Using Snapshot’s Bird Photos in New Ways

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

A male American woodcock stretches his wings skyward in a courtship display, a great-horned owl strikes an unknown target on the forest floor and a male northern cardinal duteously feeds his newly fledged young.

These are moments in the lives of birds captured by Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera photos. Until recently, however, many of these avian images were hidden within the Snapshot Wisconsin dataset, waiting to be uncovered by a team of bird enthusiasts. Unlike how they normally watch birds, from behind a pair of binoculars, this time they were behind a keyboard.

When Snapshot volunteers classify an image, they normally can choose from a list of around 40 wildlife species. Only five of these species are among Wisconsin’s 250 regular bird species: wild turkey, ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, sandhill crane, and the endangered whooping crane. These five species are options on the list because they either are of special management interest within the Wisconsin DNR or are easier to detect by Snapshot Wisconsin cameras.

The rest of the bird photos are classified into a catchall group, called “Other Bird.” Until recently, the “Other Bird” images were considered incidental images, but the increasing size of this category caught the attention of the Snapshot Wisconsin team. In fact, “Other Bird” is the second most common classification of the six bird categories, only second to Wild Turkey (Figure 1, Panel A), which comprises over a quarter of all bird photos.

The team reached out to the Wisconsin DNR’s Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation (NHC) to brainstorm ideas on how to leverage the “Other Bird” dataset, which had amassed 150,000 images at the time and was still growing.

Great horned owl on a log

Planting A Seed Of Collaboration

During their discussion with the NHC, the idea was brought up that these “Other Bird” images could contribute to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II (WBBA II). The WBBA II is an enormous, multi-year field survey to document breeding birds and their distribution across the state. Information like the frequency of breeding and which areas birds are breeding in help the DNR see changes in breeding status for many bird species. This information can also be compared to data from the previous survey (from 1995 to 2000) and sets a benchmark for future comparisons as well.

The current survey uses data collected from between 2015 and 2019. Coincidentally, the earliest Snapshot images are from 2015 as well, so the dates of the survey aligned quite well. This collaboration seemed like a good fit.

However, there are some important differences between data collected from birding in the field and from images captured by Snapshot trail cameras. For example, many birds spend much of their time in the canopy, outside the camera’s field of view. Additionally, birders often use sound cues to identify signs of breeding in the field. Trail camera images do not contain these types of breeding cues. Lastly, certain breeding behaviors can be too fleeting to observe from a set of three images.

The team wasn’t sure yet if the trail camera photos would truly contribute much to the WBBA II.

A western kingbird flying across a prairie

A Collaboration Was Born

Members of the Snapshot Wisconsin and NHC teams ran a test of the “Other Bird” photos. They reviewed a small, random subset of images and learned that many of the birds could be identified down to the species level. The teams also found enough evidence of breeding, such as sightings in a suitable habitat (for breeding) or the presence of recently fledged young. Both teams decided to go ahead with the collaboration and see what they could find.

The full dataset was sent to a special iteration of Zooniverse, called the Snapshot Wisconsin Bird Edition, and birders began classifying. All of the “Other Bird” images were classified down to the species level, as well as assigning a breeding code to each image. In just over a year, the large collection of bird photos was classified, thanks to some dedicated volunteers.

The NHC’s Breeding Bird Atlas Coordinator, Nicholas Anich, extracted these new records and added them to the WBBA II. The atlas utilizes a statewide survey block system that is based on a preexisting grid from the United States Geological Survey. The survey block system requires that certain blocks be thoroughly surveyed in order for the atlas to have adequate statewide coverage, and many of the new Snapshot data points contributed to these priority survey blocks. Anich said, “[The Snapshot data] will be valuable information for the WBBA II, and we even discovered a few big surprise species, [such as] Spruce Grouse, Western Kingbird, and Whooping Cranes.”

In addition to these rare species, many of the high-value classifications were what Anich described as breeding code “upgrades.” The observed species already had been recorded in a given block, but the photos showed stronger evidence of breeding than had previously been reported. For example, an adult of a given species may have already been spotted in the area during the breeding season, but a photo showed a courtship display. The courtship display is stronger proof of breeding in the area than a single adult sighting.

A spruce grouse in a field

How Useful Were the Snapshot Photos?

Both the (in-person) birding efforts and the trail camera photos picked up species that the other did not, so both approaches brought different strengths to the table.

One of the strengths of the trail cameras was that they are round-the-clock observers, able to pick up certain species that the in-person birding efforts missed. Anich said he noticed that nocturnal species (American Woodcock and Barred Owl) and galliforms (Wild Turkey, Ruffed Grouse) were more common in the Snapshot dataset than reported by the birders in the field, in certain areas at least. “Running into gamebirds was a bit the luck of the draw,” Anich said.

Both Anich and the Snapshot team agreed that the trail cameras were best used in conjunction with in-person surveys, rather than a substitute for each other because they each observed a different collection of species.

OtherBird_infographic

Insights Into The “Other Bird” Category

As a bonus for anyone who is interested in this project, the Snapshot team analyzed the photos classified for the WBBA II and created an infographic of the orders and families included. The photos included were captured between 2015 and 2019.

An immediate trend the team saw was that many of the birds were from species with larger body sizes, ground-dwelling species and species that spend time near or on the ground. For example, Anseriformes (ducks and geese) and Pelecaniformes (herons and pelicans) are the second and third most common order in the “Other Bird” category. The next most observed groups include woodpeckers, hawks, eagles, owls and shorebirds. While these birds may not spend all of their time near the ground, food sources for these species are often found in the stratum, an area where most trail cameras are oriented.

It was interesting that the most common order (comprising over half of the “Other Bird” classifications) was from the bird order Passeriformes (perching birds or songbirds). This order does not initially appear to fit the trend of ground-dwelling or larger-bodied birds. However, closer inspection revealed that the most common families in this order did fit the trend. For example, Turdidae (thrushes, especially American Robins), Corvidae (crows, ravens and jays) and Icteridae (blackbirds and grackles) comprised much higher percentage of the photos than any other families.

Thanks To Everyone Who Helped Classify Bird Photos On Zooniverse!

Overall, the Snapshot Wisconsin Bird Edition project was a huge success. In total, 154 distinct bird species were identified by nearly 200 volunteers, and over 194,000 classifications were made. The Snapshot Wisconsin and WBBA II teams extend a huge thank you to the Zooniverse volunteers who contributed their time and expertise to this project. The team was happy to see such strong support from the Wisconsin birding community, as well as from around the globe.

If you weren’t able to help with this special project, stay tuned for other unique opportunities to get involved as Snapshot continues to grow and use its data in new ways. If you contributed to the project, reach out to the Snapshot team and let them know what your favorite species to classify was.

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