SFBBO is very excited about the recent launch of our online database. To highlight the importance of this step, let’s take a behind-the-scenes tour of what happens with your data.
The goal of the Colonial Waterbird Program is to engage our community in monitoring colonial waterbird populations. While fostering environmental stewardship through outreach events, we set high standards for our science so that the data we collect together is of maximum use for waterbird conservation. To ensure that data are accurate and reliable, our data go through a standard 4-step process. These steps comprise: (1) data collection, (2) data entry, (3) data proofing, and (4) data analysis.
Data collection is what you do as a citizen scientist when you visit your colony. You collect information, such as location and habitat characteristics of your site. You also write down the number of adults, chicks, nests, etc. that you see at your site. The map of your colony also provides important information called metadata. At the end of data collection, you have printed datasheets with written information and numbers.
Data entry is when the data are entered from the datasheets into a database. The database is an electronic warehouse of data from every date and site. Databases have standardized formats that minimize mistakes in data entry, and the CitSci database closely mirrors the database at SFBBO. Still, these mistakes sometimes happen. To catch these mistakes, we go through a process called data proofing.
Data proofing is when the database version of the data is cross-checked with the original version. During this process, we make sure that the electronic data match the data on the hard copy of the datasheet and that required fields are entered correctly. This step is standard practice for any lab, field station, or citizen science project. The data proofing step ensures that data are reliable and can be used for data analysis.
Data analysis is when we take the data from the electronic database and do something important with it! We often make graphs to look at trends in colony size over time, create the annual report, and create small reports for community members that need information about a particular colony. Data analysis allows SFBBO to put the data you collect into the bigger picture of colonial waterbird health in the bay.
Now that you know what happens with the data you collect, let’s consider the role of the online database. In past years, the primary role of SFBBO volunteers was data collection. Only a few dedicated volunteers were able to participate in data entry because this role required using a limited number of computers at the SFBBO office in Milpitas. The new online database makes it possible for citizen scientists to enter data from any computer with internet access. This is very exciting for the program. The online database benefits the Colonial Waterbird Program by: (1) allowing citizen scientists to be involved in more aspects of the program and to develop more types of scientific skills, (2) allowing data entry to occur from any location, thus cutting down on travel time, (3) allowing program participants to immediately view the data and to make graphs of nest numbers and other trends, and (4) allowing staff more hours for data analysis, which ultimately increases the conservation impact of the data you collect.
Thank you for your important contributions during each step of the data process, from going into the field, providing hard copies of your data, and entering your data. We look forward to making the program as efficient and accessible as possible, so please continue to share your feedback.
Thank you and happy bird watching!
Keeping track of heron, egret, and cormorant nests can get complicated! Here are some guidelines to help you with your nest numbering system.
Please note that this post applies to those who are using the HEP datasheet, or tracking herons, egrets, and cormorants.
Why is it important to number your focal nests?
Tracking nest stages can help biologists calculate the duration of bird development and determine whether the timing of reproduction is shifting due to climate change or other disturbances. Data on these nests can also be used to infer the reproductive success of the colony. To address many of these objectives, we need to track the nest stages of individual nests through time. These unique nests are called focal nests in the Colonial Waterbird Program. A focal nest is a nest that is followed all the way from nest construction to the end of the season, no matter whether the result is stage 4 chicks or nest abandonment. Tracking focal nests can be tricky because nests can be very numerous or packed close together. To help with these challenges, SFBBO requests that you track up to 15 focal nests and make a map of your nests. On this map, you should label your nests with numbers. These numbers are essential because they allow biologists to match data for a single nest across survey dates. This leads to an important point: the number labels of your focal nests should not change throughout the season. So, if a Snowy Egret named Barbara makes a nest and you label her nest #1 in March, then Barbara’s nest should also carry label #1 when you record her two eggs in April.
What about numbering non-focal nests?
As stated above, tracking individual nests provides a lot of information, so you should assign focal nests if possible. Colonies can be busy and messy, however, so you may not be able to keep track of focal nests. Also, you may notice some nests midway through the season. If you notice a nest for the first time when it is in later stages (2+), then you should not consider it a focal nest. When you can’t keep track of a nest across your survey dates for the duration of their development, the nest you observe is considered a non-focal nest and you won’t be able to keep the same number for an individual nest over time. In this case, you can’t recognize Barbara, so her nest may be #1 in March but #3 in April. This is fine, as long as you indicate that nest #1 in March and nest #3 in April are both non-focal nests.
What if I have both focal and non-focal nests?
