As I mentioned yesterday, I did this thing, and now I’m happy to tell people about it and let people use it if they find it useful.

I’ve built a new web site, Siliconvalleybirding.org. It’s designed to be a guide to birding here in Santa Clara County and to connect birders to the sites and resources available to them here.


It is also set up to be the new home page for the South Bay Birds mailing list, which I’ve run for over a decade and which is where we exchange bird sightings and information about what’s going on here in Santa Clara County.

The goal in building this was to build a central resource for people interested in birding here, both local and out-of-towners coming for a visit. It was intended to make available the resources to make that trip better for visitors and to link all of us to the resources we can use to spend our birding time more effectively.

Why I did this

I felt as manager of the list that I’d let a lot of the information we had get stale or out of date, and it was well beyond needing an update. This allowed me to solve many of the problems I was seeing people have, from being able to subscribe to the list on Yahoo Groups to finding out the mailing list existed. The list had existed in “not broken, so don’t fix” mode for too long, and I wanted to make it something I was proud of again.

There’s another reality I was trying to figure out: the reality is that Yahoo Groups, where the list has lived for the last decade, is falling apart. Years of neglect from Yahoo and no sign now that Verizon owns it has me thinking that sooner or later it will break and not be fixed, or Verizon will cut its losses and shut it down. Either way, I don’t want the mailing list there when it happens.

The problem is that all the documentation, archives — the history of the list and all of the online pointers to it — point to the Yahoo Groups page. I felt that to make the move to a new host successfully, we needed some place everyone would know to go to find information and help during and after the migration.

Building this out as a web site has a few other advantages. One is SEO: there is now a place that advertises the existence of this community other than its Yahoo Group page, which honestly is beyond sucky for SEO. This should make it easier for interested people to find out we exist, and hopefully join in.

We’ve also just added a Facebook group to the mix, for general discussion that isn’t allowed on the list. Because of that, we are honestly a community and not a mailing list, and it needs a home to make that work.

As a big believer in owning your own content, as opposed to renting out space on other platforms and hope we don’t get screwed, like I expect users of Yahoo Groups will be sooner or later.

This site solves many of these problems, and creates a starting point to the solution of the rest. I still have some things to do, but this is a big step forward to my ability to keep this community running and thriving for the next decade.

Now what?

The next step for me is to figure out how to manage the migration to the new host. We are planning on moving to groups.io, a mailing list system written and managed by a friend of mine. He also happens to be the person who wrote the software Yahoo bought that became Yahoo Groups, so he knows his stuff.

I need to figure out how to do the migration smoothly, how to teach the list users what they need to know, and write up documentation on joining and using the new system. Since we have Spring Migration on the horizon and that’s a busy time for the list, I’m planning on holding off until later in the year to actually do this shift, assuming Yahoo Groups cooperates. If it starts getting a lot worse, I’ll move that timeframe forward.

At the same time, I’ve already got improvements for the site on the list. A couple of them I’m sure I’m going to do include:

  • I know I can do more with the maps on the site to help people get to the locations they want to visit and understand the county locations and habitat better.
  • I want to do a piece explaining how to explore the county if you have an afternoon or a day free and get the most out of a short trip.
  • I want to explore the idea of “getting to 200 species” aimed at newer birders or people new to the county.
  • I know we need to improve how things change in the county as the seasons change, because birding is a lot different in spring than summer, and in summer than it is winter.

I also keep getting great suggestions by the members of South Bay Birds who have been reviewing drafts of the site for the last ten days. I think we can do a lot more and make it a lot better without making it more complicated or harder to maintain over time.

How?

A few quick nerdy notes on the implementation. This is built on WordPress, using the 2017 theme bundled with the CMS. That means there are no licensing issues or fees tied to running this site. I’ve kept the structure as simple as possible — it’s the first time I’ve built something that uses zero added plug-ins and doesn’t use the posting system; it’s all pages. There are a few simple CSS customizations, maybe 50 lines of CSS total.

