In February 2020 I conducted a survey of subscribers of my South Bay Birds (SBB) list to get a sense of how happy or unhappy they were and where we might make improvements. I also took the opportunity to ask a few questions about them to learn a bit about the group to better understand their interests beyond SBB.

We got 71 responses, almost 6% of the subscribers — I waited until 24 hours passed without another response, and then closed the survey and wrote up this summary.

this is a good, representative sample so I’m comfortable these numbers are fairly good indicators of the entire list. Thank you all who responded.

This is of course the most important question in the survey, and asked for a number 1 to 5, with 1 being “It’s Awesome” and 5 being “It’s Terrible”. Almost 2/3 of you think it’s awesome (blush) and over 90% answered 1 or 2, so it seems things are in good shape. This tells me we don’t need to make significant changes and any changes we consider need to be thought through carefully.

SBB is full of long-time members — a third of you have been here over a decade, and almost half of you at least five years. That’s really positive, since it indicates we’ve been doing a good enough job for you to stick around for a long time.

That said, half the list has been a member under 5 years, and one in five of you have joined in the last year. This is one of the challenges of the list; people who know each other well tend to start speaking in shorthand that they all understand — but without intending it this can exclude these new members, because they don’t have that long-developed knowledge. That’s why I wrote that recent What makes a good bird report? note; things that are obvious to us “senior members” of the list aren’t for that large group of newcomers, and we want to be encouraging and welcoming to them, not exclusionary by accident. That’s why I wanted to remind people to not assume that the people on the list reading your report know everything you do.

This is a mature group in many ways; many of us have been on the list for many years, but we also tend to be an older group as well. Half of us are over age 65 and 3/4 of us are 50 or older. Those kind of numbers are not atypical of birding overall, and this does worry me, since we aren’t seeing as much interest in the activity or the list as I’d want. Only about 10% of the list is under the age of 35, which is higher than I thought it would be, but I’d be a lot happier if that number was 20%.

One of the ongoing challenges we face is bringing the next generation of birders into the activity, and it’s an interesting and difficult challenge. I might suggest to all of us to look for opportunities to innoculate birding into the younger people you know (and for this group, I’ll define that as 35 or younger), and help them learn the fun of being a birder — and then introduce them to this list. Maybe start with your grandchildren?

eBird is a bit of a controversial thing here to some readers. I know this because every time I talk about using it here, I hear from you. But the reality is, 3/4 of you have adopted and use eBird, and while I didn’t specifically ask how long, my guess is if I’d asked that question five years ago the number would be half that at best.

But most of you use eBird, and so working with eBird and sharing data with both eBird and this list, and using eBird features to make sharing content on this list better, all seem to be good strategies.

eBird is not perfect (what is?) but as I said to someone in e-mail this week, using eBird here on SBB and teaching people how to use it more effectively all seem like opportunities to improve how we share data here.

What do you find most useful about SBB?

  • Where can I find interesting species, both rare and not. Where are the interesting places to bird that I might not know about. (many, many of you offered variations of this sentiment)
  • learning who is out there birding
  • learning about new birding locations
  • more up-to-date than ebird alerts
  • sense of community
  • People instantly post when they find rare birds which allows you to see rare bird reports typically quicker than eBird, and often people give more details for finding species on listservs compared to eBird
  • fast reports of rare birds, don’t have to go through tedious lists on ebird
  • I thoroughly enjoy the discussions sussing out bird IDs

If you could change one thing about SBB, what would it be?

  • Nothing (a number of you made comments similar to this)
  • A wider range of contributors! Different and diverse birders.
  • I wish more people reported rare birds here
  • Cranky posts. And would like SBB to support CBC recruiting.
  • Better subject titles that include the location and key bird species being discussed
  • better or more complete directions – often good, but often not
  • having a Facebook group that gives the same info in the emails, but allows for questions and general discussion. As a novice, I often have a lot of questions
  • Encourage more precise descriptions of where and when birds are found
  • Still too many posts about typical species seen at locations.
  • Fewer emails.
  • Allow posts relating to birds not just reporting rare birds
  • Have a link to a map on every post, but I don’t think that’s realistic. (chuq: it’s not, but I’ll continue to encourage people to)
  • Not about SBB per se, but about the increasing trend of reporting only to eBird. eBird (with its vaguely-defined hotspots) is not naturally well-suited for rarities, unless the observer is very careful to delineate the precise location. It also loses anyu anecdotal flavor, and any corrections/discussions arfe completely behind the scenes.
  • People who once did SBB reports now use ebird almost exclusively
  • Greater specificity of location (as long as not harmful) – eBird normally will have the rarity just not as timely.
  • I want more people to go out gulling and report.
  • More sightings in the Morgan Hill Gilroy area
  • No more out of county posts.
  • No more posts like “here’s a picture of me” or common birds like “three robins in my yard today”. Since we use this as a rare bird alert, we want these coming to an inbox that alerts us. Those other posts end up being spam.
  • use breeding codes instead of typing out complete bird names
  • Don’t let people use the four letter acronyms. Eg. PINH

I want to discuss a bit some of the things brought up here.

