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Reporting Rarities--Elements of a Bird Description

Documenting a notable bird sighting is a part of everyday life for most birders, especially with the growing popularity of eBird. With the increase in documentation out there, though, in many ways there has been a decline in the quality of documentation. Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what to write in the comments box, or what to give when you’re asked about a bird sighting. Here we discuss some of the elements commonly seen in bird descriptions in eBird, and which of these are more or less valuable as documentation. The focus here is eBird documentation, but much of this also applies to writing bird descriptions for other purposes, such as North American Birds or submitting a report to a bird records committee.

If you feel that writing a bird description is more trouble than it’s worth, we recommend this article by Dave Irons. Another great article on the why, how, and what of bird documentation is here. Finally, we urge all eBird users to get to know the review process by reading this article regularly!

The list below is structured from least helpful to most helpful in bird documentation. We want to stress that any information you provide is useful, and that more information is always better! The point here is to encourage eBird users (and others) to include more of the really helpful information.

Incidental Narrative
Example: “I was just taking a break from setting up my cousin Bob’s wedding and decided to go for a walk. I was walking down by the creek, going really slowly because it was muddy, and contemplating life, etc. etc. when I spotted this bird!”

Incidental narratives are great. They help put the sighting in context and will help you remember it years down the road. Sometimes they can contain valuable information, like time of day, precise location, weather, or other observers. Often, though, they aren’t much help to the reviewer because they don't actually provide any documentation of the field marks seen on the bird.

Where the bird was perched, When it flew
Example: “The bird was perched on a dead oak stick 30 feet from the second waterfall about two feet above the ground. After it saw me come around the corner, it stayed for about 10 seconds before flying off.”

These are the most common elements of bird descriptions in eBird, and users often end here. It’s helpful to know exactly where the bird was in case people want to chase it, and behavior can be useful in evaluating a record. But for a record that is flagged, this is not enough.

Some birds are very particular about their habitat, and it may be difficult to infer from the sighting location what the exact habitat was like. Noting elevation, habitat type, dominant species, nearby water bodies, etc. can be very helpful.

Distance to the bird, lighting, optics, length of observation
These and similar details can be important, especially for very notable sightings, and are often requested by bird records committees.

If you know you are seeing a continuing bird, it is important to note it as such. Even if you aren’t sure, take note of your suspicions. “Possibly the bird that was seen here a month ago.” On the flip side, if it was not a continuing bird but could be confused with one, note that too. “Not the one that was seen here a month ago. That one was an adult and this is a juvenile.” Sometimes, all that is needed for a continuing bird is that one word: “Continuing.” One practice reviewers really appreciate is to say “Continuing. Photos available if requested.” Of course, it never hurts to document even a known rarity with more information. This information becomes especially valuable if your sighting ends up being the last one of a given individual's occurrence.

Familiarity with this species and confusion species
Whether it is a species you know well or one you had never heard of before, it is good to make note of it. Remember, though, that “Have seen this species many times in my backyard on Nantucket Island” is probably not enough to have the record validated on its own. In fact, this can be a warning sign, as it implies the bird wasn't looked at carefully under the assumption that is was common. In reality, traveling birders frequently make misidentifications because they assume a species to be common when it is in fact rare where they are birding.

Recognition of the rarity of the sighting
If you browse sightings in eBird, you may have noticed notations like “*Early,” “**Very rare,” “***First county record!” or “****MEGA!!!”. eBird encourages these notations as an indication that the observer knew why the sighting was being flagged. It’s good to note whether you knew it was rare, or not! Here are just a few examples of things you could say to let the reviewer know that you have given the sighting some thought:

“My first of the spring.”
“Very unexpected in this habitat!”
“I see this regularly back home on Nantucket Island, but now I’m looking in the guides and see that this species is rare in this area. Still, I’m confident of what I saw.”
“I just snapped the photo, not thinking much about it at the time, so I did not take any further notes.”
“I was scanning a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers hoping for a Short-billed, which would be a state bird, and when I spotted this bird I suspected I had one.”
Also completely valid to say: “Species is not unexpected in this area at this time of year” If you know for certain that is true.

