Rainy Day Birding

By: Pat Yingst, Travis Audubon Master Birder

We’ve had a lot of very cold, rainy weather lately, which makes it hard to get out with binoculars to look at live birds hunkering down inside trees or hiding in the reeds on cold, windy ponds. So what to do?

Ebird – that innovative group of people from upstate New York – offers an alternative: the “Photo and Sound Quiz” which you can get to by going to the ebird.org website, signing in, going to the EXPLORE page and scrolling to the bottom. This is a great learning tool for beginner or intermediate birders. I do have to warn you that it is a little addicting.

Each randomly generated quiz is different and consists of 20 pictures or audio clips of birds with multiple choice answers. The pictures and audios are from the Macaulay database – that huge database globally created by all of us when we post pictures or audio clips on our eBird lists. As you can imagine, if you’ve ever posted a grab shot of a duck on the other side of the lake, or shot a picture of a warbler flitting behind a bunch of branches, some of the pictures are not so good. It’s still your job to ID the bird – whether with one of the multiple choice answers or ‘none of the above,’ which throws a ringer into the effort. It’s not the kind of quiz that you can be guaranteed to ace even if you are an ace birder because some of the pictures are just impossible.

For each quiz, you designate a place and a day of the year. I’m using the quiz now to familiarize myself with birds I might see in January in Guatemala when I go on the Travis Audubon-sponsored trip to that country. Since most of these birds are totally new to me, I “cheat” by looking up all the multiple choice answers. Of course even looking them up doesn’t ensure a correct answer due to the multiple costumes that the 2 sexes of birds wear at different ages and in different seasons.

There’s something about having to come up with an answer and getting a “grade” in the form of CONGRATULATIONS YOU GOT 17 OUT OF 20 RIGHT that enhances learning – at least for my personality type. And it mimics real life because of the uneven quality of the pictures. You may not be able to see the tail feathers of a bird, or you may see a tiny image off in the distance, or a small black bird on the ground facing away from the camera, or the image may be out of focus. Some of the images are lovely and belong in bird books or on bird websites. And most are good enough that the bird can be identified.

If a picture is bad enough that you have to just guess the bird, you can get revenge. Before you can move on to the next question you have to rate the picture and you can give it a lowly 1-star rating. Ah, those Cornell eBird geniuses have found a way to extract a quid pro quo – we get to play the game and they get ratings for those millions of pictures in the Macaulay database. If a picture or sound clip is so good that it belongs on a birding website or bird book, give it a five-star rating and help the eBird folks find it. I would get a big kick out of seeing a picture of mine or of someone I know pop up. I’d be tempted to give it 5 stars even if it didn’t deserve it.