Thursday, 12 September 2013

eBird's hotspot explorer launched!

The eagerly (by some) anticipated public launch of eBird's latest data visualization tool happened today.  If you are at all interested in bird distribution or citizen science then you'll want to check it out!  Below you'll find a quick run-through of how I use the Hotspot Explorer. You should also read the excellent summary by Dick Cannings here.

To get to the Hotspot Explorer just go to eBird and then click the "explore data" tab and then click on the hotspot explorer link.

Once you get to the Hotspot Explorer you'll get a page that looks like this:

That's a grid showing species richness by colour (yellow = low, red = high). Remember, this is only as good as the data that goes into eBird, so it is far from complete, especially outside of North America. You can zoom in on particular areas, like North America or Ontario:

You can click on any one of the grid cells to bring up a species total - that's the total number of species reported to eBird for that grid cell. Zooming in further brings you to the hotspot view:

This view is also really cool because it shows you individual hotspots colour-coded for species richness.  So you can quickly find which spots you should check out!  You can also refine the date-range, so if you are interested in finding out which are the best spots in September you can do that, or maybe just for the past two months!

Clicking on an individual hotspot marker will bring up some quick info about that hotspot:

In the example above, the hotspot name is Hillman Marsh Conservation Area, it is found in Essex County (Ontario) and there are 291 species reported to eBird and 1057 checklists (not too bad!). There is also a link here to the Bar Chart, High Counts, and directions (a google map of the hotspot).  Pretty handy.

But the real fun starts by clicking the View Details button:

This gives you a complete list of species for that hotspot and details of the most recent record for each species.  You can sort this list taxonomically by clicking "species name" at the top of the list or you can sort by last record date by clicking the "last seen" at the top of the list.  You can bring up the complete eBird checklist by clicking the date of any record.  At any time we could change the output by date, too.  So if we wanted to see the details for this year only, or for the month of May only, it is only a matter of changing the date settings at the top of the screen.

In addition to the species list, there is more details on the right hand side of the screen:

This shows first the "Top eBirders", the top 10 eBird users based on species or checklists submitted (just click the button to toggle between the two).  This is where the real genius of eBird's deveolopers comes in...they know some birders just won't be able to resist this challenge of moving up "the rankings".  Have a look at your local hotspots - are you in the top 10? If not, this is the official firing of the starting gun!

Below the Top eBirders section is a list of recent visits - this is also very handy.  You can see who has been birding recently at this hotspot and how many species they saw - click the date and you'll be taken to the complete list of what they reported!

Anyways, I can attest that this is a really fun new tool, and highly addictive! Definitely give it a try (you don't have to be an eBird user) and see if you can move up the rankings on your local hotspot!
If you notice that a hotspot is missing, that means you should suggest it! Here's how to suggest a location as a hotspot:
1. If the location is already in your account, you just have to sign in to eBird, click "My eBird" then "Manage my locations" - find the location name in your list of locations and check the checkbox beside the location name.  Then, at the top of the screen there is a little dropdown menu - click that and select "suggest as hotspots", finally, click the "submit" button beside the dropdown and you are done.
2. If the location is not already in your account, you just have to sign in to eBird and go to submit a checklist. When choosing your location for the checklist use the "find it on a map" option and plot the new location on the map.  Give it a name and then check the "Suggest as a birding hotspot" checkbox before clicking the "Continue" button.  That's it - you can just stop entering your checklist now because the location has been created and submitted as a hotspot suggestion.

In both of those scenarios the hotspot has been submitted to the hotspot reviewer team.  It could take a couple days for them to approve it or they may contact you for more information.  This is how we avoid having things like people's yards made into hotspots (unless they really are!).


  1. This is a great new feature - thanks to all involved in its development. However, one thing that is quickly apparent is that some hotspots are "fragmented" (i.e. there might be one "overall" site, but multiple users have submitted observations for subsets of that area, although boundaries are not defined). A good example is Mud Lake / Britannia Conservation Area in Ottawa, with four separate spots marked even though I suspect a lot of birders check out two or more on a given visit and record them as a single checklist (or maybe that's just me!).

    Anyway, the upshot of this is that each of the smaller lists contains some subset of the whole, and it's difficult to get an overview of what has truly been observed in the area. I realize that when users create their own locations, those can be variable - but is there any way to work toward merging sites identified as hotspots, especially when there's no clear distinction among them (e.g. I think in this case, some Ottawa birders think of the site as Mud Lake, others as Britannia Woods, and others yet as Britannia Conservation Area - and I think in at least some cases it's that default mental association that probably drives where the observations get filed, rather than actually differentiating among those locations).

    Perhaps it's quite a technical challenge to figure out how to lump sites like that without losing any valuable information - and maybe there's a way to get the best of both worlds. If possible though, it would certainly boost the strength of this new tool even further.

  2. Hi Marcel,

    I certainly can't speak on eBird's behalf but I can let you in on some of the "gossip" I've heard regarding hotspots. You've raised two separate issues here.

    First, if you notice any hotspot names that should be adjusted or hotspots in general that should be re-mapped etc, etc. Definitely shoot me an email ( if it is an Ontario issue. For other places in Canada get in touch with Dick Cannings (, who is Bird Studies Canada's eBird coordinator. The hotspot editors in each area can do all of the same actions to a hotspot that you can do to a "personal" location in your eBird account, plus they can "demote" a hotspot back to a personal location. The hotspot explorer tool also makes it much easier to manage hotspots than it has been in the past so I expect we are going to see a lot of similar issues come out in the next couple of weeks/months.

    Second, eBird definitely knows the way locations work right now (all as independent points) needs to change. There is just no quick, simple fix. My guess is that eventually we will see locations appear as polygons rather than points AND that we will see locations be able to be "nested" within each other. We currently use naming convention to identify nested sites. For example, at a site like Britannia Conservation area there is the general location:
    Ottawa--Britannia Conservation Area
    and then several "nested" or "sub-locations":
    Ottawa--Britannia Conservation Area (Mud Lake)
    Ottawa--Britannia Conservation Area (Filtration Plant/Point)
    Ottawa--Britannia Conservation Area (Britannia Ridge)
    Ottawa--Britannia Conservation Area (Woods)

    I think we likely need to do a better job at making sure people understand what is meant by each location.

    As you point out it is important to have the general location as that is what is most likely to be used by most people, but there will inevitably be keeners out there willing to split up their checklist at a finer scale.

    The real shame is that the hotspot explorer doesn't YET allow you to see the stats for all 5 of those locations (general + 4 nested) combined...but you can create bar charts for them:

    Anyways, thanks for the great comment and I certainly agree that there are changes that would make the tool more effective...that's the great thing about eBird - they're always giving us more tools to play/explore with, but it just keeps us wanting more!