An Interview with Kristen Marini on her new Birding Game

Kirsten Marini, in her second year of the Master of Environmental Science program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., has developed a game to help train birders doing “point count” surveys on birds, and is looking for volunteers to test the training program.

The game consists of an initial challenge, then a set of smaller challenges of increasing difficulty, and a final challenge to see how much the birder has improved by the end. The birding game involves listening to a variety of bird songs during a five minute period, so you’ll need a media player such as a smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

If you want to play the game, email Kristen at kristen-marini AT mytru DOT ca and she’ll send you the full instructions on October 30th. The game officially starts on November 2nd and runs until mid-December.

I’m happy to have been able to interview Kristen for this post, and I hope you enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the game. Hopefully readers will be interested in helping Kristen by taking part in her study!

Prairie Birder: Tell me a little bit about yourself, please, including your studies.

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With my dads’ tame pigeon, this one is a couple years old but is a favourite of mine.

Kristen: I’m in my second year of the Master of Environmental Science program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., studying how urbanization affects the reproductive success and song of Mountain Chickadees. For that, I spend the spring and early summer monitoring breeding chickadees in both urban and rural habitats, and measuring how well their offspring grow and survive. I also record males while they are singing during the dawn chorus to see how song changes in urban environments. I’ve only just started the analysis of my data, so I don’t quite know yet if chickadees are affected by urbanization.

At the same time I am working in partnership with Golder Associates to develop a distance estimation training program that they can use to improve both the species identification accuracy and distance estimation abilities of their employees who are doing bird point count surveys. This is what the bird game is ultimately for!

When I’m not at school working on one of these projects, I like going out hiking with my dachshunds, kayaking, and trying to learn how to rock climb!

These are some 6 day old mountain chickadee nestlings. We band them with a unique CWS band, then weigh and measure them every 3 days until they are 12 days old.

“These are some six-day old mountain chickadee nestlings. We band them with a unique CWS band, then weigh and measure them every three days until they are 12 days old.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

A 9 day old mountain chickadee nestling. By 9 days they are starting to look more like birds, their flight feathers are starting to erupt, and most of their body feathers are filling in. This little guy has a silver CWS band on his right leg so that we can re-identify him, and a PIT tag on his left leg so that we can track his movements.

“A nine-day old Mountain Chickadee nestling. By nine days, they are starting to look more like birds, their flight feathers are starting to erupt, and most of their body feathers are filling in. This little guy has a silver CWS band on his right leg so that we can re-identify him, and a PIT tag on his left leg so that we can track his movements.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?

Kristen: I’ve always been interested in nature and animals, doing lots of camping and hiking when I was growing up, but I only really became seriously interested in birding about four or five years ago. I started a research project with a really amazing professor at TRU, Dr. Matt Reudink, looking at how habitat influences colour in American Redstart feathers. Matt loves birds, and is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them, it really got me interested in learning more about birds. The first time I held a bird, probably a little Mountain Chickadee, I was hooked and I knew I wanted to keep studying birds.

PB: For your current M.Sc. research project, you’ve developed a birding game to help birders sharpen their identification skills. How did you come up with this idea? How does the game fit into your research project?

Kristen: I created this birding game as part of a project I am working on for Golder Associates [a civil/geotechnical and environmental consulting corporation]. They were looking for ways to improve the distance estimation accuracy and species identification skills of their employees, so that when they are out doing point count surveys, they can be as accurate as possible. Initially, I came up with a training program consisting of two tests set up to simulate what a real point count would be like, and a training tape for volunteers to listen to. The results show that people did improve and become more accurate after training, but many volunteers had a hard time completing the training because it wasn’t very interactive or engaging.

So we came up with a game! There are still two tests, an initial test (to assess the baseline volunteers’ skills) and a final test at the end (to see how much they’ve improved by), but the training now consists of a set of small, themed challenges, that start off easy and become increasingly more difficult. As volunteers complete these challenges they will get personalized feedback, and maybe a few cheesy bird puns.

I’m hoping that by creating more game-like training, volunteers will be more engaged and motivated to compete against themselves and finish the game.

Kristen and a Cedar Waxwing that the volunteers at the Iona Beach banding station let me hold a couple weeks ago.

“With a Cedar Waxwing that the volunteers at the Iona Beach [BC] banding station let me hold a couple weeks ago.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: Can anyone participate in the game, and how long should it take to play? Are there levels available for beginning birders, intermediate birders, and advanced birders?

Kristen: Anyone who is interested is welcome to participate! It is a bit of a challenge, I initially geared the overall difficulty level toward people who are fairly experienced birders doing point count surveys as part of their job, but I have had fairly inexperienced birders successfully complete the training. Because each birder is competing against themselves, there is no minimum experience requirement, I just ask that volunteers self-assess their skills before beginning and rank themselves as either a beginner, intermediate, or expert birder. The total time required to complete the game will vary with each birder, as each volunteer is instructed to train until they feel ready to move on. It could be from as little as 1.5 hours for someone who is already very comfortable with identifying birds by song, up to around six or eight hours for someone who is less experienced.

PB: You’re targeting boreal forest species, and Canada Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher, in the game. Can you tell us why you’re focusing on these species?

Kristen: Many of the point counts are being conducted by Golder are in the boreal forests of northern Alberta, so these species were chosen to be representative of what their employees would encounter while out conducting a point count survey.

A mountain chickadee that we just finished banding.

A Mountain Chickadee that we just finished banding. (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: How will you analyze the results at the end of the study period?

Kristen: At the end of the study, I will basically be looking at two main things: how did species identification accuracy change and how did distance estimation accuracy change? By comparing each volunteer’s score before and after training, I will be able to assess how the skills of each volunteer changed, as well as how each skill class (beginner, intermediate, or expert) changed overall.

Based on the results from the first time I tried this, what I’m expecting to see is that after training birders will be able to correctly identify more species as well as estimate the distances to these species more accurately.

PB: Do you think you might turn the game into an app or computer program?

Kristen: This is something that we talked about doing, but with the time line and budget for my project, turning it into an app or online game just wasn’t feasible.

Thank you, Kristen, for telling us more about your project. As a reminder, for anyone interested in helping Kristen test the program, please contact her by Friday, October 30th at kristen-marini AT mytru DOT ca

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