When the Alabama Ornithological Society met recently for its winter meeting at Lake Guntersville State Park, the focus was on the huge numbers of wintering ducks and geese to be seen at Lake Guntersville and nearby Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. But AOS members also took time away from the birds to learn more about a way of tracking birding results that can help the science of ornithology while making it easier for birders to keep records of their finds.
A project leader for eBird, an online project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, spoke twice during the three-day winter meeting, first focusing on how using eBird can help birders and then on how birders who use eBird, in turn, help the science of ornithology.
Marshall Iliff said eBird is designed to help birders keep better records and to keep them more easily, as well as to locate birds.
"It's pretty easy to mine eBird for data so that you can see the birds you are looking for more consistently," he told me. "I wish I had eBird when I was getting started birding."
By using eBird's huge record of bird sightings, birders can zero in on locations and times of the year when they are most likely to see certain species.
"You have as much information as you want on when and where to find birds right at your fingertips," he said. "EBird is approaching 400 million entries, and all the data is free to anyone."
Birders who have the free eBird app on their cell phones can enter bird sightings right from the field, and the GPS and clocks in their phones automatically track precise locations and time and give users a list of the most likely birds to see in that area at that date.
But even those who keep lists the old-fashioned way can enter their finds online, and the eBird site will track those sightings by year and by location, automatically providing a life list of birds and lists that break down sightings by countries, states, and even counties within states.
"Using eBird should not be intimidating for anyone," he said, noting that the staff is constantly working to make the system more easily used by birders and researchers.
Iliff also emphasized that eBird is not just a one-way street. While it helps birders find more birds and keep better records, the sheer volume of data on bird sightings provides a wealth of information for scientists on everything from migration to bird numbers.
"There are already over 100 peer-reviewed publications using eBird data, and there are more being published every month," he said.
And it's all free, both to individual birders and to ornithologists -- in fact, to anyone.
While the meeting times focused on eBird, the field trips focused on birds -- especially waterfowl.
On Saturday, AOS members could choose among three field trips. Linda Reynolds, one of the state's leading birders, led a group to explore Guntersville State Park. Andrew Haffenden, an international birding guide and AOS member (http://naturetravelspecialists.com/andrewbio.htm) led a group to sites around Lake Guntersville.
Meanwhile, Iliff joined with Dwight Cooley to lead a field trip to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Cooley, who retired recently as manager of the refuge, led an AOS group on a driving tour that started at the refuge's observation building, then visited Arrowhead Landing, and then drove through the White Springs Dike area of the refuge.
At the observation building, the AOS members saw 450 Sand Hill Cranes and one rare Whooping Crane, as well as a group of Greater White-Fronted Geese. While the number of ducks was down from a few weeks ago, the group still spotted Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Green-Winged Teal and Ring-Necked Ducks. A Bald Eagle sat high in a tree watching for prey.
At Arrowhead Landing, the AOS group was greeted by a raft of some 750 Snow Geese, and close inspection of the birds with spotting scopes found several smaller Ross's Geese in the mix. In addition to the ducks seen earlier, the birders were able to add a huge flight of Gadwalls -- perhaps 1,800 -- to their lists for the day, as well as American Wigeons, Black Ducks, and Hooded Mergansers.
The White Springs Dike area provided many of the species already seen, as well as Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, and Ruddy Ducks. Birders spotted a lone American White Pelican, and the abundance of waterfowl attracted several birds of prey, including a Northern Harrier, a Red-Shouldered Hawk, several Red-Tailed Hawks, and a Bald Eagle.
After lunch at a perennial favorite for birders in the area -- the Greenbrier -- Iliff and the group joined with another group led by Ken Ward to visit a site on private property known by local birders as the "hawk farm." There, birders added a Sharp-Shinned Hawk to their species count, watching the much smaller bird harass a Bald Eagle.
On Sunday morning, Haffenden and Iliff joined forces to lead a field trip to spots around Lake Guntersville, spotting, among many others, Canvasbacks, both Greater and Lesser Scaups, and Rusty Blackbirds.
When many of the AOS members gathered at noon back at the Guntersville State Park lodge to compile a list of species seen, they totaled 106 species of birds -- more than 23 percent of the species known in Alabama in one full day and two partial days of birding.
"It was a great event," Iliff said of his time with AOS. "I got to meet good birders from all over Alabama and join them on some really fun field trips. It's always great when you can both see birds and meet interesting people."
-- Eagle Awareness Weekends will continue Friday through Sunday through Feb. 19 at Lake Guntersville State Park. The popular programs include speakers and field trips. For details on each weekend's events, go to: http://www.alapark.com/lake-guntersville-state-park-eagle-awareness-weekends
-- An update on the live Berry College, Ga., Eagle Cams. The Bald Eagles appear to be still taking turns sitting on eggs. A week ago I managed to spot two eggs while the eagles were switching out sitting duty. If you see both eagles on camera at the same time, you can probably tell which is the male and which the female. Hint: The male is smaller. See it at: http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips on tap, including its Beginner Bird Walk in partnership with the Birmingham Zoo. The Feb. 18 field trip will be 8–10 a.m. Meet at the Children's Zoo entrance gate. Members of the Birmingham Audubon Society and Birmingham Zoo bird curators will serve as expert guides to help with bird identification. Special activities for children will continue at the zoo after the bird walk.
The society's Audubon Teaches Nature programs are ongoing at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. The next scheduled program will be Geology and Paleontology in Alabama: a Treasure Underfoot. The speaker will be Dana Ehret. The program will be Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2 p.m. at the Oak Mountain Interpretive Center The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.
For details on the Beginner Bird Walk and Audubon Teaches Nature and other programs, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
-- Fins, Feathers and Flowers, a weekend waterfowl and wildlife program, will be Feb. 24-26 at Lakepoint Lodge at Lakepoint State Park near Eufaula. There will be field trips each day to the state park and to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, including pontoon boat trips on Lake Eufaula. Speakers will include Carrie Threadgill, nongame wildlife biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who will discuss colonial wading birds in Alabama, and the Alabama Wildlife Center will present its live raptor program.
For details, go to: http://www.alapark.com/lakepoint-fins-feathers-flowers
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com.