Advice for Describing (Rare) Birds

When documenting a rare bird, your goal should be to describe the bird in a way that others will make the ID before you get to mentioning the bird’s name. This is requires two key steps:

  1. DESCRIBE the bird in a way so that an artist familiar with common birds could sketch what you observed. 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.


1a. “Obviously a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Not that rare.” This is terrible documentation!

1b. “Seen as it flew over my car with the sun at my back. Kingbird sized, light gray, some pinkish orangish on the underside of the wing and armpits. The long, deeply forked tail was about twice the length of the body.” This is much better documentation! You don’t even need to discuss the ID on that one! For eBird, this is fantastic. Give Harter’s article a read, and see what more could be done here to improve it.

2a. “Looked like a robin, but with a thick almost black necklace, dark grayish/blackish cheek patch and orange supercillium, two orange wingbars and two orange bars across flight feathers as well. ” See what I did there? See how you already know this is a Varied Thrush? Way better than…

2b. “New yard bird! Definitely not a baby robin, but similar looking, but I’m sure it was a varied thrush because I’ve seen them before on a trip to Alaska.”

3a. “Seen on the beach during vacation. My friend who is a good birder said it was a snowy plover.” Umm… no.

3b. “Seen on the beach during vacation. Also see by my friend John D. Birder from Oklahoma, who said he’s seen many of them on field trips back home. Same size as nearby Semipalmated Plovers, clearly much paler overall, with black on the sides of the neck just above the shoulder but no neck band (upper breast and neck solid white). John said the black bill meant it wasn’t a piping plover.” Yes! Again, see how we documented this Snow Plover without once asserting confidently that it was a Snow Plover?

4. As always, when you have good independent documentation, lead with that:
See photo of the Baird’s Sandpiper below
Baird's Sandpiper

For more on documenting rarities see Lauren Harter‘s blog post, Elements of a Bird Description, or the slightly modified version for eBird users: Reporting Rarities–Elements of a Bird Description.

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2 Responses to Advice for Describing (Rare) Birds

  1. Pingback: Describing and Documenting Birds | Mostly Birds

  2. Here’s one I saw just today, after reading your recent post, “2 groups flew over in my back swing, it ruined the that hole for me but I was more than happy. Exact count.” Funny, but not helpful!

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