Age and Sex
When it can be determined, noting the age and sex of the bird(s) is essential and should be the first part of your bird description.

At this point, if you have included all the above information, you may be on your way to a great bird description. However, if you stop here, you are stopping short of documenting the bird! Take this hypothetical example: “I came upon the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet in the Bill Williams River NWR around 11 a.m. Sunday morning. It foraged low in a cottonwood 3 feet from my face for 30 minutes! I was shocked to see one this far north, but I am very familiar with the species from my travels in Mexico and am certain of the sighting.” If a reviewer were to see this in eBird, they would certainly be intrigued, but such a rarity would require some sort of documentation to back up the sighting in order to be considered “confirmed”.

The three items below may not be required for a really low-end or continuing rarity, but without them, you have not documented your sighting and you may receive an email asking for more details.

A description of the bird
This is the heart of bird documentation: a description of what you saw. For a high count in eBird, it may not be necessary to describe your identification of the species involved (but it can’t hurt). In those cases, a description of how you arrived at your count or estimate is more helpful. Otherwise, a bird description means just that: a description of the bird. What did it look like? If you realize it is a rarity at the time of the sighting, take some time to make mental, if not physical, notes. Even if you get a photo, video, or sound recording, descriptions are still immensely helpful, and learning to write a bird description goes hand-in-hand with becoming a keen observer. Say you got great photos from all angles. Now, stop and watch the bird for a while. What is its behavior? Does it vocalize? Try to describe the vocalizations, as they are sometimes extremely important in identification. For much more on what makes a good bird description, we highly recommend this very helpful article by Dave Irons.

How similar species were eliminated
Yes, we're counting this category as more valuable than the description of the bird. In some cases, it may not be needed. What could you confuse with an adult male Painted Bunting? But, if you are claiming a Glossy Ibis, it isn’t enough to note “Tall dark bird, glossy reddish and brown, long legs and long downcurved bill, pale lines on the face.” That could describe White-faced Ibis just as well, and some folks with an older field guide may not know that White-faced Ibis exists! For most rare birds, some analysis of how similar species were eliminated will go a long way.

Physical documentation: Photo, audio, video
It is now possible to embed photos, audio, and video directly into an eBird checklist. This is the best way to share your documentation, since it will be easily visible to all users. See eBird’s helpful how-to for details. A simple link will also work, or, if you choose not to share your documentation online, leave a note for the reviewer: “Photo/audio/video available upon request” and wait for them to contact you. These are the most common forms of what is called physical documentation and are the only way to prove what you saw without a specimen. Still, sometimes the bird may not be identifiable from the material, so remember to take notes and include a written description of the bird, as well.

Keep in mind also that reviewers see records from all kinds of observers, from records committee members and other eBird reviewers, to brand-new birders using Google to identify birds. The skill of the birder may be taken into consideration if it is known, but it is always best to assume that the reviewer has no idea who you are or what your experience is, especially if you are traveling to a new area. Take the time to describe even an easy ID (American White Pelican: Counted a flock of gigantic white birds swimming and sitting on a sand bar. Short yellow legs, very long yellow bill.) to make it clear that the ID is correct, for the reviewer and for anyone revisiting the record down the road.

In summary, when documenting a notable bird sighting for eBird or any other purpose, all information is useful information. Before you hit “submit”, stop and ask yourself, did I describe the bird? If someone is looking at this record 50 years from now, will they be satisfied with this documentation? Bird documentation is essential to citizen science and the ornithological record. When you take the time to practice it, you will not only make your sightings more useful, you will make yourself a more keen observer. We hope this information will be helpful for eBird users and others.

Contributed by Lauren Harter, eBird Reviewer
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