Describing and Documenting Birds

Over on the eBird website, there’s a post about a new article (which first appeared on eBird Reviewer Lauren Harter’s blog here) titled Reporting Rarities–Elements of a Bird Description.  It’s a great article, and I highly recommend you read it in full, but I suspect a whole lot of people who we’d like to read it … won’t.

Why?  Because this is the internet, and at just shy of 1800 words, that article was way too long!  Personally, I like to give shorter advice, like this.

When I first saw this same article on Facebook back in early August, I left the following comment:

For what it’s worth, here’s my short version of this advice: The goal is to describe the bird in a way that the reviewer will make the ID before you even type the birds name. This requires two key steps:
1. DESCRIBE the bird (e.g., in details that an artist familiar with common birds could use to sketch what you saw). Mention supporting info for how well you saw/heard it.
2. Next, DISCUSS the ID by walking the reader through how you ruled out other possible species.

Beyond living up to your birding communities norms and contributing your observations to science, it’s worth noting that there are excellent self-serving reasons to document birds well!

First, people will respect you more both as a birder, and as a person. If they’re always doubting your poorly documented reports, it’s not just your reputation as a birder that suffers.

Second, it saves you time by avoiding the hassle of responding to emails from state records committee members to eBird reviewers on down to the skeptical birder one county over who urgently wants more details before they give chase.

Third, you learn faster when others can see more details of your ID process. Instead of pushy, probing questions about a (rightfully) questionable report, you’ll instead get feedback that helps make you a better birder.

Fourth, others learn from you about tricky IDs, which makes them better birders, which means they’ll find more “good birds” for you on field trips, for local listing endeavours, etc.  Yes, birding IS more fun when there are more good, and like-minded, birders around!

Fifth, “future you” will like “past you” more if you documenting things well! Nothing worse than going back through old notebooks and realizing that you don’t believe your own report because the memories are gone, the ID problem was harder than you thought, and you (gasp!) didn’t take good notes.  Not a lister? Well, neither was I a decade ago. Now, especially with the help of eBird, I keep county year lists, yard lists, office lists, etc. And yes, it can happen to you too!

BUT, there is one big downside to properly documenting your sightings, and that is that you may come to realize something very uncomfortable: you have serious doubts your own sighting. This is normal. This happens all the time. This might mean that you simply can’t put into words why that bird sounded like a Dickcissel, you just know it was a Dickcissel. Explain that, trust your gut, and know that sometimes, we just can’t document things well enough for others, and that’s alright.

So without further ado, here’s my short summary that I’d encourage others to use when nudging others towards better reporting practices and better documentation of rarities:

Advice for Describing (Rare) Birds

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