17 April 2016

Saying Goodbye to Ron, with Citizen Science

Dr. Ron J. Ryel, 1955-2015, was one of Utah's top birders and a mentor to myself and other birders in my community. (Photo via Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University)
Late last year, I learned of the passing of one of my birding mentors, Dr. Ron Ryel, after a long battle with cancer.  When I first moved to Utah in 2006, my interest in birding was increasing rapidly.  Ron was a local expert who shared his knowledge with me.  He took myself and another new local, my friend Craig Fosdick, birding several times between about 2008 and 2010, and taught us much from his extensive knowledge of local bird distribution and global bird identification.  In addition to being a productive member of the Utah State University faculty, he was a well-known and well-respected birder, having contributed several new species to the Utah state list, and served many years as a member of the Utah Bird Records Committee.

Ron Ryel (background) taught me and Craig Fosdick (foreground) much about birding in Cache County, Utah.  Here, we watch one of the only Greater Sage-Grouse leks known in the county.

It wasn't long after I got to know Ron that he became too ill to do much birding.  I regret that I didn't feel close enough to him to stay in touch through his illness, and when he died last year, it had been several years since we last talked.  Still, he left a lasting impression on me as both a source for much of my birding knowledge, and a model for how to mentor others as their birding interest and skill grows.

Ron looking for Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings on a Christmas Bird Count in Logan.  Ron had the coveted position of "roamer," a role that might be exclusive to the Logan CBC.  Ron's assigned job for the CBC was to cover the entire count circle in search of the rare and hard-to-identify species that might be missed by other less-experienced birders.  I inherited Ron's role when he was no longer able to contribute to the Logan CBC.
Ron valued citizen science, and was a dedicated participant in Christmas Bird Counts each year.  I first brought up eBird with him in late 2008 or early 2009.  I was just getting into this citizen science project, now the largest of any such project in the world, and it was still growing in capacity and format.  Ron was interested in the idea, but unconvinced of the value of entering his own data.  He had extensive field notes, but preferred to spend his time birding rather than entering his sightings in a database that he saw as ephemeral.  He had seen other such systems come and go, and was afraid eBird would face the same fate.

Now, seven years later, eBird has secured its place as the most comprehensive and reliable citizen science project ever.  Its global coverage includes hundreds of thousands of observers, documenting millions of sightings of almost every species on earth.  It has the backing of a well-reputed university and its own associated archival library.  I think Ron would be as impressed as I am by how far eBird has come.

When Ron passed, my friend Andrew Durso and I contacted his widow, Melanie, with an idea.  To help ensure Ron's birding could contribute to ornithology and conservation biology long after his passing, we offered to enter Ron's data in eBird.  Melanie, in her own words, was "astonished and delighted" that we would make such an offer.  To us, it seemed a fitting tribute to someone who gave so much to birds and birding in Utah, and also a way for us to contribute very valuable data to a project that we both believe in very strongly.  

A cardboard box of 17 pounds of Ron's field notes, life lists, and other birding records, destined to be permanently archived in eBird.

Andrew and I are both in the process of entering data into an account we created on Ron's behalf.  Each checklist includes detailed notes about the nature of the observations.