What this means is that this site is very simple and easy to use, but also portable. I can hand off a backup of the site to someone and they can go to any service that hosts WordPress, load the backup and be up and running.

Why does that matter?

One big reason: I turn 60 this year, and while I want this community to grow and thrive for at least the next decade, I don’t plan to be running it a decade from now. When I started to plan this out, I wanted it to be easy to hand the keys to a new leader, and know they could take it over, run it and not have to do a lot of work getting things fixed or having to learn complicated tech to run it. I could hand this off to someone else tomorrow, and I believe it will more or less run itself for a year or two while they decide what they want to do with as the new owner.

I should note: I fully intend to be USING this stuff in a decade, just not be running it. I wanted to put the next generation of leadership into a position to succeed with it, and so building out this site and getting the list moved to the new server are big parts of that.

An offer to other Yahoo Group birding lists

There’s a second reason I built it the way I did. Over the last 18 months or so as it has become clear that Yahoo Groups was getting flakey and the owners didn’t care, I’ve had a number of discussions with people birding lists there or with groups involved in birding in California about the idea of building out a new generation communication system for birders across the state, upgrading or replacing the mailing lists we use today (most of which are over a decade old, and most of which live on Yahoo Groups).

After those discussions, what became clear was that nobody really wanted to think about this unless it was a crisis. The last time I brought this up on Calbirds, the discussion sidetripped off into a gripe session about how some eBird reviewers are mean to people.

If there’s no way I can convince people to save their villages, I can still save mine, and that’s what I’m doing.

But beyond that, what I intend once I have migrated South Bay Birds, I will package all of this up with instructions, make it available for anyone to download, and offer help to other list owners who want to use to to move their lists off Yahoo Groups or build out a web site to support their community.

One admin of a nearby county who follows the South Bay Birds list has already asked for help and I’ve offered to help them make the move. That offer is open to others who want to get doing before I finish packaging this up as well. Just drop me a line.

So I’m hoping we can save a few more villages before the Yahoo Groups volcano erupts. You’re welcome to a copy of the site you can adapt to your local needs or borrow from the content I’ve written as it helps.

Do you link to the South Bay Birds page on Yahoo Groups?

Do you have a site that links to South Bay Birds on Yahoo Groups? Would you please do me a favor? Please change that link so it points to this new site. Since we intend to leave Yahoo Groups soon, I want to start getting places that link to us to make the updates, so when we do leave, they won’t be left pointing to, well, nothing. If you have questions, please ask!

Our new affiliation with SCVAS

One final thing about the new site I’m really happy about. I’ve been able form an affiliation between this community and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. The two groups have operated independently for a long time, although the membership between the two overlaps a lot. We’re now showing that affiliation on the site, and SCVAS will be linking to the site from their site. The hope is that more chapter members will join the list, and more list members will look into SCVAS and perhaps become members. In the short term we’ll be doing a bit more promotion of SCVAS group outings on the list, but otherwise, the operation remain separate and the approved content of the list won’t change.

Down the road? I hope we can find ways to do things that benefit both groups together. Perhaps SCVAS might choose to take on being that next generation owner, or cooperate with them. We haven’t talked about any of that yet. One thing I am going to be doing is giving them ownership access credentials to everything to store in case we have to invoke the “hit by bus” protocol and they can keep things running until new ownership can be found in the case I decide not to wake up some morning (not that I am expecting to, but it’s stupid to not plan for)

We’re going to worry about down the road later, and right now I’m just happy that the community is in a better place, and once I have it off Yahoo Groups it should be safe and stable for a number of years. And with the new relationship with SCVAS, we can find ways to do things that benefit everyone and all birders in the county that weren’t possible when nobody was talking to each other.

That seems like a good place to start. There’s a lot more to look at down the road, but for now, I think I’ll be happy with getting to this point, and now I’m going to go grab the camera and binoculars and go out birding more often. It is, after all, the start of Spring Migration.

Good birding!