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Personal journeys now shared on website

Snow bunting (left) and horned lark are just two of 61 species tabulated on New Year's Day in North Dakota and submitted to eBird. Photo by Keith Corliss.
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A funny thing happened on New Year's Day. Oh sure, a lot of people woke up with foggy heads after a long night of end-of-year revelry to see several inches of new snow on the ground. That's pretty normal given the date and time of year. No, it's what took place on eBird that I find curious.

For those unaware, eBird, the online clearinghouse for bird records and sightings around the world, has changed the birding landscape in profound ways. Its market share—to borrow an economics term--has skyrocketed in recent years to the point where it dominates online bird information sharing. It seems everyone these days is posting their bird sightings on it. And, in a quirky way, it's affecting our behavior.

Bird watching is one of the most popular hobbies in the country and getting more so every day. Tens of millions of Americans call themselves birders and the number keeps rising according to pollsters, probably due to the aging of our population with more leisure time. With numbers like that, it's not hard to figure out there is a broad continuum of interest levels among bird aficionados.

There are individuals—usually wealthy ones—who travel to exotic locations around the world in search of birds, who own the most expensive optics available, who hire the best local guides to bring them to places they would never otherwise get to. Occupying the other end of the chart are the humble but interested individuals who simply enjoy birds, perhaps not even with binoculars. And who never venture much farther than their yards or towns. Most of us land somewhere in between.

The middle of the bell curve is populated by folks like me and you. Folks who own a pair of binoculars, although maybe not the best ones; who have a field guide or two in their collection; who can brag of once having been to Madiera Canyon or Gray's Harbor; and who can probably tell a grand tale of their first great gray owl sighting.

While personal financial resources can be measured quantitatively, a person's passion cannot. It's deep-seated, it's personal, it's most often unseen, and it's a common thread that binds people together into this grand collection of thoughtful bird watchers.

Recently I watched the movie, The Big Year, again. It's the one with Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson that loosely retells the true story of three itinerant birders who set out to break the North American record for the most bird species seen in a calendar year. Like most Hollywood efforts, the story gets told but with liberal creative license taken.

Still, the people laughing the hardest during the show are bird watchers. Why? Because they get it. They know what it's like to feel that pulse-pounding excitement when a rare bird is reported, they've gotten up at 3 AM to see some strange bird, and they've experienced the disappointment when one gets away.

So it was with curious interest I recently looked at local eBird reports for January 1st. A person quickly notices an inordinate amount of activity took place. Perhaps no other day of the year produces more individual reports of birds. The question hanging over it all is, why?

In my experience, there has always been a sense of renewal on that day. It's the moment when the previous year ends and bird watchers start their new "year list." Now even things like house sparrows are interesting because, "I haven't seen one yet this year." Another chapter in a birders life begins and passion, that perhaps was waning some, is restored to full-bodied zeal.

Still, I wonder if there would be this level of activity without the publishing on eBird. At some point I think there is a trace of that interesting beast, competition. It's the overarching theme in The Big Year so it shouldn't be a jarring surprise to find it even here. The chance to be the first one forever enshrined to report a pileated woodpecker in 2017 is intoxicating after all, it's heady stuff.

The tail is wagging the dog it appears to me. eBird has created a competitive experience where on New Year's Day everyone is equal, everyone has a chance, everyone starts at zero, and all comers can participate in populating the state or county year list.

Maybe it's always happened and we were just unaware. eBird has brought it all into the open if that was the case. What really matters is that birders are out, with renewed energy, taking part in a shared passion that little else rivals.

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