February 2017

Vol. 45, No. 1

Bird Observer Online: Building an Online Magazine for a New England Birding Institution

Eric Swanzey

Author’s Note

What follows is an abridged and slightly modified version of the Birder’s Certificate Program (BCP) final project that was submitted to Mass Audubon on July 20, 2016. The original submission contained lots of colored glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph next to each one explaining what each feature was. So I took those things out, gathered together what I thought were the more valuable bits (your mileage may vary), and added some local color in an effort to urge a reader forward.

For those wondering what the BCP is all about, it’s an eleven-month educational program offered by Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Educational Center in Newburyport, Massachusetts. It’s a fantastic experience, as many Bird Observer readers can probably bear witness. But beyond the course content, classroom lecture, and field time (if that isn’t enough) is the opportunity to interact and spend time as birders, with some of the most knowledgeable and friendly experts that one can find. Talk to Dave Larson, Director of the BCP program, and you’ll be glad that you did.


Once I decided I wanted to bird more intelligently, the first thing I did was subscribe to Bird Observer. The second was to sign up for Mass Audubon’s Birder’s Certificate Program (BCP). As fortune would have it, I became a volunteer for Bird Observer assigned to build out Bird Observer Online, the basis for my BCP final project. See Figure 1: Sample Bird Observer journal cover.

Fig. 1. Bird Oberver cover.

I had already been a Bird Observer subscriber for a little over a year. When seeking out the best resources I could find for information on the birding locales of New England, I was quickly drawn to Bird Observer and was a regular visitor to the website. I would often browse the site and appreciated the value of what it offered, but at the same time I was keeping a mental checklist (as I tend to do for most of the websites that I regularly visit) of features that I wished were offered. I was birding on Plum Island when Bird Observer’s Massbird mailing list inquiry seeking website assistance appeared on my phone, and I immediately knew that it was a project with which I wanted to be involved.

The next several weeks were filled with emails and phone calls, initially with Bird Observer Vice President Carolyn Marsh, but soon joined by her husband John, who manages subscriptions, and Marjorie Rines, who built and maintained the original website, as we explored the possibility of working together. This process was highly engaging and it set the tone and chemistry for everything that was to follow.

Website Status

The Bird Observer website was hitting the fifteen-year mark since its last redesign, an eternity in Internet time. When it was originally designed, mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets did not yet exist, nor did WordPress or the majority of web development platforms that are available today for building functional websites. I began an assessment and inventory of the existing website that included overall page hierarchy, content hierarchy of each page, image and file assets, and review of existing features. Typical of most “small group” websites built at the time, it was presented as a series of static pages, with access to a subscribers-only area provided via a common (single) login shared by all of the members. Despite its simplicity, it contained rich and comprehensive content. Marj Rines had authored and maintained the site in such a way that, even after many years of updates and revisions, the underlying code was clean and easy to understand. This would soon prove to make the task of content migration immensely easier than I previously anticipated.

Eurasian Wigeon, Parker River NWR. All image banners and page samples captured from website. All photographs by the author.

Setting Objectives and Alignment of Goals

The formal process of planning the redesign began in July 2015 with John, Carolyn, and Marj, who composed the web steering committee. Over the course of several weeks we were in frequent contact as we defined the structure and functionality of the new website. The excitement was building as our ideas began to take shape and become tangible displays that we could all view in a web browser. When we had what we thought was a working prototype and base strategy, Wayne Petersen, then president of Bird Observer, joined the group. His involvement ensured that our plan aligned with the needs of the organization. It also gave us the opportunity to hear Wayne’s unique perspective on the organization and its longterm goals.

