Each year for the past thirty years, our Heron and Egret Project (HEP) volunteers have sent us paper forms containing somewhere between six and seven thousand records of nest observations. It takes ACR scientists a good chunk of time at the end of each season to enter those in our database, along with their associated visit data (proofing everything twice!).




For the 2020 field season, we made some big changes to our monitoring protocol in order to increase efficiency and improve our ability to get the data “out there” and into the hands of conservation decision-makers. These changes prompted us to revisit an idea we had previously considered but was more complicated using the original protocol: creating a system for digital app-based data collection. Observers would be able to record data on a device in the field and submit it directly to us, eliminating the staff time previously needed for data entry.

This winter Avian Ecologist David Lumpkin made digital data collection for the Heron and Egret Project a reality. Using Survey 123, a service offered by ESRI (a software company best known for ArcGIS – visit esri.com to learn more), David created a data entry form that can be accessed via a the free Survey123 app.  Volunteers can use it on their phones or tablets and the app works where there’s no cell service, as is the case at many of the colony sites we monitor.




The form helps observers enter accurate and complete data by showing or hiding data fields depending on their relevance. For instance, if someone reports that no Great Egrets are nesting at their colony, the section for filling in Great Egret nest stages (representing timing of nesting) doesn’t appear. According to one of our volunteer testers, it’s “Super! Absolutely faster than hand writing the info!” 

The form checks for potential errors before finalizing, such as fields left blank. It’s a convenient way to give everything a quick check for errors before submission. Survey123 also offers data entry through a computer browser, so that volunteers who prefer to stick with paper and pencil in the field can send in their data as soon as they get home and enter it.

In order to work out the kinks of this new system, we provided a test version to only a handful of our volunteer observers this season.  Although we may need a second year of testing due to the current pandemic—much of our field work is on hold—we are looking forward to offering digital data collection to all HEP volunteers very soon.


About the Heron and Egret Project

The Heron and Egret Project is part of a collaborative effort by Audubon Canyon Ranch (ACR) and the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) to monitor colonially nesting herons and egrets in the San Francisco Bay Area. Audubon Canyon Ranch coordinates monitoring of heronries in the North Bay counties (Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Solano, and parts of Contra Costa). San Francisco Bay Bird observatory coordinates monitoring of the South Bay heronries (San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties). 

Our current work focuses on the effects of climate change and human disturbance to heronries. Data and reports generated by the Heron and Egret Project have been:

  • published in peer-reviewed scientific journals
  • submitted as technical reports to partner agencies
  • provided to landowners, biologists and local and regional planning  departments

Through formal scientific contributions, our results contribute to worldwide activities in conservation science.

Learn more about HEP!