Just inside the visitor center entrance at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Jersey is a sleek computer kiosk that is hard to miss. That’s the point, says refuge Friend Laurel Gould. “It’s a magnet.”

“People respond to it,” she says. “Once they start to use it, they are just blown away. Everything is there. The picture is there, the sounds are there, the information is there, the sightings are there, the map is there. It’s just everything in one.”

“It” is the eBird Trail Tracker that the refuge installed last fall with the support of its Friends group.

Great Swamp Refuge is one of 16 refuges using the tracker that is connected to the eBird.org database managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. The eBird is a real–time, online checklist program that collects an average of 1.6 million bird observations a month from around the nation and the world. The tracker displays local observations at a given site.

An eBird Trail Tracker kiosk is useful to refuge visitors before they go out into the field because it enables them to learn what birds others have seen on the refuge in recent hours and days. It is useful to visitors after they return from the field, because it enables them to use photos or audio clips to identify which birds they saw or heard and then enter into the database how many they saw, when and where. It is useful to birders and casual visitors alike because it contains a browsable photo– and fact–filled list of information about avian species on a refuge.

“A Modern, Cool–Looking Thing”

Great Swamp Refuge has enthusiastically embraced the eBird Trail Tracker.

It allows visitors “to feel part of a larger community, to give something back by recording their sightings, to have a personal sense of ownership in contributing to the birding community and being citizen scientists helping wildlife conservation in the greater sense,” says deputy refuge manager Steve Henry.

photo of trail tracker
“People respond to it,” refuge Friend Laurel Gould says of the eBird Trail Tracker in the visitor center.
Credit: Susan O’Brian

“It’s interactive,” says Randy Little, a retired electrical engineer who is a tech–savvy, bird–savvy volunteer at Great Swamp Refuge. “It engages you to take part, and you realize all of a sudden, ‘I’m a citizen scientist’ … Heaven knows that, in ornithology at least, the reports of large numbers of lay people make up for an impossible task for a few professionals. They make for a very substantial, usable database.”

“This is a modern, cool–looking thing that kids can relate to,” says the refuge’s visitor services manager, Jonathan Rosenberg. “It’s real time … There’s no lag time.”

Great Swamp Refuge, a 7,768–acre oasis in the exurbs 26 miles west of Times Square, is well–positioned to use the tracker. It is a birdwatching hotspot that attracts about 155,000 visitors a year. It has more than 180 volunteers who, according to Gould, contributed more than 15,000 hours last year. And it has a robust Friends group that championed and paid for a customized version of the eBird Trail Tracker kiosk that cost $6,804 to install and incurs a yearly $650 maintenance fee that covers upgrades, repairs and Web links. The refuge’s primary expense, says Henry, has been to provide infrastructure for “a fast, stable Internet connection.”

The result is that visitors at Great Swamp and other refuges are contributing to a huge dataset that can help scientists monitor a range of conservation issues.

“Birds are, because they fly, able to make choices about where they want to be a lot more freely than most amphibians, reptiles and many mammals,” says Little. “So, in many ways, they are a more active and direct indicator of habitat. If something changes in the habitat, birds are able to move to take advantage of things or to avoid detriments. So, observations on a repetitive basis over time become very valuable.”