With some time to kill on Saturday and no desire to just sit around worrying about how I was going to get to Freeport on time, I headed to Prospect Park to round out my list of common winter land birds. It was a pleasant day, and I got everything I expected at the feeders (Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrow). But the real highlights were the cold and miserable Wood Duck sitting in the small patch of open water outside the Audubon boathouse, and a pair of Rusty Blackbirds on the bridle path. Rusty Blackbirds have become more and more of a challenge to locate as their population plays out a catastrophic tailspin that has been going on throughout my entire life. And with blackbirds being about as un-charismatic as you can get and still be a warm-blooded vertebrate – with most people, in fact, being utterly unable to tell a Rusty Blackbird from a Boat-tailed Grackle from a European Starling, and consequently perceiving them as common as dirt – I sadly suspect that that isn’t likely to change in the near future.

Gratified, I came home with a checklist and hand. I sat down in front of the computer, and pursuant to my New Year’s resolution to do more Science!, I logged into eBird. And then, as always, I faced a dilemma – one of the major factors in driving me away from eBird the first time out, in fact.

eBird, quite rightly from a data aggregation perspective, requires you to enter a count for each species that you report – the old standby “x” doesn’t cut it. Their FAQs kindly indicate an openness to estimates and even a degree of guesswork, but this count requirement still paralyzes me, because I am neurotic. In particular, I worry constantly about the fact that birds have wings and that I may encounter the same individual twice without realizing it.

Feeder-watching is particularly bad for this. I see thirty chickadees (to pick an egregiously kinetic example) over the course of a fairly short feeder watch, and yet only have three specific individuals in my field of vision at any one time. I know (or at least strongly suspect) that the birds are taking seeds elsewhere and then coming back, so the right number isn’t thirty, but I also have a fairly good idea, based on the rate of turnover and how long it takes a chickadee to open a seed, that it’s not just the same three birds over and over. So what the heck do I enter? Normally I end up just doing a rough mathematical split of the difference, and entering 16 or something, but I always feel absolutely terrible after doing so. I’ve searched the FAQs for guidance on this issue and found none.

What say other eBird users? Am I missing something obvious in the eBird documentation? How do you count?

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