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Citizen Science Saturday’s eBird: A Firsthand Experience

August 31, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert!  Morgan is a senior at NC State and is majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife Concentration.  She is interning for the Citizen Science Unit at Prairie Ridge this semester.  Thanks, Morgan!

For nearly 10 years, Museum staff at Prairie Ridge Ecostation have conducted public citizen science eBird walks and submitted their sightings.  eBird was developed as a way for birdwatchers, or birders for short, to provide information on where and when specific species of birds are found.  This information is then used by scientists and researchers to, among other things, track the migration of birds around the world and to see what impacts climate change has had on birds.  eBird now receives millions of sightings each year, many of which are generated through citizen science programs.  Along with eBird, Prairie Ridge also organizes various other citizen science programs such as Natural North Carolina, Lost Ladybug, and many more.

The eBird Walk was the first Citizen Science Saturday event I had ever attended at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Being new to bird watching, I was quite worried that my limited knowledge of native birds might make it difficult to enjoy and assist in identifying birds for the eBird data.  However, within a few minutes, it became apparent to me that this program was built to bring people in, whether new to birding or seasoned in the field, and that I was not the only person there that could at best recognize a Northern Cardinal.  I was also about to find out why this location is so popular for birders!

After a short introduction about Prairie Ridge Ecostation (I had no idea just how large this place was!) and the purpose of Citizen Science Saturdays, we moseyed down to the birdfeeders to find out what granivorous (seed/grain eating) birds we would find.  At these feeders, I saw Red-winged Blackbirds, Carolina Chickadees, a Pine Warbler, and lots of Northern Cardinals.  I was also excited to see a few Purple Martins hanging out around hollowed-out gourds.  Everywhere I looked there was a new bird to identify!  The only difficulty was that we had to make sure they were properly identified before marking them down in our datasheet.  Marking down improperly identified birds will provide inaccurate information to eBird.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Next we wandered off towards the pond counting murmurations of European Starlings and trying to figure out if we were seeing Song Sparrows or Chipping Sparrows.  A good way to find this out is to look for patches of black on the head.  Song Sparrows have some black lines near the eye and a black spot on the head, Chipping Sparrows have only brown. At the pond we looked for birds in and around the water.  I was able to spot a few Hooded Mergansers.  Someone spotted a Canada Goose and another Chipping Sparrow.  After identifying all the birds we could find, we then headed back to the bird feeders to see if any more birds had come out in our absence.

The popularity of Prairie Ridge Ecostation for birders is due to the vast variety of bird species found during each month of the year.  Just in the first hour of Citizen Science Saturday, we saw and identified over 20 species!  I have never seen that many birds in a week!

At the end of this session I felt like I had a better grasp on identifying birds and that I learned quite a few things about their characteristics.  For example, Eastern Towhees preferred to forage on the ground under the feeders and the Blue Jay intimidates all the other birds off the feeder.  I also had no idea what a challenge it was to tell birds apart while they are flitting around the ground.  Oftentimes birds will stick in pairs or groups, such as female Northern Cardinals staying close to the males or the Mourning Doves hanging in groups of 2-3.  This actually made it easier for me to count them.  Did you know that the European Starling was brought here by Eugene Schieffelin, who wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays?  I did not.  Now the starlings are highly invasive and have been negatively affecting our crops and local nesting birds.

It is very easy to fall in love with Prairie Ridge Ecostation and to become interested in the various events that are held here.  I was originally supposed to complete only 10 hours of Environmental Education volunteer experience for one of my classes at NCSU, but I enjoyed this so much that I continued volunteering after the 10 hours were finished.  I hope you will come join us and appreciate this program as much as I have!

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