The Redesign Project

At the core of the project was a website redesign intended to freshen up the content and reinvigorate the subscriber base. We needed to design the site to enable a true subscription model and provide for individual memberships, profiles, and logins. There was an obvious need for an ecommerce component as well to handle subscriptions. However, it quickly became clear that to achieve any measure of success or sustain it for any length of time, other factors needed to be taken into account. For example, there needed to be a way to secure content meant for subscribers only, yet offer portions of the site to anonymous visitors as an attractant to subscribing. Selected content also needed to be made available to search engine indexers or spiders, so that we could expose Bird Observer to a wider audience through organic search results. The site also needed to be mobile responsive — optimized for viewing on any device at any location — as another important way to increase exposure.

These modifications still fell short of providing Bird Observer with some important tools and features for serving the longer-term needs of the organization. Also included in the project is a publishing engine whereby multiple authors can compose content for the online version of the journal in a secure “sandbox,” then forward the article to an editor for approval, and optionally to a production manager for publishing. There is a subscription engine whereby the subscription manager can perform membership tasks, maintain subscribers, and process orders or export sales reports from the online store. An archivist is able to maintain the indexes and keep the data library updated. Similarly, any portion or aspect or feature of the website can be explicitly customized in such a manner to provide Bird Observer volunteers with the ability to directly maintain their particular area of responsibility or expertise.

Over the next several weeks and months, online prototypes were developed and presented in a series of milestone reviews as the new website was refined and reworked. Each new design or feature would be “roughed in” and then released to the group for review and feedback, after which revisions were made as necessary to finish out the item and proceed to the next step. Overall, the project was split into three phases, with each phase culminating in the launch of feature groupings that piggybacked on prerequisite features from a previous phase.

Phase I (est. 160 hours)—launched October 2015

The initial site launch included a full site redesign, the migration of all content to a web publishing system, design and development of a publishing platform for production of the full color online journal, production of 12 issues (two years) of existing journals in the new online format, birding maps that visually revealed and linked to the corresponding “Where to Go Birding” article in the journal, display of every listserv birding feed in New England, redesigned links and resources, a new archive section, a new ecommerce store, a membership and registration area for administering subscriptions, and a mobile responsive display that made all content available on any smart device or display.

Fig. 2. Sample Website Page. View from the base of Hellcat Tower at Parker River NWR (background), with Canvasback as seen from Stage Island Pool.

Phase II (est. 125 hours)—launched January 2016

New England Rarities was introduced, providing a quick and easy way to review and drill down against all rarities actively being seen throughout New England. A custom search engine was launched, and for the first time, a single search executed across all file boundaries and against all content sources, including the pdf content of past issues of Bird Observer. Search engine optimization (SEO) was addressed in an ongoing effort to elevate page rank in Google search results. A task-based operations manual was produced for use by Bird Observer volunteers in administering various aspects of the website.

Phase III (est. 35 hours)—launched March 2016

The remaining thirty years of archives were scanned and made available online for subscribers to view and search against, something that subscribers had been desiring for many years. With the corresponding completion of the archive index, we felt that the project had reached completion.

The Context of Place

As we proceeded through Phase I of the project, a design and organizational treatment emerged that would eventually become the unifying theme under which the site was launched—New England birds in the context of place. This theme became the basis for building out the “Where to Go Birding” section of the website, and in setting up the various listserv displays for all of the New England states. See Figure 2: Sample website page.

When attention soon turned to the finer aspects of the look and feel of the website, it became an obvious choice to carry this theme into the supporting imagery of the page design as well. Accordingly, images of birding locations are presented in the background of a page. In the foreground, high resolution images display the various species of birds that can be found at these New England locations.

The Project as an Agent of Change

The sheer scope of the website project made it necessary to factor in many seemingly unrelated facets of Bird Observer and has led to many spirited discussions within the organization. These were beyond the obvious front-facing aspect of the end user experience on the website. For example, should subscription options expand to include digital only? Should the subscription model be altered and portions of the Bird Observer archive be freely offered for all visitors to the website? Is online publishing a model that complements print or will someday supplant it? Do print and digital serve the same audience or is age a determining factor on viewing preference? To ask and answer these questions I think provides Bird Observer continued opportunities to reexamine aspects of the organization that might benefit from revised policy as subscriber preferences change over time. My personal hope is that these two species, print and digital, will continue to thrive.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel, George's Bank.

