On December 29th, there were thirteen bald eagles in sight all at once, the most I’d seen on the lake at the time. Excited by the high numbers, I posted about it on Facebook. A friend asked if I was sending my data in to eBird, and I had to confess I wasn’t.

Bald eagles perched near Warren Lake in Colorado. (Photo by Kurt Fristrup)

This really makes no sense. I used to work at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. I know all about eBird. The free public database relies on reports made by birders around the world. It’s a great resource. I use it to learn which species I might see at a location before I go there, and also take advantage of reports of rare birds in the area. That’s how I got to see a pink-footed goose in Colorado last January.

eBird needs people to report what they see, but I’ve been intimidated by the requirement to count the birds. I usually log my sightings in a small notebook, but in the past, I’ve stopped counting after I had more than ten sightings of a single species. Our lake gets huge flocks of Canada and cackling geese every night. The idea of reporting how many geese I saw when there are so many was daunting. I was sure I wouldn’t get it right.

Counting gets intimidating when the flock looks like this. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

When I admitted my anxiety about misreporting bird numbers, my friend reminded me that you don’t have to enter a number when you report a sighting on eBird. You can put in an “X” instead to show that you saw a species. He also sent me the link to two eBird articles, and they have changed my birding life.

Bird Counting 101 and Bird Counting 201 are full of practical suggestions on how to estimate large numbers of birds in single species and mixed flocks, whether stationary or on the move. But the thing that made the difference for me was the explanation of why an inaccurate count is better than no count at all.

Scientists are trying to track bird populations, to see where they go, where they spend their time, and how many there are overall. Knowing, even roughly, how many birds were on a lake or in a field is helpful. It’s much better to put in a number that is way off than a mysterious X that gives no idea of numbers at all. Scientists can always distill the data back down to just presence versus absence if they want. But having some idea of numbers, even if it’s vague is helpful.

Bald eagle taken with a cell phone through a spotting scope. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Bolstered by this information, I got up on the morning of the 30th, determined to do a count of the birds on our lake. Using techniques from the articles, I estimated the number of geese (only 270; we’ve had over a 1000 since). I generalized when I didn’t know specific species (I’m still learning gulls, for example, and I know there was more than one kind out there, so I reported 20 gull sp.) And I was very excited to see sixteen bald eagles — a new record!

That afternoon, when I realized we had twenty-one eagles around the lake, I took the time to do another survey, just so I could put the data in eBird. Since then, I’ve made it a weekly goal to bird for at least ten minutes and then report my counts to eBird, and it’s working. I’ve submitted 14 checklists in the last three weeks.

Even more bald eagles perched near Warren Lake. (Photo by Kurt Fristrup)

Being given permission to report numbers that aren’t perfect freed me up to not just report occasionally but often. My next goal is to improve my estimation skills so that my numbers are more accurate. That, and to learn my gulls.

Do you report your sightings to eBird? How do you feel about counting big flocks?

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