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The truth about Rare Bird reports

April 9, 2010

If my time as an eBird reviewer has taught me anything, it’s that the job of the rare bird reviewer is often a thankless and demanding one.  Of course, the responsibility of determining the validity of vagrants and other unusual avian incidences is important, as is anything that adds to our knowledge about where and when birds are, but once you enter that inner sanctum there’s suddenly this perception that your opinion is the end all and be all of bird identification.  I often make the joke when I tell people what I do with regard to eBird, that I ultimately decide what you see or you don’t see.  It’s clearly ridiculous, but there’s undoubtedly a perception that in judging the validity of a particular sighting I’m making a judgment on the birders themselves.  It’s a difficult line to walk to be sure, but one that rare bird committees and regional editors have to deal with on a regular basis.

Birding, like many activities that require developing specific skills, has an obvious hierarchy.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be disconcerting and intimidating for those who are new to the hobby.  Because if you’re in the field enough you’re probably going to find something fairly unusual eventually, and if you’re interested in contributing to the greater birding community as well as to scientific study of vagrants (and you should be) you’re going to come up against a rare bird committee or an eBird reviewer at some point.  While it’s easy to get the impression that there’s some sort of secretive birding cabal standing between you and your rare bird sighting, that’s not true.  What these individuals are looking for is fairly straight-forward.  They want to know how well you saw the bird in question and how you made the identification.

I’ve been accused as being part of the “birding elite” when I ask for clarification, and while it’s true that some known individuals of known skill and reputation are given a bit more leniency with regard to sightings, especially when the sightings are less inherently controversial like early or late records or mildly exceptional counts, sightings are judged on a case by case basis and even a birder with well-known field skills should expect to get questioned on surprising reports or difficult identifications.  It can be unnerving at first for an birder to be questioned in this way, which is where I think a lot of the apprehension and accusations of condescension come in.  People generally aren’t used to having their observations challenged in real life in the way that they can be among the birding community.  But we all know how a seemingly straight forward bird observation can turn on you, and honest mistakes, however well-intentioned, are a regular occurrence.  Birds are not always easy to identify, and subtle changes in lighting and vantage point can make a huge difference between a common species and a potential first ABA record.  This is all pretty well understood,  but from the observer’s perspective it can be difficult to understand why people would question your sighting.  After all, we saw what we saw and we know it.  But still, not every sighting is approved.

Most birders with a history of involvement with a state rarity committee know what is required in a report, but with the advent of eBird, and the introduction of less intensive birders coming up against the scrutiny of a rare bird report (a good thing, I think), there are undoubtedly a few that are caught off guard when questioned about their observation.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t see the bird, but often times they’re unprepared to communicate what they saw in a way that I can make an informed judgment on it; and because I generally tend to be a conservative editor, it might not be enough for me to accept.  To be prepared for this, every birder should have a look at an official rare bird submission form, the Carolina Bird Club has one online (.pdf) that I think is excellent. For eBird, not all of the questions are necessarily required, but absolutely crucial to any report are:

  1. Viewing conditions (distance to bird, time of day, optics used, length of observation)
  2. Descriptions of relevant field marks (including field marks NOT seen and why)
  3. Similar species and how you eliminated them

Simply stating “it looked just like the field guide” or “I’ve seen many of these birds before” is not enough.  I can only speak for my own process, but when I question a sighting I’m generally looking for a basic understanding of how to describe a bird, it indicates to me that the reporter is looking at the right things.  This is really as much a skill as birding and it would do well for birders looking to build a reputation to work on it.  Every field guide has a diagram of a bird with arrows pointing to the proper feather groups.  There’s a world of difference between a lore, a supraloral and a supercilium.  Know that difference.