Summary of Major Features

  • Bird Observer Online: the full color online companion to the printed journal
  • Where to Go Birding: summaries and direct links to every Bird Observer article ever published
  • Comprehensive Search: query against the entire website, including content from the entire archive of every issue ever published
  • Regional and Local Bird Club Locator
  • New England Birding listserv: view summary or complete detail on up-to-the-minute postings from birding lists throughout New England
  • New England Rarities: rarities displayed for every state and county in New England (powered by eBird data and AccuBirder gadgets)
  • Complete Archive: every issue of Bird Observer from Volume 1, Number 1 to present day. Every issue is made available as PDF files, and every issue since 2015 is also available in full color format in an online magazine.
  • Links and Resources: curated from throughout New England
  • Publishing Engine: for authoring articles and composing new online issues
  • Style Guide & Reference Manual: for use as a guide in performing website maintenance

Strategies and Technical Details

Platform CMS

The question wasn’t whether to use a CMS (content management system) for developing a website, but which one to choose. There are literally hundreds available – Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, XPRS, Voog, Strikingly, Yola, Webstarts,, ZMoonfruit, oho, Google Sites, Webnode, GoDaddy, Jimdo, SnapPages, Vistaprint, Webs, Homestead, Angelfire, and Yola to name just a few – and winnowing down to a short list, then building small test sites on each candidate can often quickly reveal the best fit. For the Bird Observer website, the DNN platform was chosen. DNN is open source (the original source code is made freely available) and has a unique strength among similar CMS contenders surrounding fine-grained control of content coupled with online publishing features. This was a critical feature for serving the needs of Bird Observer.

Make versus Buy

A strategy that worked well in building out the website was in first seeking “best available” extensions (plugins, widgets) through reputable vendors that would come the closest to achieving a desired result or providing a desired feature. This would typically result in a feature set that meets the majority of the requirement. From there, focusing efforts on the customization of the user-facing aspect that the site visitor sees provides for a smooth and polished interface. A substantial amount of time and expense can be saved by using this approach.

Design Build

A strategy that proved extremely effective was to build out prototypes for demonstrating concepts and to test functionality. The site was designed and built “in place” on a sandboxed web server that was accessible only by the Bird Observer team. It was an active construction site that was available for review at all times and in all phases of the redesign. Changes or feature requests were accepted at any time throughout the process. These items would be prioritized and quickly added to the running punch list that ultimately drove the production process.

While it was at times chaotic and could at times be described as haphazard, this strategy proved to be the shortest, quickest path toward timely completion of the new website. It was also invaluable for easily illustrating concepts that were difficult to explain. It requires a solid understanding of how the various elements of a website interact and affect each other, and knowing the most efficient methods for revising an item while causing minimal disruption.

Form and Function, then Look and Feel

My approach in producing the Bird Observer website focused early efforts on aspects of form and function, and deferred many of the design aspect, or “look and feel,” decisions until midway into the project. In this way, we performed the heavy lifting of feature development early in the project, and it allowed for more experimentation with minimal impact to the overall timeline. Once these major components of the site were defined and in place, efforts were focused on the user interface and user experience as we wrapped everything in a consistent design treatment.

Access and Security

At the core of the website is a framework for controlling access to content and features. It is most obvious when viewing the front-facing aspect of the website as it is presented to subscribers versus non-subscribers. For example, subscribers have access to every journal ever published, while non-subscribers see only a small portion of that content. In the same vein, subscribers can search through the entire contents of every article ever published, while non-subscribers are limited to searching just the article titles. This isn’t the case for all things, as the website has many areas of the site freely available to all visitors.

There is an administration layer that operates in a similar fashion for use by the Bird Observer staff. John Marsh, as the Subscriptions Manager, can manage subscribers and process subscriptions; Judy Marino, as the Archivist, can manage the entire online archive. Assignments such as these can be created or revised at any time to suit the needs of the organization and can be targeted to specific tasks or objectives. For example, ad hoc “staging groups” are routinely created to give various working groups the ability to review new content before publishing. This administrative layer provides the organization the tools necessary to assign tasks to any number of interested volunteers.

