Best Birds 2015 Edition

Truth be told, I am actually surprised I birded and generated a list at least once every month! I did cut it rather close with February and November. Perhaps  I should change my  handle to badbirder….  Anyway 27 minutes until the clock strikes 12….

So how many lists did I submit? It was an  up and down year, but over all lower than  in years past.  This was also the first year that I was in grad school for the entirety of the year. Grad school and birding do not go as well together as one would think!

Lists Submitted to Ebird by Month

month 2013 2014 2015
January  50 2 26
February  34 4 1
March  25 4 4
April  22 26 12
May  24 36 13
June  16 10 15
July  5 3 19
August  22 6 6
September  4 9 2
October  8 17 4
November  5 5 1
December  8 9 5
Year 223 131 109

So still respectable?  In regards to species, it became even more extreme with ups and downs.  I had a drop of 98 species between September 2014 and September 2015, but an increase of 101 from January 2014 to January  2015.  Travel makes a difference!

Species By Month

month 2013 2014 2015
January 70 30 131  (65) *
February 52 39 17 (0)
March 60 46 40
April 48 87 52
May 114 162 101
June 64 85 54 (0) **
July 37 32 48 (0) **
August  65 40 45 (13) **
September  72 102 10
October  57 114 34
November  63 86 6
December  79 90 65
Year 200 222 287 (169)***

* Includes Florida birding efforts.NY/NJ totals in ()
** Includes Honduran birding efforts. NY/NJ totals in ().
*** Global total. NY/NJ totals in ().

In Florida, Tara and I picked up 100 species, and while I don’t have all the records updated yet, I believe I also observed 100 birds in Honduras (ebird currently has 81 listed).

As I compile this review, what surprises me the most is now many life birds I picked up.  Traveling for nearly  3 months really helps!   So  91 new lifers added to the list.  I won’t bore you by listing them all.

However, I will close with some of my favorite photos already  shared this year:

And my  clock  warns me that I have less than  5 minutes remaining…

Perils of Data-based Birding

As a birder-scientist, not only do I have the joys of exploring farmlands and forests for novel encounters, but I also have the “joys” of exploring fields…. as in data fields.

As part of my PhD program, to become more knowledgeable about birds, I have to spend more time away from real birds (much of the current knowledge transfer system is based on similar logic…e.g. to improve learning we should spend less time learning and more time testing).  For the spring semester, I opted to do a rotation in the lab of Dr. Gareth Russell.

The Russell Lab does fascinating work looking at animal choice and response to their environment by modeling behavior and movement.  Current and recent work has followed Grizzly Bears in Alaska, Big Horn Sheep in California, Baleen Whales social networks in the Atlantic Ocean, Elephants in Africa.  The modeling element comes in when scientist try to interpret why the animals made the choices they did.  What elements of the environment most resonated with the animal causing its behaviour?

Turns out since you can’t actually ask the animals, you can use a computer to figure it out.

For my project, I can share the details later, I obtained  USGS banding records for songbirds along the east coast to determine movements over time.  My goal was to use this data to answer questions about their migratory movements in the fall.

As it goes with a venture into any new area, there’s a steep learning curve as you get to know the landscape.  You have weird experiences such as when I reloaded the data set and every bird name involving a color (say yellow warbler and white-throated sparrow) became {#*code#) warbler and (#&code#(-throated sparrow.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

So after months of learning to program in Mathematica (mixed success), I managed to create a map! This beautiful rendered map shows 50+ years worth of records where in the birds presented:

  • were banded and recaptured after July 1,
  • were banded and recaptured in the same year,
  • were recaptured in a new location.
Mathematica output.

Mathematica output: Apparently one bird didn’t get the memo and went west, not south.  H1: That bird can’t read a compass. H2: That bird is a rebellious juvenile.

However, as beautifully colored as it is and as important as it looks, it’s only ~800 pieces of data across 44 species and 50+ years, not enough for a solid analysis. Back to the drawing board.

When after significant hours of effort, you’re still coming up with nothing, you doubt yourself, even when other people have faith. “There aren’t any birds here!”

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Then you do something really basic, like identifying an American Robin, or writing a function which figures out how many days into a year it is.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Twitter Screen Capture.

Now you know there are birds there, and you’re just not finding them.  You feel conflicted about that.

Three weeks to go and we’re still “exploring the data”.  The sun is nearly setting.

Mathematica output: Tree swallow presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.

Mathematica output: Tree swallow presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.

So, finally we made a graph.  This graph, for Tree Swallows, shows presence (blue) and absence (white) data with years as the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.  Think January at the bottom and December at the top.

Now that I’d found one bird surely I could find them all, but could I do it by family?

Yes… Probably… How hard could it be?… Maybe… If I had more time… Impossible… Wait, what?… No… Maybe… Nope… Did I get it?

After a very dark night:

Mathematica output.

Mathematica output: 10 families of songbirds tracked over the years for arrivals and departures. years are represented on the x axis and days into the year as the y axis.


I actually succeeded as the sun rose.  Talk about symbolism!  I’ll have a chance to share this in my next meeting on Friday. Hopefully we can call this success.

Can only imagine what’s next?  3D versions?

Stay tuned for Rotation 2 news coming Summer 2015 when I return to real fields (or forests anyway)!