Finally, understand the limitations of your own observations and try not to take it personally if your sighting is not validated.  Whether or not your sighting is accepted has to do with several factors, not least of which has to do with an objective determination of the robustness of the sighting.  If an observation is not accepted it has far less to do with the birder’s skill as it does with the circumstances surrounding the sighting and the way that information is conveyed.  Obviously, the relative rarity of the bird means something too, as rare records are going to be subject to more scrutiny, but a certain level of  examination should be expected for just about any unusual sighting.   Obviously I try to make that clear to people when I do ask for more information, and also obviously, some rare bird committee members and eBird reviewers are better at explaining that in a non-confrontational way than others.

It just goes to show the importance of the three questions I mentioned above.  And best of all, thinking about these things while you’re looking at the bird in the field will not only make you more likely to have the information you need to convey your observation to the right people, but it will make you a more aware, and better, birder in the long run too.

And that’s what we all want, right?

  1. April 9, 2010 8:28 am

    Nice post — I think I told you about that wandering greater white-fronted goose I found in Florida? This is the local paper’s story on it: Uncommon, but not entirely rare sighting.

  2. Nate permalink*
    April 9, 2010 8:44 am

    @DeLene- Yeah, a handful of these guys show up on the east coast every winter. Usually they’re singles like your bird, but occasionally entire flocks will get misdirected. There was a group of about a dozen birds that spent the winter in eastern NC a couple years ago. Sometimes the birds on the east coast are even the subspecies that nests in Greenland rather than the North American population but this one, with it’s skinnier neck and pinkish rather than orange bill, looks like a North American bird.

    That’s wild that it was found on a retention pond. Birds like this really can show up just about anywhere.

  3. April 9, 2010 9:58 pm

    I find a similar situation occurs with Great Backyard Bird Count reports. Those participants are probably even less well-prepared than eBird users to supply the details necessary to review a sighting. I wish there were a better way to get contributors to think about those issues before submitting. Being prepared to document a sighting if necessary is really the key part of reporting a rare species.

  4. April 9, 2010 11:52 pm

    I’ve had a few reviewers (NY, Kentucky & Ontario) contact me regarding my observations.

    One from NY stated my reply was “superb”. Not the description of the bird but for the kindly nature of my approach to the question. It was the rookie year for my wife & I and the reviewer’s question had me sit back and think about what we saw. It was a year and half after the observation and we had more experience with identifying birds. We decided it could not be what we had submitted to eBird. I even admitted it would reduce the life list by one.

    Also in our rookie year, we observed a male Harlequin near Niagara Falls. No mistaking that bird. I was not offended at all when a reviewer contacted me 3 years later! Surprised yes but not offended. I provided him with the details required.

    Though some responded to my replies there were a few that did not. Does eBird have a procedure that reviewers follow? There was an observation where I simply asked what else could it be? I was not being offensive, I was looking for assistance in determing the species observed. I would have appreciated some help.

    Overall, my experience with reviewers has been good. I have considerable experience now and I take notes when I’m not familiar with the bird so I’ll be well prepared for the next reviewer inquiry.


  5. Nate permalink*
    April 10, 2010 8:53 pm

    @John- Experience is the thing. People do get better at it the more practice they have and in my experience people want to be better at it so that their sightings get approved more often.

    @Bob- The best experiences I have with people are those who are prepared for my query and have clearly thought about the sighting before.

    As for the procedure for responding, eBird doesn’t have any sort of official protocol. As I said, some reviewers are better about that than others, but I always like to send a followup e-mail letting people who my decision. This is especially useful when I explain why I did not validate a sighting, but that tends to be when I get accusations of elitism too so it’s a mixed bag. The vast majority of experiences I have are positive ones.

  6. April 15, 2010 2:38 pm

    Most of the time when I get an email about a sighting, I just send them a picture. No more questions!

  7. Nate permalink*
    April 15, 2010 6:27 pm

    @Dave- As nice of photos as you take, that’d do it! Would that we all had your skill!

  8. April 17, 2010 12:41 pm

    For a casual, novice birder, this post was extremely informative. I’m always amazed at the apparent changes in plumage that light causes. Thanks!

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