Correct bird identification is the essential first step toward tracking your lists and submitting to eBird. While many of us learn bird identification by matching what we see in the field to pictures in a field guide, this approach is sure to lead to errors if one does not consider known patterns of occurrence, both geography and seasonality. Seasonality is factored into account with every eBird submission, and most of the time a sighting is flagged as unusual it is because it is outside of the normal temporal periods of occurrence. These flags are a great warning system to make sure you aren't misidentifying an American Tree Sparrow as a Chipping Sparrow! Tony Leukering discusses this example--and others--in a superb article on using seasonality in bird identification. Read on to download it for free!
Field guides (and eBird range maps) help greatly with geographic distribution. But seasonal distribution, which varies geographically but often follows consistent rules and widespread patterns, is much harder to learn. Failure to be appropriately cautious with unseasonal sightings is a factor in many identification mistakes.
New tools—with eBird data as their foundation—apply geographical and temporal likelihood automatically as a next-generation approach to a field guide. Within the USA, Merlin uses eBird frequency in your area to predict what likely species for your time and place best match the field marks you observed. Similarly, Merlin Photo ID factors in information from eBird to distinguish between tricky lookalike species, such as American Crow, Fish Crow, and Northwestern Crow or Eastern and Western Wood-Pewees. Watch for Merlin to appear in new areas in the coming years.
Whether you have Merlin on your smartphone or not, we recommend learning seasonal patterns in your local area. Understanding of seasonal timing richens your birding not only by being able to appreciate a "notably late" warbler or "record early" flycatcher in your area, but also by giving identification hints that can get you more quickly to the correct identification.
This superb article by eBird reviewer Tony Leukering details the importance of understanding seasonality in bird identification. Although written for a North American audience, the lessons equally are applicable anywhere in the world. For example, European birders might try comparing the seasonality of Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) and Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) and Central American or South American birders will want to study how Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (Myiodynastes luteiventris) moves through their area as compared to Streaked Flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus). Compare France and Panama as examples. Rich with similar examples from eBird, Tony's article prompts you to think about seasonality as a field mark and helps get you off on the right foot to identify that next bird.
This article previously appeared in Birding magazine, a publication of the American Birding Association.
Download "The Most Underused ID Feature" by Tony Leukering below.