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Sunday, February 19, 2006

In the Belly of the GBBC Beast #5

Usually, I don't work or bird on Sundays, which for me are dedicated to family and church. However, during the GBBC, someone has to be on hand to answer emails and help things keep moving I came in to work after church and am now firmly esconced once again in the belly of the GBBC beast!

I just spent two hours answering emails from last night and this morning. Good news is, that we finally learned from the 2000 Florida Butterfly Ballot fiasco, and changed our online reporting checklist this year to have only one column of birds, rather than three. This has really reduced the data entry errors--so most of the errors I'm hearing about now are people changing their identifications, rather than reporting data entry mistakes.

I've gotten a few emails from people who see some strange or clearly erroneous bird reports, and then question or belittle the whole GBBC process. Others have graciously offered their assistance to help review sightings. Here's basically my take on the whole "there are some big errors in GBBC reports" idea:

1) First of all, the GBBC encourages reports from birders of all levels--including some who may be trying to identify birds for the first time. Thats good, but we need to be patient and understanding. So, having data quality issues is a good sign, a sign of growth.

2) It also highlights the educational aspects of GBBC--this gives us a chance to help people improve their identification skills. When we spot something really strange, we email the person and then help them review their own identification. Its a lot of work sometimes, but worth it if it helps people out and teaches them something.

3) This issue also highlights the importance of having local reviewers to go through the records in a timely fashion and spot the errors. We're better off this year than last...with only a couple Canadian provinces and Maine without local reviewers of their own. So, as we grow our network of reviewers, the data quality will get better and better.

4) And finally, it emphasizes how much we really need skilled birders to go out and count the birds, so that well-identified birds are included, reducing the statistical weight of problematic identifications.

But, really, its mostly just a lot of fun to see the strange things that sometimes get reported, and to see what common identification challenges are out there. Its very educational to see how people identify birds they are unfamiliar with, and personally, it helps me better understand the challenges that new birders face. Its been almost three decades since I first started identifying birds...and while it is still a challenge when I visit far-off places with lots of new birds, my day-to-day birding provides very few identification challenges. So, its fun to see people struggling and to be able to enter the process from their perspective.

The flip side, is that once you see just how easy it is for people to misidentify birds, it is tempting to question the value of this whole GBBC endevour. But I choose to take the perspective that it is a learning process for all...and that as we go along, we'll find better ways to improve the quality of the reports, and ways to analyze the results.

So, its all good! Just go out and count some birds, and help others do the same. Then, come inside, get warm, and enter your sightings online!

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