GTAbirds: Proposal for a Free and Open Cellphone-Based Bird Alert System for the Greater Toronto Area

Since June 2010 I have been posting bird observations in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) on Twitter from my cell phone (see image above). For some more examples see Twitter Search or Google Search Updates.

This post is an invitation to other birders in Toronto to join me in this activity and a proposal for some guidelines that can be used in these Twitter based reports. I’d be very interested in feedback from birders interested in participating so that we can agree on some common grounds for sharing observations.

First, let me say that I think it would be really useful if active birders in the GTA posted highlight sightings while birding, as opposed to only reporting after the fact, generally in the evening after coming home from an excursion, since having access to “real-time” reports would improve the chances for everyone to see the birds reported.

Now, to be clear, I’m imagining a Twitter report network here in the GTA as a complement to the existing bird report systems, i.e.the Toronto and Southern Ontario Birding Message Board, ONTBIRDS and eBird, not as a replacement.

While Twitter has some neat advantages it also has limitations. A Twitter message can only contain 140 characters, so reports must be brief. Twitter therefore lends itself best to summary reports, for example the highlights of your birding day, or few but unusual observations. A full report should probably also be filed to the appropriate forum or mailing list.

Many birders already receive ONTBIRDS emails to their smart phones (e.g. iPhone, Android, or Blackberry) in real-time. However, ONTBIRDS has restrictions for what can be reported and it has subscribers from all over Ontario. What I am proposing is a report network that focuses on the GTA, just as the Toronto and Southern Ontario Birding Message Board does. So it would have a more local flavour, which could include reports of birds that are perhaps not rare in a provincial perspective but certainly are interesting to us local birders.

Also, many birders don’t have smart phones, so reading and posting on ONTBIRDS while out in the field is not a possibility for everyone. Twitter messages on the other hand can be sent from a standard cell phone that is able to send and receive text (SMS) messages (this is a very basic functionality available on most cell phones).

For those who are not familiar with Twitter I suggest to have a look at this introduction. A thorough description is available on Wikipedia.

The design of the GTA based Twitter network I have envisioned is quite simple. As most birders probably don’t care to receive messages about any non-bird related messages that other participants may tweet, we want to avoid having all participants “following” each other.

Instead the report system should use hashtags. Hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets. They’re like tags on Flickr or on a Blog, only added inline to your Twitter message. You create a hashtag simply by prefixing a word with a hash symbol: #hashtag.

I have “tagged” all my bird observation tweets with the hashtag #GTAbirds. All you need to do to participate is to tag your tweeted bird reports with the #GTAbirds tag. This will make it available to anyone who chooses to follow (or search for) that particular tag.

As you can see this system is very simple, requires no administration, is free (except for standard cell phone fees), is easy to get started with, or stop using. In fact anyone who feels like it can join today, simply by posting reports tagged #GTAbirds.

The following are some formatting guidelines that I was trying to follow when I tweeted my first reports.

  • Length: Must be 140 characters or less.
  • Syntax: Broadly this should include the “What”, “Where” and “When” we are used to. A good starting point could be to use the following syntax:
    • “Bird species 1 (n1), Bird species 2 (n2), …, Bird species k (nk), Location (County), Time.”
    • One or several species, or groups (eg. “Shorebirds”) can be specified.
    • n1, n2, …, nk, are numbers specifying the number of individuals seen.
    • Location could be broadly defined (e.g. Leslie Street spit) or detailed (e.g. 50 m west of the banding station on Peninsula X, Leslie Street spit).
    • Time: Short and simple, e.g. 3.45pm.

Other types of messages could be useful at times, such as “Strong migration of raptors, High Park, …” or “Fallout, many warblers, Toronto Island,….”. One can also imagine providing additional information for a specific observation, such as “Forster’s Tern, migrating west, Light house, Leslie street Spit, …” so that birders further west of downtown Toronto could keep an eye out for the bird.

Suggestions and feedback on these ideas are welcome.

And please feel free to join me in reporting birds at #GTAbirds next time you are out birding in the GTA!


This proposal was originally posted on the Toronto and Southern Ontario Birding message board.

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One thought on “GTAbirds: Proposal for a Free and Open Cellphone-Based Bird Alert System for the Greater Toronto Area

  1. Pingback: GTAbirds: Proposal for a Free and Open Cellphone-Based Bird Alert System for the Greater Toronto Area « Andreas Jonsson's Weblog

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