Feeling trapped in your yard? This tool puts the magic back in migration.

Part of a series

Birding this spring means we’re stuck in our own back yards. But it doesn’t have to be boring, said Jenna Curtis, a project manager at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who works with engagement among eBird users.

Jenna is a consistent and persistent birder, a role model whose species sightings can seem to grow at a viral rate. She could also be considered an extreme birder, someone willing to spend a day sick at sea to push her life list past the 1,000 mark. And now, just like us, Spring Migration 2020 finds Jenna mostly at home, watching the same-old, same-old birds.

Jenna Curtis

Jenna and I had a phone chat about this situation yesterday. She’s sheltering in place in Ithaca, home of Cornell Lab and smack in the middle of the most dangerous state on the planet right now.

Before Jenna and I got to the crux of our conversation – how to use eBird to add depth and excitement to birding from home — I could not resist telling her about my Barred Owl that hoots from the nearby woods every afternoon between 4:30 and 5.

“Oh my gosh. You have an owl?” Her voice jumped nearly an octave. As I delivered the details of how I finally spotted the owl and how proud I felt, Jenna, bless her heart, followed along without missing a breathless beat.

Our backyard Barred Owl swivels its head our way.

So far this chat with Jenna was the best birding moment I’d had all week.

One of the great joys of birding is sharing the experience, finding a community of like-minded people who know what it feels like to crave the high-pitched, barely audible sound of itty-bitty warblers decked out in the glorious garb of spring.

I didn’t realize how much I’ve been yearning for my birding tribe in the midst of this godforsaken wilderness – a wilderness that’s not nearly wild enough to find the warblers I still need to add to my own life list.

“It’s hard to make the choice to stay at home right now rather than be with everyone else at your local hotspot for the migration,” Jenna said. “But you’re doing the right thing by following your local health regulations. Everyone needs to be following their local regulations right now.”

Flying Lesson: Almost anywhere you are happen to be — including stuck at home during a pandemic —  at least some birds will find you there. In a time of anxiety and uncertainly, a dose of nature is good medicine. Here are some ways you can make the most of wherever you’re birding now. 

Jenna’s voice had switched over to the perfect combination of soothing validation and sensible resolve. As far as following the local health regulations, she took the stance of firm-yet-very-playful “You’d better do it or I might get mad at you.” Suddenly I desperately want Jenna to be my new birding best friend.

Our Chickadee — Carolina version.

And thanks to eBird, she can be. Virtually anyway. All I had to do was sign into my eBird.org account, click on the “Explore” tab, type in Jenna’s region, and voila. There she is, ranked No. 20 in the top 100 eBirders of Thompkins County — not bad for someone who’s just moved to a place with the highest per capita of bird experts on Earth. I click on Jenna’s name, and her latest bird lists pop up. Yesterday Jenna saw nearly all of the same birds I did – only her chickadee was the Black-capped, and mine, of course, was its Carolina cousin.

And just like that, birding from home seemed way more fun. Jenna and I are in this together. And you can be, too.

“With eBird you can connect with other birders through your reporting without having to be physically next to them,” Jenna said. “We find this happens all the time with eBird, and it happens all over the world.”

One way to feel closer to your birding neighbors and friends in the midst of the pandemic, Jenna said, is to use eBird’s Yard Tool. This is a data manager within eBird that keeps track of every bird you find in your yard over time. (My instructions on how to set this up are at the end of this post.)

For step-by-step instructions for setting up a Yard List, go to the end of this post just after the photo gallery below. Or you can follow eBird’s outline that you’ll find in their general “Help” section. But be aware that for me, finding and following eBird’s instructions was somewhat complicated. Nonetheless, click here. Need to create an account and set up the eBird app on your phone? For their really terrific instructions, click here. There’s even a free online course on all things eBird here.

Some friends of mine in Washington, D.C., are using the Yard Tool to compare their home sightings with each other. This is a competitive group, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out there’s a yard contest on the horizon.

If you’re the competitive type, but don’t have anyone to compete with, Jenna suggests using the Yard Tool to compete with yourself.

“Set a bar for yourself and see if you can beat it,” she said. “Sometimes I keep different lists of what I see from my kitchen window compared to my back yard and to my morning walk.”

Following the yard lists of your friends and neighbors can reduce feelings of isolation, but it’s also a way to improve your birding skills.

“If your neighbor reports a bird you’ve never seen, then you know to look for it because there’s a good chance it will be in your yard, too.”

It did take several steps to set up my yard list in eBird but it wasn’t difficult. (Follow the detailed directions below. Let me know in the comments box below this post if you have trouble, and I’ll try to help.)

Once I was up and running, this nifty tool told me I’ve seen 29 species so far this month without ever leaving home. Not bad.

Oh, wait. Scrolling a bit farther down the “My Yard Lists” page, I can see who else is birding in my county. Looks like 29 species puts me in only 13th place. Nobody should be stuck in 13th place – it’s such an unfortunate number. So I‘m going to the back yard now, and I’m taking my binoculars and eBird with me.

Here’s a gallery of some of the backyard birds we’ve spotted since our quarantine began last month. 
Here’s how you set up a Yard List:
  1. You can skip this step if you’ve ever submitted a list from your yard in the past. At least a day before you want to make your Yard List, you must first go eBirding in your yard, and submit the checklist. It’s easiest to do this from your cell phone. The eBird app will prompt you to “Choose a Location.” Click the “Map” tab at the top of the screen. Next click the green “Use This Location” button at the bottom of your screen. Click submit.
  2. It’s easier to set up your Yard List from a computer once you’re back inside. But because eBird only updates your lists once per day, this setup process may not work until the day after you submit the list. First, sign in to your eBird account, and click the Explore tab in the tool bar.
  3. Scroll halfway down the Explore page to the “Compare Your Totals” section, and click on Yard Totals. (Or click here to go directly to that page.)
  4. Now you’re at the “My Yard Lists” page. Click the green “Add A Yard” button on the right. Fill in “Name Your New Yard.”
  5. Next is “Add Locations to your yard.” Choose the checklist you just submitted from the available list, which is your address. Click the green “Save Yard” button at the bottom of your page.
  6. Each time you submit a new Yard checklist with a cell phone, you’ll need to submit it using the same home address that matches your very first Yard list. Here’s how: When you click “Stop Track” for a list, the next screen will have “Choose a Location” at the very top. Click it, and you’ll get a list of all the locations you’ve used. Your home address should be the first one or very near the top. Click it and continue with the submitting process.
  7. The next time you visit the “My Yard Lists” page, all of your yard data will appear. In order to see your neighbors’ checklists, you’ll have to choose your state and county by clicking the blue “Change Region” link next to “United States.”



One response to “Feeling trapped in your yard? This tool puts the magic back in migration.”

  1. Great post — and wonderful photos, especially that blue bird in flight. Are you sure you’re in quarantine?

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