Updated: Nov 14, 2020
The hawk pictured above is a Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk, a rare sight for the Panhandle of Texas. Unlike some other Red-tails, Harlan's don't stay here year-round or breed here. They breed and summer up in Alaska and Canada. Only a few of them make it to the Texas Panhandle to spend the winter.
How did I know that I saw I rare bird when I spotted this Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk in early November in northeast Amarillo? Because I consulted the vast resources of eBird, the world's leading website for birders to report their observations.
eBird is a free and relatively easy-to-use website and mobile app that allows you to report each bird you observe during a birding trip, a lunch in the park, or even a peek out the window into your backyard. It is a glorious mixture of citizen science, treasure hunting, scrapbooking and education.
The immediacy that eBird's technology affords us is astounding. Look at the old newsletters for the Texas Panhandle Audubon Society that are online. The monthly newsletter for March 1980 alerted birders to amazing local sightings like a Glaucous Gull who spent more than a month at Buffalo Lake NWR (back when it was still a lake). But by the time many of the TPAS members received that newsletter in the mail, the bird probably had moved on. In contrast, I reported on eBird a rare Varied Thrush at my brother's house in Denver (with a little too much specificity) late one evening and early the next morning, Colorado birders were already lining his cul-de-sac to get a glimpse.
Citizen Science: Bird scientists use the data from eBird to determine where the birds are (particularly during migration), if their range is changing because of climate change, and even if a particular species is becoming endangered. The data that ordinary people recorded on eBird proved invaluable in determining, for example, that we have lost 3 billion birds since 1970 in the U.S. and Canada. Because of the vastness of the Texas Panhandle, much of it sparsely populated, ours is one of the least birded areas of the state. There are definitely birds around here that no one is seeing, or at least reporting. For example, there is a picnic area called Thompson Grove in the Rita Blanca National Grassland north of Dalhart that in September 2020 provided sightings of very unusual birds, such as Hammond's Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Green-tailed Towhee, Hepatic Tanager, and Cassin's Kingbird. But only three people birded and reported from that spot in all of September, during one of the best migration years we reportedly have had in a long time. There is no way to know how many birds were missed at that spot on the other 27 days in September. We need more birders and more eBird reporting in our area for scientists to truly understand what is happening here.
Treasure Hunting: If you want to know the "secret" spots that birders go to see the greatest variety of birds, check out eBird's Hotspots map and then click on a particular geographical area. You'll have access to lists, photos, bar charts, times, dates and other details of any bird that has been spotted in the "birdy" spots in that area. If you are curious about birds close to home, just enter your own county in "Explore Regions" search bar and all will be revealed! You can even sign up for email alerts to tell you when a rare bird has been sighted in any county you are interested in. For example, when I spotted the juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night Heron (above) trying to pretend he was a tree branch at Thompson Park in late August, many other birders were alerted overnight to go looking for him the next day. Some found the young bird who didn't belong here and were able to add him to their life list (if they had never seen one), or their county list for Potter County, or just observe a silly juvenile bird who obviously was confused about where his range map said he was supposed to be.
Scrapbooking: I am not a scrapbooker. I don't have the patience or the small motor dexterity to glue cute doodads to pretty paper. But by reporting my birding finds (and taking photos), I have found an easy way to make (or rather to have eBird make) a record of the places I have been and the beautiful birds I have seen there. Having eBirded consistently for two years, I am starting to see patterns and understand the rhythm of nature around here by studying my checklists. For example, I can easily look up when I first spotted the Amarillo Bald Eagles last year. That way I knew when to expect them this winter (they're baaaaack!). My life list (all birds I have seen in a lifetime) has grown, but so has the list of target species that I have not seen. With the press of a button, eBird prepares a personalized list of those elusive target birds and my percentage chance of seeing them in a particular month. Now I just need the time and money to go searching for all of them.
Education: eBird has lots of help for a new birder like me. I may not know what I am looking at when I am in the field, but eBird is connected to Cornell University's vast Macauley Library with pictures and detailed information about identifying birds. The "edit species" function is easy to use to correct my checklist if I make a mistake or change my mind about what I saw once I look at my photos on a large monitor or study my Sibley's bird books more closely. And if I still input a bird incorrectly, there is an expert local birder who contacts me by email and lets me know that I might have seen something different than what I reported. That's how I discovered that I spotted a very rare for November Northern Parula in Palo Duro Canyon last year.
Some new birders are intimidated by eBird. What if I input the wrong thing or the my count is off? Never fear--eBird's algorithms take into account that a certain percentage of birds go unreported, or incorrectly identified. All they ask is that I report all of the birds that I can reasonably identify. eBird doesn't care if I have been birding two months, or two years or two decades. Of course there are better birders out there. But making careful observations and detailed lists is what made them better birders.
My goal for 2020 was to not catch COVID, uh, I mean, to file an eBird checklist every day of 2020. I set my own rules, including being satisfied with a daily list from my backyard that only included White-winged Doves (above) and House Sparrows, if that is all I saw that day. Some days spent at home during the endless, dull year of 2020 were enlivened because I took the time to make a list, like all of those days that involved observing our nesting Cooper's Hawks and their two fledglings.
As I look back, I realize that I gained so much this year by forcing myself to file a checklist every single day. It's gotten me out of the house once things opened back up. I've been more adventurous by myself, exploring places on my own that I really haven't birded before, like the more remote canyons of Lake Meredith or the shores of Lake Greenbelt. I've befriended other birders in Thompson Park, Palo Duro Canyon and Greenways playa. Finally, I've been privileged to be invited to bird with such local experts as Doug and Sue Smith, Dean Edwards and Barrett Pierce. As a result, I have added more than 100 birds to my life list this year and 1000s of beautiful pictures to my Dropbox photo files and this blog.
In 2021, I'll have a different eBird goal. Barrett Pierce provided me with a treasure map he created of the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle. It is like an eBird hotspot map all on one very large and colorful piece of paper. So my goal for 2021 will be to bird and file an eBird checklist at least once from each of those counties. Guess I am going to need to set up eBird alerts for every Panhandle county!