22 December 2008

Online Entry to Improve Input of Historic Bird Phenology Details

The North American Bird Phenology Program has added online data entry to allow volunteers to view records of historic bird distribution and input the details into a computer database. The volunteers will be able to view how many records have been transcribed (and of which species and locations) but it will take some time for them to be able to see the information entered. Eventually, our database will also be housed on the National Phenology Network website as well.

This program has approximately six millions records of migration arrival and departure dates from a 90 year span from 1880-1970, according to Jessica Zelt, coordinator for the program, hired as a contractor through IAP Worldwide services. The effort is sponsored by the U.S. Geological Service, and housed at Patuxtent, Maryland.

When the program was underway, more than 3000 volunteer contributors submitted information in a variety of ways, ranging from lists of species and dates, to descriptions and reports with related details on a species occurrence.

“Participants recorded their name, locality and year, along with arrival and departure dates, date of abundance, and if it was a common species to that location,” Zelt said. “Many field report files are also found among the records which include more detailed information including species behavior, habitat and a description of the sighting. The records are cataloged by species and locality, totaling approximately 880 species of birds ranging across North America. There are also a few records from other locations such as South and Central America, and going as far north as Greenland and the Arctic Ocean and as far west as Japan. However, these locations are few and far between.”

Volunteers Lauren Pulz and Derek Smith scanning cards for the phenology program. Picture courtesy of Jessica Zelt.

Since a majority of the information is handwritten, and cannot be recognized and converted by a computer, we rely on volunteers in the BPP office to scan the migration cards and then, with the help of worldwide participants, transcribe this historical data into our database, Zelt said.

“BPP volunteers who come in each and every week to make sure the program is a success are the backbone of this program. They handle, sort, scan and transcribe these records in preparation for scientific analysis.” The BPP has only one paid staff member.

“The cards are sorted by state and species and several species are a high priority due to the existence of comparable collections of recent arrival data (from 1970 to today), including species such as Purple Martins, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, orioles, waterfowl, and the Common Loon.

“The cards will be archived electronically and easily available to future researchers. A program on this scale could not be accomplished without the participation of the public.”

View of the online transcription screen.

Providing web-based entry will improve access for viewing the scanned cards and allow volunteers with internet access to help with computerizing the information. “An open field on the data-entry screen will allow participants to transcribe exactly what is written on the card” as shown in the PDF file, Zelt explained. “An online training process will be provided on the website to walk participants through the process of data entry.

“We are looking forward to engaging volunteers from around the world to participate in this program and get more involved in science and birding. Eventually, we want people to collect the same type of bird data and submitting that information as well. We are also looking forward to producing a publication on the topic of climate change and how it is affecting bird migration times on a national scale.”

Phenology is the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena, and the “information that can be extracted from these records will provide critical information on bird distribution, migration timing and migration pathways and how they are changing,” Zelt explained. “These records hold intrinsic scientific value but also have specific importance in the context of climate change. Shifts in bird arrival times has demographic consequences, as birds arriving earlier may not arrive in conjunction with their peak food resources which could result in high mortality rates.

“Thus far, there has been very little literature published on bird phenology due to the relatively recent focus on the topic and the lack of existing historical data. Currently, there has been more literature produced in Europe than in North America due to their success in documenting and maintaining records on migratory bird arrival dates as well as egg and nest records.”

Sam Droege, who is involved with the project, “made an assessment of the value of these cards in 2003, and provided recommendations for further analyses and recreating a network of new observers,” Zelt said. His findings were published in an article titled “Spring Arrivals of Maryland and Washington, D.C. Birds,” in Maryland Birdlife (volume 59, No. 1-2). The history and description of the bird occurrence data is given in the article, along with a characterization of a small sample of the data from the State of Maryland.

Some initial funding for the BPP was provided by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Wildlife Society to develop the data entry system and analyze the dataset. Partial funding was also received from the USGS Data Rescue Fund in 2008.

Completion of data entry for the project will be entirely dependent on the help of volunteers. Thus far, more than 82,000 records for many species – such as the Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Purple Martin and Black-throated Blue Warbler - have been scanned.

“I look forward to volunteers getting involved and helping in this important scientific endeavor,” Zelt said. “Their assistance to make the information available in a database is essential to help further the understanding bird migration and occurrence.”

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