By the Grace of Serendipitous Collaboration

On 19 December 2008 we introduced the BirdFellow online journal to the world with a short article entitled: "A Tradition of Mentoring: From Ludlow Griscom to Roger Tory Peterson to Kenn Kaufman and Beyond." That piece concluded with the paragraph below:

"I believe that we have reached the next crossroad. Various electronic media, most notably the Internet, allow us to share what we have learned at a rate few could have anticipated even two decades ago. As we develop BirdFellow, we will embrace this long tradition of mentoring and do all in our power to build networks and connections between expert birders and those whose birding experiences can be enriched through access to their expertise."

Over the past three years we've endeavored to deliver on the promise above. While we recognize that there is much work to be done and many enhancements that we can add to our existing features, we also believe that we demonstrated that our vision can be realized. Day by day, week by week, we are attracting new users and creating greater engagement between birders of all levels.

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The screen grab above shows 8 of the 23 images added to the Community Photos galleries on 23 December 2011. BirdFellow has now amassed about 20,000 images of North American birds and that number is growing every day.

Our users are sharing hundreds of images each month and thousands of geo-referenced bird sightings are being recorded through the use of our My Field Reports" and "Smart Lists" features. The Community Photos" area features thousands of fantastic images, many of which have been mined for inclusion in the curated "Identification Photos" galleries that accompany each species account.

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This Snowy Owl photo, shared recently by Don Nelson, is an example of the spectacular images that BirdFellow community members are contributing.

Most importantly, we have provided an infrastructure that fosters social interactions between members of our community. BirdFellow users are sharing ID tips, asking each other questions, posing discussion topics via our group forums, congratulating one another on rare bird discoveries, and "WOWing" the great photos of others. BirdFellow tee shirts and hats are starting to appear across the landscape and during each of my most recent trips out of my home state I've had BirdFellow community members come up and introduce themselves to me. 

We've come a long way over the past three years, officially "launching" most of the site's features in May of this year. Our progress and continued existence have been due in no small part to what we like to call serendipitous collaborations. At seemingly every turn, the BirdFellow story has been marked by timely and typically unexpected contributions from some person or persons who embrace our vision and lend their shoulder in helping push BirdFellow forward.

Early on, there were a number of serendipitous meetings that allowed this project to get off the ground. One of those was my chance meeting with our founder Bjorn Hinrichs a little over three years ago. I wasn't looking to become involved in the development of a website for birders and he had no idea that I would be the one who would understand his vision for BirdFellow and jump on board to make it a reality. I hadn't entertained the possibility of being involved in such a project until our meeting. Over the course of thousands of hours of working side by side, Bjorn and I developed a shared vision for the site. This vision is no longer ours exclusively, as it is now being reshaped by the needs of and feedback from our growing user base. Each interaction with a user opens our eyes to new ideas and ways we can better serve the birding community.

Our first of its kind online "Social Field Guide" is truly a collaborative effort. It contains images from dozens of photographers, species accounts that were written and edited by eight different authors, range maps created by Paul Lehman, proper pronunciations of common and scientific bird names recorded by David Fix, and audio files of bird vocalizations from Martyn Stewart. We went out looking for these contributors, but we've also added value to our Social Field Guide from unexpected sources.

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Swainson's Thrushes are retiring and secretive birds that spend most of their time buried in the understory of densely forested areas. It is hard enough to find an adult out in the open in sufficient light to capture a good photo, thus it is understandably difficult to photograph this species in juvenile plumage, which is held only a matter of weeks before they molt and take on a more adult-like appearance. This bird was photographed in Lincoln City, Oregon on 15 August 2011. (Photo by Dawn Villaescusa)

Perhaps our favorite serendipitous collaboration involves a photo supplied by Dawn Villaescusa, who lives in Lincoln City, Oregon. Since creating her BirdFellow account in November 2010, Dawn has shared many of her  photos in personal galleries. Since Dawn and I "connected" as friends, I see a notification in my "Recent Activity" log every time she adds new images or posts a  field report. In August 2011, Dawn posted a photo of a thrush that she could not positively identify and labeled it as a "mystery bird." My curiosity was piqued.

I pulled up the image and quickly recognized that the bird in her photo was a juvenile Swainson's Thrush. This was an exciting discovery. Even though Swainson's Thrushes are abundant breeders where I live in western Oregon, I had never seen one in this briefly-held plumage. Secondly, I could not recall ever seeing a photo of a juvenile Swainson's Thrush. I immediately contacted Dawn and asked if it would be okay for us to add her photo to our Swainson's Thrush "Identification Photos." Being a comparatively new birder, Dawn probably didn't anticipate making a meaningful contribution to our online guide, but that she did and we were thrilled to get it.

We've had many instances where one of our users was going through our galleries and recognized that they had either better images than the ones they were looking at or  photos depicting that species in a plumage not shown in our online guide. Better yet, they had photos of birds for which we had none. Many of the images you see when you visit our galleries appear there because someone wanted to make a contribution to a resource that they use and find valuable. As the BirdFellow community continues to grow, we expect that there will be many more such stories to tell.  

As we commence our fourth year of existence, BirdFellow is thriving and birders around North America and the world are beginning to grasp the potential of what we've been able to create. There is a growing realization that BirdFellow provides a unique resource that not only allows, but encourages all birders to make meaningful contributions. If you haven't already, we invite you to create your BirdFellow account today and start sharing your birding experiences, photos, and knowledge with this vibrant community and by all means invite your friends to join you.  To those who have already joined in the fun, a hearty thanks to each of you for all that you bring to this community. 

Seasons greetings and happy holidays to all. May these days be filled with good cheer, good company, and great birding.

1

Fantastic post, Dave. Many thanks to our growing community for all your contributions. We aim to create the best place to learn about birds on the web and it’s exciting to see that dream unfold. But like Dave shared, this dream is longer ours alone. We’re growing together and we’re genuinely grateful for all of your support. Many best wishes to you and yours this holiday season.

2

I’ve contacted BirdFellow about bird pictures I have that are missing from your list, so far I have not received any replies.

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If you feel that you have photos that we can use in our “Identification Photos” the easiest way to put photos under our noses is to create a gallery from your account and load the images there. We will then see them and be able to recognize those that we can use. We’ve found many useful images in the community gallery images that are posted.

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