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Do I have to be an expert to contribute to eBird?

Definitely not! Occasionally we hear about birders who tried eBird once, but then did not return because they felt they were not qualified to contribute, or that eBird caters only to “expert” birders. This is not the case at all! At eBird we believe that all bird observations have value. You need not be a globetrotting expert—some of the most valuable checklists are repeated observations from people who have never looked for birds outside their own backyard! You need not know every bird that flashes through your binoculars either, the eBird data quality process guards against many potential identification errors. Furthermore, the exchange of information between experts and beginners during this process is a valuable learning tool. We want eBird to be used by birders of all skill levels: our only request is that you try to use eBird to its fullest capacity, report the birds you see and hear to the best of your ability, and err on the conservative side if you are unsure about your identification.

All data have value

The primary purpose of eBird is not to be a rare bird reporting network or a competitive listing website, although we do have some features that highlight these things to help engage birders. eBird is fundamentally a tool to help us understand and document bird occurrence across the landscape: any bird, anywhere, any time. For this reason, every birder has something to contribute, every time they go birding. Sure, the state bird expert may live on your block, but only you can tell us what birds visit your backyard. You may find an odd bird at your feeders that the expert has never seen in the state—this has happened many times! More likely you won’t find a super-rarity, but your observations will help to strengthen our understanding that American Goldfinch and Northern Cardinal are two of the most common birds in your area. You may not be providing us with information on tricky immature sandpipers, but your reports of backyard birds are just as valuable. The more information eBird gets the better. It thrives on volume. It doesn’t matter where, or when, or from whom it receives data, as long as the data keep coming it works better and better every day.

eBird quality control

Are you afraid to contribute to science through eBird because you are a novice birder? Don’t worry—eBird has three levels of quality control that will keep the truly important sightings out of the permanent record until verified and will help you learn to identify species more accurately. The three levels are as follows:

1) The initial list that you see within eBird should contain only the expected species for your area. For example, if you live in Georgia and identify a Black-capped Chickadee, perhaps you will take a second look when the eBird checklist has only Carolina Chickadee on it (Black-capped Chickadee has never been confirmed to occur in Georgia!). This provides our first defense against misidentifications, by helping our users to understand what species are likely in their home area.

2) If you do report something unexpected, or an unusually high count of some species, eBird will ask you the following: “1 is an excellent count for Black-caped Chickadee! If it is correct, please check the ‘CONFIRM’ box and continue.” We hope that this message does not turn anyone off, but it is very important to let our users know when they have found something exciting—it could be a mistake, but it also could be the most exciting bird news of the year! If you do click confirm, it is a good idea to provide some comments along with your sighting to support you identification (read more).

3) Finally, if you do click ‘CONFIRM’, your sighting will be tagged so that it will be reviewed by a local expert. He or she will be able to review your sighting, read any comments, and may get in touch with you if further details are necessary.

The eBird filters check all submitted sightings against established knowledge about bird occurrence. If any of your sightings challenge established knowledge, you will be asked first to confirm that you actually intended to report this species. This prevents both typos (it is easy to type 11 instead of 1) and misidentifications.

Don’t let anyone discourage you from using eBird—we want your sightings. And if a record of yours isn't accepted don't feel bad. Each of us has had records rejected by state records committees. That doesn't mean that we didn't see those birds--it just means that the committees are erring on the side of caution, and that the documentation provided to support the record isn't strong enough to stand up to scrutiny ten, fifty, or hundreds of years down the road.

eBird as a learning tool

Everyone on Team eBird is a passionate birder, and we like to think we are pretty good at what we do. But we didn’t start out that way. Each of us was once a novice birder, struggling to identify the chickadees, sparrows, and hawks in our neighborhood. Each of us made terrible misidentifications along the way, an essential step in the learning process. In many cases, we did not discover our errors until years later. A Henslow’s Sparrow that one of us identified in our yard was removed from his life list only when an expert told him—two years later—that it is a rare bird in Maryland.

This is where eBird can shine. Every time you enter a checklist in eBird, we check your report against what is expected for your area. If you report something unexpected, you get the eBird error message: what a great learning tool! If we had this when we were just starting out, it might have made Marshall question that Henslow’s Sparrow earlier. He would have had a chance to run out and check it while it was still there, rather than two years later.

