
  49. Washington 143            263 4
  50. Escambia 139            128            10
  51. Coosa 136            239            10
  52. Bibb 136            192            19
  53. Walker 133            101                     20
  54. Greene 132            105              12
  55. Pickens 131            107              18
  56. Blount 128            445 0
  57. Coffee                126            207 8
  58. Clay 117        1,001 29
  59. Marion 117            124 19
  60. Pike 116 83 19
  61. Conecuh 115 46 23
  62. Randolph 114            193 2
  63. Chilton 111            119 18
  64. Fayette 109 26 36
  65. Choctaw 105 19 38
  66. Crenshaw    95 27 35
  67. Lamar    84                27                     37

Adapted from the Summer, 2016 issue of the Yellowhammer, the official newsletter of the Alabama Ornithological Society. AOS welcomes you to attend our meetings and become a member. For more information, go to aosbirds.org