Breeding codes/Four letter Acronyms: Note that we got complaints that the list should both use and ban these four letter acroynms. I have never officially offered an opinion on these one way or the other, but let me do so now.

First, what am I talking about? There is a set of four letter acronyms that have been developed to uniquely identify each species in a very compact form. For instance, CAGO is the acronym for Canada Goose. These acronyms were primarily developed for use in bird banding. If you want all of the gory details, the Spokane Audubon chapter has a really good page on the acroynms and their history.

The four letter acronyms are one of those things that senior birders are comfortable with, and which are almost completely opaque and indecipherable to new birders. I know when I was a new birder and new to SBB, it was one of the most frustrating things for me to try to figure out, because they were in common use and there was no documentation on what the stupid things were to refer to. That is why I, personally, have never and will never use them in my writing about birds and bird reports — they are one of the ways senior birders make new birders feel unwelcome here without intending to do so at all. These days, the acronyms are infrequently used on this list, but I will note that over the years, these acronyms and poor/shorthand location descriptions are the two most frequent questions/complaints I’ve gotten as list admin by a wide margin.

This is why, while I don’t officially discourage their use (it’s your report, do what you feel is best from your view as the reporting birder) I’m happy their use has declined, and why I wanted to point out that their use was one of the complaints I got from people who left the list because they were never made to feel welcome; part of that was that those of us who have been on the list for a long time tend to speak in shorthand that we understand — but those new birders don’t. I can think of a number of them who reached out to me on the way out to explain why they were leaving, and this was part of the problem. It’s why I’ve tried over the years to encourage more complete and less jargon ridden reporting here over time.

No more out of county posts: As someone who posted one of these over the weekend, I’ll note the only reason I did was it was directly tied to an SCVAS event I’m leading this upcoming weekend. As someone who used to do this too often, I try to be really careful about it now, and I watch for it on the list in general. I would say that 90% of the non-county postings in the last few months were honest mistakes. When it happens I often reach out privately to chat with the poster about it.

More sightings in the Morgan Hill Gilroy area: I agree completely; that said, from what I can tell most list members (and SCVAS members) live in the northern part of the county so it’s a much more widely birded area. This has been a topic of discussion within SCVAS for a while, and if you look at the events and trips, you’ll see more in places like Calero, Jeffrey Sanborn Park and Coyote Valley, as we try to make sure we do more south county outings and help people learn how to bird that part of the county.

That said, there’s more work to do here, and with the often hellacious traffic issues county wide (and especially, say, 101 South of Bailey after 2PM, or 85 South afternoon and evenings) it can be hard for people in one part of the county to get to the other. I’m open to suggestions on how to improve this, but there are rough logistical problems to solve, as anyone who deals with those commutes will rant at you about over coffee…

Rare birds vs Common birds: If you look at the comments, you’ll see some complaints about postings about “common birds” and one noted that this is a rare bird list and those other postings should be considered spam. I will note that the word “rare” is never used in the list guidelines, by design. While I sympathize with those that would like more focus on just the chaseable rarities, that’s not what this list is about. It’s about county-wide reports in general.

I’ve actually spent time trying to see if I could come up with a way to solve this problem in the past, and to be honest, without someone (or someones) acting as a curation/editing team reviewing each post and deciding which ones should be re-sent to the SBB-RARE list, it can’t be done with any level of quality. That’s way more work to ask of people (I sure won’t be that editor), especially since for rare birds there’s a need for timeliness and that’s a lot to ask of volunteer moderators. I wish we could find a way to do this, but it’s not practical.

But to make it clear, this is not a list for rare bird sightings only. It’s a general sighting list for the county. It never has been intended for those rarities only, even though it’s clear some users believe it is (or should be).

having a Facebook group that gives the same info in the emails, but allows for questions and general discussion. As a novice, I often have a lot of questions

We do have a Facebook page, managed by Brooke Miller. It is intended for that general chatter and questions that we discourage here on this list to keep it with a tight focus on the sightings. We do not post all of SBB to that group, partly because there’s no easy way to do it other than manual work by someone (meaning: me), and partly because when you start pushing content into two places, you invariably end up with two conversations that don’t know about each other, and that’s bad. So the goal when setting these things up is to set up each piece with a clear charter with minimal overlap, so people know where to find specific kinds of content. Putting it everywhere seems like a good idea, but it creates many more problems than it solves.