Security is largely handled by the core framework that runs the website, yet that typically isn’t the area of the platform that is most prone to a hack or exploit (a form of malicious attack). The vast majority of successful website exploits occur through weaknesses in the various installed plugins or extensions. It is for this reason that the extensions in use on the Bird Observer website are kept to a minimum, thereby greatly reducing the attack surface and threat risk. Software patches and point releases are installed soon after being made available, as an added measure of security.

Task-based Operations Manual

A style guide and task-based operations manual was produced in tandem with the development of the website. Currently at 58 pages, this living document is used to quickly instruct a volunteer in a specific task that they might need to accomplish on the website and as a reference manual for the volunteer who might make only occasional edits or changes to the website. It was designed around the specific set of tasks involved in composing articles and bringing new issues online, and updating indexes and archives as each new issue is launched.

Migration Patterns

Google Analytics was chosen as the utility for capturing usage data and reporting on traffic patterns within the website. It is a useful tool for viewing quick snapshots of website activity and measuring website usage and spotting trends historically over time. Its reports can often prompt the creation of features, using visitor activity as a gauge for whether to expand areas of the website that visitors gravitate toward.

The Importance of History

A website’s visibility within search engine listings is critical, and much attention was given to the search engine optimization (SEO) of the Bird Observer website in the way that it was constructed. But because the project was such a major redesign, an equally important factor was the URL history of the website pages that were being replaced. Too often, this valuable commodity is overlooked and lost in a redesign, resulting in a decrease in search engine visibility on a newly launched website. With Bird Observer Online, custom redirects are in place that ensure any outdated links or page requests are handled in a specific manner. Requests for outdated pages automatically redirect the visitor to the closest match within the present-day content. At the same time, the requestor (whether the browser of a human visitor or automated bot of a search engine indexer) is silently made aware of the page change, automatically updating browser bookmarks and/or search engine listings to the new page URL. The importance of this mechanism is that it migrates the historical page rank from the outdated page to the current day replacement page.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Parker River NWR.

With Gratitude and Appreciation

The Bird Observer Online project involved hundreds of hours of planning, design, and development over the course of ten months. It allowed me to finally meet and come to know some of the birders whom I had previously encountered in all sorts of interesting places – the printed pages of Bird Observer, live birding in the field, as a BCP student, in articles published in the Boston Globe, in Massbird postings, and in eBird inventories, to name just a few.

The project was made immeasurably easier due to the ongoing efforts of the Bird Observer staff—to Jan Heng and Regina Harrison for the vagaries of social network integration, to Christine King for proofreading, to Judy Marino for continuing work on the archive and indexes, and to Peter Oehlkers for orchestrating the capture of the archive and ongoing production of new issues, among many others.

However, the project would have been impossible without the consistent presence of Carolyn Marsh and her steadfast optimism and encouragement; Marjorie Rines for her critical guidance and advice; John Marsh for his countless hours spent in revision and review; Marsha Salett for aligning our objectives while preserving the essence of Bird Observer; and finally to Wayne Petersen for marshalling all of us to a singular purpose and common goal.

As Wayne said one day after describing some of the reasons that led to the formation of Bird Observer over forty years ago, “This is really important stuff.” The author is inclined to agree.

Eric Swanzey formed the Swanzey Internet Group in 1997, specializing in website design, development, and hosting for midsize businesses. He is also a professional photographer, has previously owned and operated a commercial photography studio, and now specializes in super telephoto bird and nature photography. He was recognized as a Top 100 award winner in National Audubon’s 2016 Photography Contest and is a recent graduate of Mass Audubon’s Birder’s Certificate Program. Eric is the webmaster for the Nuttall Ornithological Club as well as the webmaster and President of Bird Observer.

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