Fellow eBirders, below is a post that originated on a CA birding list serve then made it to the Birding California Facebook group, but the same info applies universally.
Fall migration is in full swing. The rate of use of eBird by Los Angeles County birders continues to skyrocket, with the obvious benefit of much denser information about our avifauna, but also with the drawbacks of continuing and even accelerating issues with data quality. So here’s another in a series of occasional messages intended to improve the eBird database for our area. If you know eBird users who are not on this list serve, always feel free to share these messages with them. This mini-rant will cover three issues: (1) Adding descriptions; (2) dealing with subspecies options; and (3) improving metadata in the “Comments” section.
This could be subtitled “There is a happy medium between Curtis Marantz and the average eBird user.” We all know it is now easy (and desirable) to upload photos and audio files to one’s eBird checklist. But when you are asked to document a flagged record, PLEASE keep in mind that such evidence is only part of the documentation that should support unusual records. I am constantly amazed at how many eBirders will attach a photo (or 2 or 3…) to their checklist to document a rarity and will not write a single word about the sighting. In many cases the photos are less than ideal, and might not even help support the identification; so we rely on the added value of a written description. This is where Curtis comes in….. you don’t have to write a Marantzian tome of 4000 words to document a rarity (though such detail is helpful). But please add information about the circumstances of the sighting and any characters (e.g. size and structure, movements, other behaviors, plumage, voice, etc.) that are not evident from the photos as well as amplification of what is shown in the photos. And indicate how similar species were considered and eliminated. I fear that the simple art of writing a good description of a bird to document a sighting and confirm its identification is disappearing from our birding culture. I largely blame the apparent need for instant gratification through smartphones and apps – why not jot notes down in the field (they have these things called pens, pencils and notebooks) and then add a thoughtful and detailed description based on these notes when you’re home sitting at your computer? Yes, it takes time. But the alternative is having what might be a perfectly good record questioned or even invalidated by a reviewer. And as I have mentioned before (let’s call this section “Sandwiches I have Eaten While Birding”), concentrate on relevant points in your description and leave the irrelevant things out.
I strongly urge eBirders to enter data ONLY at the level of species, except in the few cases where well-marked subspecies are (usually) readily identifiable in the field; species with field-identifiable subspecies or subspecies groups in L. A. County include but are not limited to: Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow, Green-winged Teal, Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin, Northern Flicker (and intergrades), Bell’s Vireo, Hermit Thrush, White Wagtail, Red Crossbill (call types), Bell’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco. In some of these cases only one subspecies (or none) occurs regularly. In some other cases, observers with extensive experience and good studies of the bird in question can also reasonably determine subspecies (e.g. Orange-crowned Warbler, Marsh Wren, Song Sparrow, Canada Goose, Cackling Goose, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Red-breasted Sapsucker). There is nothing to be gained by indicating a subspecies based ONLY on your locality – so it’s preferable to enter “Osprey” rather than “Osprey (carolinensis)” even if you can be 99.9% certain that a local Osprey is of the North American carolinensis subspecies. An exception would be if you were able to study the bird well enough to rule out the other Osprey subspecies based on actual characters rather than locality. A lot of the subspecies entry issues seem to arise from the use of smartphone apps, so when entering data via such an app be sure to select the full species rather than a particular subspecies (unless you can document the subspecies). To the novice birder, some of the subspecies names might seem completely appropriate, even though they’re not. A recent example is a birder who entered “Willow Flycatcher (Southwestern)” on the assumption that a Willow Flycatcher in the “southwest” should be that subspecies. In fact, of course, the “Southwestern” Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) is known from Los Angeles County in recent years only! by a very few possible breeding pairs, with essentially no documented records of migrants. So 99.9% of Willow Flycatchers in L. A. County will be what eBird calls “Willow Flycatcher (Northwestern) (Empidonax traillii brewsteri/adastus), even though Los Angeles County is hardly “northwestern.” Why not just enter as “Willow Flycatcher”?
METADATA AND INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS
When you enter an eBird checklist you can make comments about that birding event in the Comments section on the second screen (“Date and Effort”). It is unfortunate that eBird does not require users to enter information about conditions, but until they institute that capability, you can use the “Comments” section to add information on, for example, sky conditions, wind conditions, precipitation, temperature, tide, and other physical environmental conditions that can greatly impact your bird list. Indicate how you covered the area (route, areas of concentration, etc.). Also a description of the habitat, any disturbances or other conditions that might impact your bird list, names of birding companions (these show up automatically only if the list is “shared” with them), condition of vegetation and food crop, and anything else that seems relevant. Sure, you could even mention what kind of sandwich you had for lunch.
All of the above must seem like “work,” but I suspect a large number of you use eBird for the common good as a thorough avifaunal record rather than simply for an accounting of your sport-listing accomplishments. Joseph Grinnell and other “early” naturalists in California might have spent hours writing in their journals about each of their field outings, and that information is invaluable to researchers today. Can’t we, at least in some small part, try to do the same?
Kimball L. Garrett
Ornithology Collections Manager
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County