Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Town Patch

When is a local patch more than a patch?  I got thinking about this somewhat academic question last fall  as I found myself in a good-natured eBird competition with a very sharp teen birder who also had a Concord patch on eBird.  I finished the year with 161 birds, but he found over 170.  Both of us were intensively birding some reliable patches, and then assembling them into a larger town "patch."  It begs the question of what a patch really is, but the aggregate patch concept intrigued me as a potential tool for pulling in disparate sightings for a relatively small geographic area.  After all, what if my list were combined with his list—what would we have seen "together?"

Many aspects of the eBird database are virtual, not least of which are top-100 lists, recent sightings apps like BirdTrax, the species mapping tool, and so forth.  So the question eventually presented itself:  what might Ludlow Griscom have made of eBird if he were doing his famous study, Concord Birds, now?  One of the amazing things to me about his book was how he gathered sightings of his own and other birders into an aggregate representation of status and distribution of birds in the Concord area since the turn of the 20th century.  Is it always accurate?  Certainly not, but it is always suggestive, and Griscom preserves many amazing sightings from otherwise lost field lists of long-dead birders.

How would Griscom have assembled his data today?  eBird suggests itself as the logical tool for a relentless, competitive, highly-networked birder like Griscom.  At the heart of the eBird concept is, essentially, patch-listing, and I think this concept eludes many birders using it.  At Plum Island, a current and somewhat notorious example, eBirders have placed hundreds of personal location markers for their sightings, some on top of established hot spots, some at nearly random locations along the island, many representing single sightings.  If you run a recent sightings report from Plum Island, a Western Grebe might appear anywhere on the island, or only at Lot 1 ocean.  Compare the often chaotic eBird reporting with Tom Wetmore's meticulous Plum Island Sightings page and you see how dividing Plum Island into useful patches can really work.  Similarly, Griscom talked about the birds of Concord with real specificity, citing sightings by patch locations:  Nine Acre Corner, Great Meadows, Fairy Land, Fairhaven Bay, Merriam's Corner, and so forth.

Since my Concord patch list is assembled from many of the same locations that Griscom used, why not see what Griscom could have gathered by aggregating field lists from local patch birders?  And why not have some fun, too?  Enter Ludlow G. and his crowd-sourced Concord Big Year, 2013.

I hope you will join in the fun by keeping up with Ludlow and allowing him to shadow you in the field this year.  The challenge is 200 species, but also exploring potential patches which we tend to avoid, well, because tradition says they don't have birds.  Yes they do!

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