Santa Clara Valley Audubon

I asked a few things about Santa Clara Valley Audubon. I did this for a few reasons, one being that I work with SCVAS as a volunteer in various ways (including chairing the outreach committee) and we are curious about our membership and how to improve as an organization. We also have planning going on for me to officially hand over ownership of SBB to SCVAS sometime this year as I slowly step aside towards retiring from running the list — and I was worried if the percentage of list users who were also SCVAS members was low that this might be a bad decision.

As it turns out, the crossover between SBB and SCVAS is quite high, higher than I expected (thank you!) so I’m comfortable moving forward with the idea of SCVAS taking on ownership of the list down the road.

I’ll lump these two questions together since they’re related. 2/3 of you are members of Santa Clara Valley Audubon (thank you for your support), and that tracks very closely to how many of you own a copy of the Birding at the Bottom of the Bay (BABOB) book, which is published by SCVAS and you get a free copy as a member.

For that 10% of you that don’t know what it is, BABOB is a book that describes the various birding locations in the county, and it’s traditionally been a primary reference for learning how to bird here. The challenge is it was last updated in 1990 (30 years ago) and some of the information is outdates and some newer birding spots — like Coyote Valley OSP — are missing completely.

It desperately needs a new edition, and conversations about that have been going on for at least five years but we haven’t figured out how to make it happen yet, because it’s a lot of work.

A reason I asked this was that after I published the eBird piece I mentioned above, one member suggested we should use BABOB references instead of eBird. But as this question shows, if we did that, we’d immediately exclude a third of our list subscribers from being able to take advantage of the info. I also think the lack of any online version of BABOB is a problem in today’s world, and, of course, the data is 30 years stale, incomplete in some ways and no longer accurate in others. So while I still think it’s a fine reference, it’s got gaps and problems we need to figure out how to solve.

If we had an updated BABOB (which when we do figure out how to do that will at least have an online version, if not be 100% online), I’d be a lot more comfortable using it as our primary reference over eBird. But despite a lot of talk and planning, I haven’t been able to figure out how to make the project work. Matthew Dodder and I have talked about this in the last few months and continue to mull over options, but mostly it’s the challenge that we know what we want to do, but we don’t have the hours available to get it done in less than glacial time.

One of these days we’ll figure it out.

If you are a member, what do you get from your membership?

  • Feel I’m helping bird populations in the area
  • The Avocet (also many references to the newsletter)
  • Good articles
  • field trips, classes (many variations of this answer)
  • psychic gratification
  • Knowing I’m supporting a good cause
  • Knowing I’m contributing to the local bird community
  • Satisfaction in supporting some great conservation efforts
  • knowing I support bird preservation
  • Great group to hang with, and happy to support its mission
  • Going birding with people who help me learn how to id birds.

If you are not a member, why not? What might make you consider joining?

  • Member of Audubon but haven’t gotten anything about Santa Clara
  • I’m not aware of the organization
  • I live in San Mateo co, SCVA is slightly inferior to SAS.
  • belong to Mt. Diablo Audubon Society
  • I’m a member of Sequoia Audubon. I might join though b/c I’m in Matthew’s class
  • I don’t live in the area
  • I’m concerned that donation money is used for outreach for money
  • At this point, paying for a membership doesn’t seem like it would benefit me
  • More time! Maybe when I retire.
  • I’m in an unusual position because I would like to go on more field trips but am not available in the morning. I’d join if there were more afternoon or evening events I could take advantage of… also, have you ever considered starting a mentoring program?
  • I am a member of a lot of places, and its just a lot to keep up with. I would consider it if I was sold by someone passionate and logical
  • Right now, I have to be satisfied with the National Audobon. I’m not in the financial condition I’d like to be in

What Other Organizations are you a member of?

I basically screwed up on this question because the list was so incomplete. I expect many of those listed below are under-reported because of that, but it’s a good indication of the other organizations that list members are interested in. I’m somewhat surprised Nature Conservancy ranked so high, but maybe I shouldn’t be. There’s also a strong interest in native plants here.

One thing I find curious (and I’m guilty of this as well) is that in general while we tend to cross over into San Mateo county for birding a lot, the same isn’t true for Alameda County which is just as close. No idea why, other than, perhaps, traffic. But I’ve been thinking I need to change that in my own birding habits, and so I thought I’d mention it here since I see this as a general trend in the list members.

