How the website began – Part 1 (the checklist)

When I started taking birding seriously in 2010, information about birds whereabouts and what sort of wild birds there were in Singapore was hard to get. At first I relied on Wikipedia which list out all the birds that have been seen, and where they are likely to be found. Forums like Naturepixels and NPSS where bird pictures were shared were also sources of information about the latest birds found. Soon after, Facebook groups started sprouting up and I joined a few. That took the interest to another level with latest sighting discussed in closed group free from prying eyes. Whatsapp chat groups soon replaced SMS and one can instantly know what’s the latest news about any new birds.

Social media and technology have totally changed the way one approach birding in Singapore. While fieldcraft and technique matters to the serious birders, one can do birding quite well with just knowledge of which Facebook group or Whatsapp group chat to join.For the lists of birds found in Singapore, the choices was rather limited for the longest time. There is Wikipedia and there is Nature Society’s bird checklist. The latter being more authoritative yet the nomenclature used was strange. Both were available in format incompatible with how I kept track of my own burgeoning bird count. I had mine in a relational database with easy sorting of birds and all the benefit that comes with it. Wikipedia format made it difficult to transfer all the birds into the database easily, and the NSS one was in PDF which was also needlessly difficult. Nonetheless one day I managed to write a script to convert the NSS checklist into my database format.

With that came the ability to easily find out which birds I do not have, their relative abundance, and the start of my picture database. More importantly, I started to do a Singapore Big Year in 2012, and it was important to keep a separate Big Year list to help me track my progress in that competition. With the help of the database, the newly incorporated NSS checklist, and a list of possible location for each species, data analysis became much easier and more powerful than the pen and pencil approach that others were taking.

All was good, except Javan Myna was a White-vented Myna, and an Intermediate Egret was a Yellow-billed Egret in the NSS checklist and a whole other list of strange names, and keeping track of these difference took up my time. So one day I decided the best way forward was to stick to IOC nomenclature as they publish an updatable world bird list, and painstakingly go through every entry in NSS checklist and convert them into IOC names.

With that completed, I joined Singapore Big Year 2014. Armed with a revised Singapore checklist, I was constantly updating the database with my bird count that year and my guesstimate of my rival’s species count. A running species comparison between my 2012 effort and the 2014 also let me pace myself better since my work load had increased since 2012. I was also able to track everyone’s progress easily once I keyed in their data. That’s what a database is meant for; to query out useful information. So much so that by mid-November that year, I already knew I was 5 birds ahead of my nearest rival and that was enough to win the competition.

My Singapore checklist proved very useful to me, and so I published it in Excel format since 2013 for others to use. Since then, the checklist had been continually updated with new features and capabilities. It seemed to me the basic usage for a checklist have changed over time. For example, I have never physically printed out the checklist because I don’t do data entry by pen and pencil. Therefore a checklist in PDF format did not make sense to me. At least in Excel format, one can cut and paste the bird name to search for more information elsewhere. I thought wouldn’t it be good if we can do automatic links to those those websites for each species? With that realization, I started providing those links. The rationale for putting in names in other languages was very simple, there were requests for them and it made sense.

With all these information already incorporated into the database, it seems logical that when we started the Singapore Bird Project, the database and the checklist it produced would form the foundation for the new website. I’ll talk more about the database in a later article.

Author: Francis Yap

Nature photographer, bird twitcher and blog writer.

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