Great Egret

Great Egret

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Before there was ebird......

Once upon a time, there were no computers, no cell phones, no Ontbirds, no ebird........none of a lot of things that we take for granted now. Hard to believe, isn't it, especially for the generation that has grown up with all of these technological advancements literally at their fingertips. But birders back then were still plentiful, and got out to enjoy the natural world unencumbered by the myriad digital devices we can't seem to live with out nowadays. Instead, we heard about good birds by the proverbial grape vine.....a.k.a. a telephone land line. Or by reading the weekly column of writers such as Peter Whelan (Globe and Mail) or Tom Hayman (London Free Press). Just imagine......

Sure the optics weren't great by today's standards. In fact just earlier this week I was reminiscing with a former colleague with whom I worked at Rondeau 42 years ago, that the old Bushnell Spacemaster telescopes and the Bushnell Sport Custom binoculars, both of which were the industry standards for birders of that era, aren't much better than museum pieces or door stops now (packrat that I am, I still have my original Spacemaster, and both of my original Sport Customs (7 X 35 and 9 X 36) from the 1970s, but not my even earlier two pairs of binoculars...a Kmart special 7 X 35 and a model of Tasco 7 X 50 :-).
Prothonotary Warbler, first discovered nesting in Ontario and Canada in the early 1930s
Why this bit of 'recent' history? Well, if you have been keeping up with the latest information on ebird as it pertains to the milestone reached by Ontario birders, you will be aware that just a few weeks ago, the one millionth ebird list for Ontario was entered onto the site.

It was submitted by yours truly.

I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but was contacted a short time afterwards to inform me of that event. (I didn't get any prize, just the notoriety :-) And interestingly it was an historic checklist that I submitted. You can read about that occurrence, and the way ebird has taken off in Ontario by clicking on this link.

Just like birding, I was at the right place at the right time to have submitted the list that reached this significant milestone for Ontario birders. In reality, I have only been submitting to ebird for about a year and a half, with a total of 522 lists submitted in that time. Some of them are historical ones.
American Avocet, June 2013
 Like many birders who collect data in one way or another, I have stacks of old checklists and field notes going back to the early 1970s. I began birding about a decade before that, but never bothered to keep lists until the early 1970s. One wonders if all of those notes and lists would ever be useful, so rather than just put the checklists into the recycling bin, I decided to put that data to some use (hopefully!). That is how I happened to submit the one from September 26, 1984, which was the one millionth list.
Black Vulture, March 2009

(Note to self: get busy with all of those other historical lists!)

Just like optical equipment, bird checklists have evolved. In digging through Rondeau's historical files, the park staff very recently came up with the two featured in the next photo. The one on the left is dated 1956, and had accumulated 268 species by that time, and the one on the right is dated 1959, with 275 species. The park naturalist of that era, R. D. Ussher (RDU), was a forester by training, but a pioneer in natural history interpretation of Ontario's provincial parks, and he was at Rondeau from 1952-1969. He compiled and maintained checklists of birds, mammals, plants (both woody and herbaceous) as well as reptiles and amphibians. There were records from Rondeau even back into the 1800s, all of which he or others scoured through to come up with these lists, and were the basis for checklists that followed.
There was a handful of seasonal naturalist leaders at Rondeau from the time that Dick Ussher retired, until the time that I came on in a full-time capacity which, including some summer positions while I was at university, went from 1973-1986. I valued the checklists that RDU had compiled, and did my best to build on them. My first effort was this booklet, shown below, produced in 1976. I borrowed the B&W illustration of the Black-crowned Night-Heron from the 1974 checklist that was produced by Howard Coneybeare, a talented and prolific illustrator of many Algonquin Provincial Park publications, who was supervising Rondeau's natural history interpretation program in 1974. I looked for a copy of that list but it must be buried too deep.

By 1976 there were 301 species on the list.
1976 checklist
Instead of just a list to check off birds that had been seen, I decided to put some seasonal information along with it, as is shown in these open pages of that checklist.
That was popular, and we quickly ran out. That design was also more expensive, so we went back to the folded card stock in 1977, which by now had 303 species.

By 1980, it was time to update the checklist once again, as it now had 317 species.
1980 checklist
By 1984, we had accumulated 332 species.
1984 checklist
By 1992, the list had grown to 334 species, and had a slightly different look to it.
This one was reprinted a few times, until the Friends Of Rondeau began producing it and selling from their bookstore. It now looks like this, although it has had a few reprints/updates with more or less the same cover:
The cumulative total for the Rondeau checklist area at the point of the most recent printing, in February 2015, stood at 362 species. With the addition of the Say's Phoebe of September, 2015, the next update will be at least 363 species.
Say's Phoebe, Sept 17 & 18, 2015

Magnificent Frigatebird, 2012


  1. Before there was ebird ... there were birders!

    1. Yes indeed! There is something to be said about the simpler times, too.

  2. An interesting "historical" post! The good ole calls and reading newspaper columns. I often got some good birds after reading Tom Hayman's column. And, it was more fun finding your own good birds!

    1. Yes, having the latest gadgets may get some more of those rarities, but isn't necessarily any more enjoyable. I wonder how many birds are missed when folks have their eyes on the screen instead of the landscape. Having said that, the way that all those historical lists can now be available forever is truly remarkable, and presumably useful.

  3. Allen, congrats on the millionth e-bird listing!

    I don't think there are any cogent arguments that anyone could provide that would state your historic sightings are best stored on paper than in a globally accessible database.

    Its good to consider how technology has changed birding. Some could argue either way. I think it has more positives than negatives. And if someone does not like e-bird or ontbirds --- they don't have to use it!

    I wonder if birders that birded before newspapers and birding phone lines grumbled about that new tech? LOL...

    Great posting!

    1. Thanks, Dwayne! There are always pros and cons of progress, isn't there. And it makes one wonder what the next iteration of birding technology will be like when ebird is outdated!