  • Peninsula Open Space Trust (23)
  • Nature Conservancy (21)
  • Sierra Club (14)
  • Sequoia Audubon (10)
  • California Native Plant Society (10)
  • Midpen Open Space District (8)
  • Santa Cruz Bird Club (4)
  • American Birding Association (3)
  • SFBBO (3)
  • Ohlone Audubon (2)
  • International Bird Rescue (2)
  • National Audubon (2)
  • Mono Lake Committee (2)
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology (3)

Other groups mentioned: American Bird Conservancy, AOS, California Young Birders Club, CSERT, Green Foothills,Greenbelt Alliance, Institute of Wildlife Studies, MALT, Mt. Diablo Audubon, NRDC, Point Blue, Save the Redwoods, Sempervirens, SUWA, The Wildlife Society.

Final question: tell me whatever you think I need to hear from you

  • thanks for doing this (many variations of this. Thank you!)
  • I like…. posts where the joy of birding comes through, the excitement at seeing a bird or a behaviour. I like getting to know area birders through their posts, feeling that I sort of know them. I appreciate the detailed info on how to find a bird, what time to look for it—getting better description than I get from eBird. I like learning about new places to go find good birds. I don’t like rants about eBird, or SCVAS trip registration. I like to hear birder personalities and their enjoyment of birding.
  • Are there similar E-mail lists for neighboring counties? If so, how do I find out about them? Thanks for all your work on this!
  • I’m hoping to be able to do more birding after I retire- can really only bird on lunchtime walks now. About 4 years away.
  • I think San Mateo county should annex both Shoreline lake and Alviso in order to build SM birder’s lists. Both places are too good. SC co should also try to import rare birds into SM co once they’ve had enough, because sharing is caring, and its been many years since SM’s had a Little Stint or Plumbeous Vireo, additionally, the Geng rd Ruff spent waaaay too much Time in SC when it easily could flown like 30ft and been in SM.
  • I like the birding spot map. Keep going on that.
  • I am not a subscriber to SBB but I scan the digest on Sialia every day reading SBB and all other California bird lists. Just writing this note to remind you that folks outside of the group read/follow your list. To be frank, although I am a California resident and keep tabs specifically on California birds I do scan the posts from the rest of the US groups on Sialia, so folks from out of state/out of area likely benefit from SBB as well. Thanks for maintaining SBB!
  • Hoping to see a new edition of Birding at the Bottom of the Bay! What a great resource.
  • Tell SCVAS to do more gull workshops
  • I have been an active member of SCVAS for many years. But you most likely haven’t heard much from me for the past few years, as I have pulled back from participating as much as I used to and I’m slowing down now mainly because of age (I’m over 80). I lost most of my hearing over 10 years ago, so I no longer lead field trips – also I now have arthritis and don’t drive at night or distances. However, one activity where I’m still quite active is the 5MR concept – I love this project and find it’s a really good thing for us older birders and others to try out. Last year (2019) I ended up with 174 species for the year which really surprised me. I don’t try to chase everyone else’s “hot” bird but stay pretty much within my radius. If you see anything posted by me in eBird, it’s from my 5MR circle.
  • I have been a birder since 1992 and a member of ABA since 1996 and am among many of the long time SCVAS members. Joined SBB (Les Chibana?) when invited between the 1992 and 1996 dates, reported, maybe, only one time, and faithfully read the reports. Have only praise for ebird too. When my birding partner died in 2011 I stopped regular birding activities but continue watching the birds in my yard and neighborhood, in fact everywhere I go! Last year I went on one SCVAS (Vasona) day trip–planned to go on more, but am a lazy birder, don’t like the cold, or the early starts. 2016 thanks to SSB, I chased and found the Little Stint (lifer) in Alviso. We have many great birders here and look forward to their comments, like reading most of the reports but every now and then I would like to ask a question, that may be considered silly, like where did the hundreds of crows (stopped counting when i got past 500) that used to fly over my West San Jose house gone? We still have at least two stationed around each day but I don’t see the big flyovers anymore. Caught a glimpse recently but the numbers were much smaller. I know questions are discouraged-although you let, I guess, through respect, certain people speak their mind.
  • I have been a “member” of SBB since it was a 7-person private email list in 1993 (I was number 7), and it has always been a great resource. Thus my primary message has to be “Do not disturb”. That doesn’t mean that nothing should change, but I’d say needs to be around the edges, and without affecting the current utility.

I want to thank everyone who took the time to respond for their feedback. I hope I’ve clarified some things in this summary, and if you have more feedback or questions, I’m always available at chuqui@mac.com. This has helped me a lot in understanding what needs to be changed/fixed (very little) and how to move forward as we plan this year to shift to new moderators and a tighter relationship with SCVAS.