Finding a notable bird is one of birding’s many great joys. One of the key parts of such a discovery is documenting what you found: ensuring that your excellent observation can be shared by others!
eBird has automated data quality filters that require you to provide documentation if you report an unusual species or count for a given location or date. Even when not required for a rare sighting, we highly encourage eBirders to document birds on your checklists. A few quick comments about what you saw helps reviewers to make decisions with the best possible evidence and can serve as wonderful memories for you several years down the road.
The best part about documentation is that it’s easy! All eBirders can provide excellent documentation for their notable birds by following two simple steps: 1) including physical documentation when possible, 2) describing field marks that eliminate similar species. Check out our video from the eBird Essentials course, or read the tips below to learn more.
1. Include physical documentation
Photos and recordings are the best documentation possible. Even poor quality media can conclusively establish an identification. Check out our article on how to upload photos and recordings. It’s a win-win scenario: you have a permanent, free archive of your rare bird documentation in eBird, and your media will also contribute to a vast scientific archive in the Macaulay Library.
Documentation of a Rough-legged Hawk high count by Karl Bardon (S50147388).
2. Describe the bird’s field marks
Note that even though the example below includes a great photo, the observer still thoroughly described the bird. Even a sentence or two can be extremely helpful and solidify a record for acceptance. In our experience, taking a moment to describe your observations will improve your skills and help you get more out of birding.
eBird reviewer Lauren Harter has expertly summarized the elements of a written bird description, structured from most helpful to least helpful. All information you provide is useful, and more information is always better!
How similar species were eliminated
Documentation of a White-faced Ibis by Michael Brown (S37280165).
This category is actually more valuable than the description of the bird itself! Sometimes it may not be needed. What could you confuse with an adult male Painted Bunting? But, if you are reporting a Glossy Ibis out of range, “Tall dark bird, glossy reddish and brown, long legs and long down-curved bill, pale lines on the face” could describe White-faced Ibis just as well! For most rare birds, some analysis of how similar species were eliminated will go a long way.
A description of the bird
Accurately conveying what you observed is the most valuable thing you can do in a written description: either how you counted birds for a ‘high count’, or what field marks you observed for a ‘rare’ species. Take notes at the time of observation, ideally right in eBird Mobile.What did the bird look like? What is its behavior? Does it vocalize? 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. For more on what makes a good bird description, we highly recommend this very helpful article by Dave Irons.
Age and Sex
When it can be determined, noting the age and sex of the bird(s) is essential and should be a key part of your bird description. Many birds look drastically different depending on these factors, which can make them much easier or much harder to identify!
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!!!”. We encourage these notations as an indication that the observer knew why the sighting was being flagged. 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 spring.”
“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.”
Familiarity with this species and confusion species
Whether it’s a species you know well or one you’d never heard of before, it’s good to note it. Remember, though, that “Have seen this species many times in my backyard” 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.
Is this a known individual?
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. E.g., “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: e.g., “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.” If you have photos, write something like “Continuing. Photos coming soon.” 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 time the bird is seen.
The below points are the most common elements of bird descriptions in eBird, but users often end here and stop short of actually describing the bird in question.
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 vegetation, nearby water bodies, etc. can be very helpful.
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.” 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.
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.
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 have value. 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. However, they generally aren’t much help in evaluating the record because they don't actually provide any documentation of the bird itself.
Massive thanks to reviewer Lauren Harter for contributing much of the content for this article!