Learning what is expected in your area is the first secret to becoming a “good” birder. Experienced North American birders know that a winter Great Crested Flycatcher in New Jersey should be double-checked—it could be an Ash-throated. They know that Tree Swallows arrive in March and Northern Rough-winged Swallows arrive in April, and that Greater Yellowlegs is more likely in winter than Lesser Yellowlegs. All these pieces of information help you to understand the birds in your area, and every checklist entered in eBird helps you.

Perhaps you will receive an email from an eBird editor asking you about a bird you saw. Our eBird editors are regional experts who know the history of local bird sightings inside and out. Their interest in your sighting should be viewed as a compliment; use this opportunity to question your own sighting objectively, provide them with the facts of the sighting, and hopefully impart some of their wisdom. This is a great learning opportunity for novices to interact with the area experts. Hopefully you will learn something more about the birds of your area--either just how exciting your rare visitor was, or what similar species can fool you!

And of course, having a complete record of your birding trips is an amazing birding tool as well. We all wish we had all our childhood bird lists in eBird. Some of them live on scraps of paper that we are gradually entering, but many are lost forever. Remembering your birding trips of the past, and having a permanent record of them, is one of the best learning tools available. For this reason, we encourage the judicious use of notes with your bird lists and as always, we encourage you to go back and correct any sightings that you have lost confidence in or have re-identified.

If you are unsure, say so!

Perhaps you see a hawk in your backyard and set out to identify it. You note some field marks: yellow eye, streaked breast, brown back, long tail, yellow legs.  You come to decide that it must be an immature of one of the species of Accipiter: Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s Hawk, or Northern Goshawk. But in reading the text of the field guide you realize that you missed key field marks: tail shape, relative size, pattern of streaking on the underparts. Can you still report this sighting, even though you are unsure of the species?

Yes! eBird has a multitude of options that can be used to enter an uncertain identification, including  “slash” and “sp.”. Our “slash” option includes things such as Black-capped/Carolina Chickadee and Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs. Use these if you were able to narrow your identification down to one of the two species. Our “sp.” options include groups that have more than two possible species: Accipiter sp., chickadee sp., scoter sp., or hawk sp. Note that when the first name is capitalized , it refers to the Genus of the Scientific Name (e.g., Accipiter sp.), so that may help you to understand what we mean for Myiarchus sp. and Empidonax sp.

Entering "spuhs" isn't something only for beginners. In some cases, birds are simply too far away to identify (correctly or with certainty).  No one can identify every bird they see all the time. Admitting that is a key step to becoming a better birder.

Many eBird checklists have the most common "slash" and "sp." options on the main checklist page. If you can't find what you're looking for there, to see a list of all slashes or “spuhs”, click on “rare species” when entering a checklist and then type “/” or “sp.”, respectively, in the “Add a species” box.

Repeated surveys are great—even from your backyard

We find that regular visitation of a specific location—be it your backyard, local park, or favorite refuge—can be one of the most rewarding and valuable ways to use eBird, and to gain a solid understanding of the ebb and flow of bird populations in your local area. Birders that report regularly from a favorite area, sometimes known as a “patch”, develop an intimate level of familiarity with the birds there that often yields fascinating questions. For example, patch birders in New England may detect the July dispersal of Carolina Wrens, discover roosts and local movements of American Robins, or understand something novel about where, when, and how Red-winged Blackbirds move around. The statewide birder might miss these subtleties—if you bird at a new place every weekend you may see a wide variety of species, but you might miss the constantly changing fabric of bird occurrence patterns at a local scale.

Try entering one checklist a day for your yard for just one year, and we guarantee you that you’ll be overloaded with interesting questions for next year. Why did Downy Woodpeckers not visit my feeders from April to July, but then return in August? Was my first American Tree Sparrow on 15 November on schedule? How did it compare to sightings of other birders in the state? Can I find one earlier next year? American Goldfinch in particular is interesting, since the ones that nest in your area in summer are probably not the same ones there in winter. These types of questions are endless, and prove the value in recording birds at fine scales. Some birders even keep regular lists from city parks that usually have nothing but European Starlings, Rock Pigeons, and House Sparrows. When something else turns up, it is interesting. Try carving out a favorite area and eBirding it intensely!

 

No matter what kind of birder you are, you have something valuable to contribute! We look forward to seeing your sightings in eBird!

ebirdhelp@gmail.com
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