How Birding Lists of the Deceased Are Finding New Life on eBird

To salvage invaluable insights from moldering notebooks, scientists are painstakingly compiling and digitizing decades-old data.

By any measure, Chester Lamb is a prolific birder. On eBird, the community-science birding app, he has 3,573 checklists submitted under his name, and he has personally identified 750 species in Mexico alone, including the magnificent Imperial Woodpecker, a species thought to be extinct, and the Short-crested Coquette, one of the rarest birds on Earth. There’s just one catch: Chester Lamb died 55 years ago.

How did Lamb’s checklists get on eBird then? As it turns out, his posthumous account is one of many recently added by researchers giving old data new life online. Moldering away in dusty notebooks around the world are the detailed records of naturalists and dedicated birders from decades and even centuries ago. These logs are invaluable for conservation, but they are also physically vulnerable—subject to the natural wear and tear of time. So, to save them, scientists and volunteers are poring over crinkly old pages, deciphering complicated cursive, and tracking down outdated species names to create modern checklists. By submitting these lists to eBird, they help further flesh out a region's natural history and how its bird populations have changed over time. 

“Fundamentally, you can’t understand change if you don’t know what happened before,” says Ian Davies, a project coordinator at eBird. “Historical data is incredibly valuable, especially with the recent interest around the declines of birds in North America and around the world.” Birds are an indicator species, says Davies, who thinks the long history of birdwatching puts birders in a singular position for helping us understand how our planet is changing. 

The earliest bird records often came from hired collectors. Like others before him, Lamb was an ornithologist of the gun-wielding sort. Beginning in 1933, the naturalist spent 22 years in Mexico acquiring roughly 40,000 specimens for the collector Robert Moore. That collection, the largest of its kind for Mexican birds, is now housed at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, California. Lamb’s work came after Charles Darwin published his seminal work On the Origin of Species, so instead of merely “stamp collecting” individuals, he and other ornithologists at the time were interested in describing variation within species, says John McCormack, Moore Lab director. To that end, Lamb would collect several examples of a species and record where each bird was taken—the kind of detailed notetaking that would be crucial for future researchers.

In 2011, the Moore Lab’s collections began going digital and the catalogue of Lamb’s bird specimens became available online. “The data were there but weren’t particularly friendly for the public,” says James Maley, the Moore Lab’s collections manager. Furthermore, Lamb’s specimens contained just a fraction of his overall observations; in his notebooks were hundreds of lists of birds that Lamb saw and identified but didn’t shoot. Altogether, the records are a treasure trove of information about Mexico’s past birdlife and a window into the country before it was transformed by agricultural and industrial development.

To create the eBird checklists, Maley and a team of Occidental College undergrads began comparing and compiling individual specimen information with the bird lists and dates in Lamb's notebooks. Pulling these observations from more than 7,000 hand-written pages was time-intensive and came with numerous challenges. Lamb frequently used long-lost common names of birds, for example, so Maley’s team often depended on the collection’s specimens to provide the critical link between a forgotten name and an actual species. Once Lamb's checklists were complete, it took the team about seven months to enter them into eBird, and more than double that time to proof and finalize them, including uploading photos of some collected specimens to support rare bird sightings.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with this guy. I feel like I know him better than a lot of people alive,” Maley says. “His work ethic was kind of astonishing—his ability to go to these places when he had a family, and then collect and prepare 20-25 specimens a day.” Reading Lamb’s notebooks also led Maley into the collector’s inner world. Lamb wrote frequently about his wife, Clara, and was on a collecting trip when he received news that she had died. “I came across that day in his travel notes, and the pages are just completely covered in tear stains,” he says.

When Lamb’s lists started going live on eBird in 2016, the Moore Lab received an excited response from ornithologists and birding clubs throughout Mexico. From Guanajuato to Yucatan, birders got in touch with the Moore Lab to learn more about the project. In many Mexican states, Lamb’s sightings were the only time a bird species had ever been recorded there, a testament to how much had changed and the value of Lamb’s observations.

To build on this success, the team at Moore Lab has expanded the project to resurvey 15 of the locations where Lamb collected. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the effort has already visited a site on the Baja Peninsula, revealing a landscape almost unchanged since Lamb’s time. Meanwhile, another site in Veracruz was barely recognizable. Lamb himself wrote about habitat destruction in Mexico, and the collector accurately predicted the Imperial Woodpecker would disappear forever due to logging. Looking back, Lamb was also of a dying breed. “I would guess in North America, he was probably one of the last, if not the last paid bird collector,” Maley says.

As Lamb and other collectors faded out, a new generation of birders was coming of age. Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Birds published in 1934 made it easier than ever to step outside and begin identifying species. One of these budding birders, born in 1921, was Dale Twining, who started birdwatching as a Boy Scout. Twining earned his Bird Study Merit Badge with determination, launching a lifelong dedication to bird listing and involvement in his local Pennsylvania bird clubs. 

Twining's granddaughter Stephanie Clymer is a third-generation birder. She and her mother grew up birding alongside Twining and learned from his decades of experience. As he got older, Twining often told stories about the changes in the birds he’d noticed through the years—a sign for his family that his observations were important. “He had friends with long-term records which had been thrown out,” Clymer says. When he died in 2014, Twining left behind 10 notebooks packed with checklists spanning 75 years. To save that lifetime of observations, Clymer and her mother created the Dale Twining Birding Records Project, which entered Twining’s lists into eBird.

The Wyncote Audubon Society, where Twining was a member for more than 50 years, helped organize the project. A team of about 40 volunteers created photocopies of Twining’s notebooks, online spreadsheets, and a training manual. It took the group more than four years to enter in the 13,000 lists, and then came the rigorous eBird review process, where a slew of regional bird experts take a closer look at rare or unusual bird sightings to make sure they're sound.  

“Reviewers were flagging things because it would be unusual today,” Clymer says. “We were having problems where birds that were seen in the 1930s would not be seen there today. We’d have to go back and argue it, saying, ‘well, this was in the 30s,’ and explain the project and who this birder was.” Many of Twining’s lists came before WWII, when widespread use of pesticides and suburban sprawl started to boom. They captured a landscape where Eastern Meadowlarks and Northern Bobwhites still commonly roam the Philadelphia suburbs.

“I would love to see more historical records being put into eBird, but I know firsthand how much work it is,” Clymer says. Along with the time and labor, she also cites the learning curve that comes with new technology—not to mention the sadness that can come from wading through a lost loved one’s journals. Still, she says people with access to such important historical data should reach out to nature centers, bird clubs, and local classrooms for help if they are interested in digitizing them but feeling intimidated by the process.

As for Clymer, a high school biology teacher, she’s fostering a new generation of birders and conservationists by regularly taking her students birding. And if another data project comes her way, she says she might make deciphering and entering old checklists a class project. After all, as Lamb, Twining, and other early birders are reminding us, there is much we can learn by diving into the past.