Remember that the number for focal nests must remain the same across survey dates, but the number of non-focal nests does not have to be the same. So, just be sure to keep the numbers for focal nests consistent across their development. It can help to use lower numbers for focal nests (e.g. 1-10) and higher numbers for non-focal nests that you notice later in the season.
What if my focal nest becomes inactive?
Please keep the numbers of focal nests consistent, even if they become inactive. This means that Barbara’s nest data may look like Table 1 below.
Table 1. Sample data for a focal nest that became inactive partway through the season. Note that there is no nest stage for an inactive nest, so nest stage is not applicable and no number should be entered.
If a nest becomes inactive before the chicks have fledged, it is helpful to add a note about your observations of the nest. For example, you may write "nest was abandoned" or "tree limb fell down, so nest site was lost" in the notes section. Once you have recorded a focal nest as inactive, it is no longer necessary to track the nest through the rest of the breeding season. For example, if you record nest #1 as inactive in May, you do not have to record anything for nest #1 in June and July.
If your focal nest becomes inactive when there are still nests in early stages, you may decide to start tracking another focal nest. If you add a new focal nest, please do not reuse focal nest numbers. If you start tracking Henry’s nest after Barbara’s nest becomes inactive, Henry’s nest should have a new number that is unique to his nest (e.g. #16), not #1.
What if I lose track of my focal nest(s)?
I'm sure many of you will be familiar with this scenario: You have tracked Barbara's nest for two months, and you are excited to see her build her nest and lay eggs. You return the next month and, Yikes!, 50 more birds have arrived, built nests, and are making all kinds of noise. Now you're not so sure what happened to Barbara. Is she that one over there? Or the one next door?? You're no longer sure, so what should you do? First, breathe, enjoy the sounds and smell (oooh, the smell) of the breeding season. Then, realize that what you think is Barbara may actually be Bob. So, instead of taking a guess, just create a new number for the nest you are not sure about and make it a non-focal nest. Also, add a note in the comments section stating that you lost track of focal nest #1, so are instead going to include data for non-focal nest #17. You should be confident when identifying your focal nests. This can be difficult at a very active colony, but you can still help us to track nest success of non-focal nests.
How do I number a nest when I suspect there is a second nesting attempt?
This is a tricky question because it is not always clear whether the second nesting attempt is by the same breeding pair or a new breeding pair (unless the second attempt is by another species). Sometimes research animals are individually identified with bands or wing tags, making it easy to identify Barbara, but most of the birds you’ll encounter at your site will not be easy to identify. This raises the question, does the “nest number” apply to the nest location (the house) or to the breeding bird (Barbara)? We would argue that the “nest number” is actually a way to track breeding attempts, and therefore should follow the breeding pair. So, if a second brood is started in a focal nest location, please create a new nest number and add a note in the comments section indicating the nest number for the first breeding attempt. If you are absolutely sure that you recognize Barbara from her first breeding attempt, then you can add this to the comments section too :-)
How do I number nests for multiple species?
As stated above, focal nest numbers are used to track the reproduction of a particular pair of birds. Please use a new nest number for each nest, even if nest #1 is a Great Blue Heron (GBHE) nest, and nest #2 is a Double-crested Cormorant (DCCO) nest. SFBBO’s HEP datasheet currently has nest numbers 1-25 automatically filled in. If it is easier, you can choose to have nests #1-10 be GBHE and nests #11-15 be DCCO. The key is to keep focal nest numbers consistent across survey dates. So, #10 will always be Jerome the GBHE’s nest, and #11 will always be Dixon the DCCO’s nest. If you add a non-focal GBHE nest midway during the season, you would not assign it as nest #11. #11 is Dixon’s number, and he would be hurt if you took it away from him. Instead, assign the GBHE non-focal nest #16, or some other number that is not already taken by a focal nest.
What if a heron takes over an egret’s nest (and other shenanigans)??
For those of you who are interested in this nuance, you would apply the same rule as that for a second nesting attempt. Nest numbers go with breeding pairs. You should therefore assign a new nest number for a new breeding pair, even if the pair is breeding in the exact same location (house) as a former focal nest. So, if Hillary the heron takes over the nest of Jon the egret, Hillary gets her own nest number. Please add in the notes that Hillary’s nest (Heron #16) is in Jon’s former nest location (Egret #3).
As you can see, nest numbering gets complicated. Thank you for sticking with it, asking for clarification, numbering those nests, and tracking colonial waterbirds!
Answers by staff
Many of our diligent citizen scientists ask questions about goals, methods, and outcomes of the Colonial Waterbird Program. We feel that many of our answers would help clarify the program for others, so we post the most frequent or complex answers here.