As some of you may recall, I spent 2 years with the Peace Corps in Malawi, East Africa (1982-84). I did not do a very good job of writing down specific details related to my adventures. I was young and undisciplined and probably thought these magic moments would last forever. The only thing I kept any kind sequential record for were bird lists which I kept in two notebooks. Those notebooks, 30 years later, are in pretty sad shape.
So I turned to eBird. Yes, you read that right. I turned to eBird.
As some of you know, I have been critical of eBird in the past, particularly for its over-emphasis on competitive listing features and lack of tools which allow the average person to aggregate data at local scales. But eBird has an international database, and the eBird data entry interface is much less clunky than the two commercial international database programs I’ve tested for my computer. All the name change and list order stuff gets updated automatically by somebody else. And most importantly to me, the data is available to others, which for a country that sees very little constant effort data collection like Malawi, may actually be useful.
So, over the last few months, I have been entering bird banding records and day-lists from my two years in Malawi. I entered the last list yesterday evening: 114 list entries, 90 complete lists, 357 species, 2972 individual datapoints. This is about 10 short of my claimed Malawi life-list, but I only allowed myself records that have a date attached to them. I did not keep counts of individuals, so the records reflect species noted on any given day without species density data.
The process has also provided an opportunity for me to get back into the head of the 26-year-old me. I was still working out a style for data collection. I created short-hand names for common species and applied them with variable consistency. I clearly misidentified things early on and corrected them later. I began my time there with a single field guide, Birds of East Africa (Williams and Arlott 1981 reprint). I can tell, from the changes in entries, when I got my copy of Roberts Birds of South Africa (McLachlan and Liversidge revision 1981) and the checklist style Birds of Malawi (Benson and Benson c. 1977), because I start using different names and “stopped seeing” certain species…
There is also an inexplicable gap. Between January of 1983 and May 1983, I have no lists. Not in notebooks, nor on any of the other scraps of paper that survive in the Malawi box. During that period I know I took a trip (some of it by boat) to Northern Malawi. This would have been in late-March and early-April. I’m not sure why I have no material from that trip aside from a few photographs and a poem written on the boat.
I feel like a fifties movies on a slow boat, somewhere I feel like I’m Richard Carlson on a slow boat… somewhere Foreign sounds in my ears hanging in the musty warm air I feel like a fifties movie on a slow boat… somewhere
I contracted malaria and spent time in the hospital soon after returning, but that does not explain the entirety of a 5-month data gap. A mystery. Something to keep me busy for the next couple weeks solving.
Once the data was entered into eBird, I was able to extract the entire data-file as an excel spreadsheet (though the file was all my eBird data, not a Malawi specific file) which will allow me to analyze relative frequency of occurrence data and possibly rudimentary phenological patterns.
Finally, the data in those two tattered notebooks has a digital backup, available to whomever might want to look at it, cataloged in proper taxonomic order, using names that correspond to our current, common understanding of what’s what.
and I can sleep easier…