The Crescent City Common Scoter, a jaw-dropping rarity and first North American record. Do I have it an eBird checklist? Yes. Did I send a report to the Bird Police? No. Are these things connected? Read on.
Earlier this month, frequent Bird Policeman for the California Bird Records Committee (CBRC) and beloved birding legend Kimball Garrett wrote the following email to the local L.A. listserv:
L. A. Birders,
In corresponding with CBRC Secretary Tom Benson, I learned that he has received documentation for the Thick-billed Kingbird in Horsethief Canyon Park in San Dimas this past winter ONLY from a single observer on 22 November 2014. Yet eBird records indicate that the bird was found on 15 November and seen by dozens to at least 3 January 2015. Many eBird submissions during that period were accompanied by photographs and/or descriptions.
Similarly, the Worm-eating Warbler at The Village Green, seen by approximately 23,687 people, was documented for the CBRC by only three submitters. Yet there were about 125 eBird entries, many with good photos and other documentation.
This is (yet) another plea for observers to submit documentation for CBRC review species to the committee for review, even if you know that many other observers also saw the bird. First, you might be surprised by how little documentation the CBRC receives even for long-staying mega-rarities. Second, your added documentation can provide crucial information about changes in appearance (e.g. through molt) and behavior of rarities, and can provided important information on phenology by helping to pin down the date spans over which they are present. Finally, and most importantly, the CBRC maintains a thorough and permanent archive of rare bird records for California, and your submissions become part of that archive. Photos on photo-sharing sites (such as Flickr) that are linked to eBird submissions may not be there in a decade, or a year, or even next week.
Yes, the eBird folks are working on a more permanent way of archiving documentation photos, video and audio, and the ways in which records committees, North American Birds editors, and eBird users interact will clearly evolve over time. But at present the laudable emphasis in the birding community on eBird has unfortunately translated to a vast reduction in direct submissions to the CBRC.
- While eBird is not a permanent place for documenting bird records, it is ostensibly pretty close. EBird is not going anywhere anytime soon. If you put something in eBird, it is going to stay there for as long eBird is around, which will probably be for a very long time. That said, like any website, it is vulnerable to hacking. Can you imagine what would happen if a disgruntled birder (and there are a lot of those) acquired some hacking skills? Or, much more likely, if Flickr got hacked? Yeesh. Observers can delete their checklists at any time. Photographers can delete their photos at any time. We must give the Bird Police some attention. But am I ever going to be deleting/hiding my eBird records and my photos? Nope.
San Francisco's long-staying Rustic Bunting was seen by hordes of birders, I suspect well over 1,000. I wondered how many folks submitted documentation to the CBRC, so I checked. The answer is ten (10). I wonder how many birders even thought about submitting documentation to the CBRC...
- An eBird reviewer may make the incorrect decision of negating an observation of a very rare bird; eBird reviewers, after all, often do not have the credentials of your average Bird Police Officer and they are only one birder. Conversely, there is no doubt that misidentified rarities slip through the cracks and make their way into eBird. When an eBird reviewer thinks they personally have found a rarity, you can be sure that they will get it into eBird, whether it was correctly identified or not. All birders are fallible. Princess Leia's classic line comes to mind: "I am not a committee!".
- A huge proportion of the birding community do not care about submitting documentation to the Bird Police, regardless of experience, age and skill. There are a multitude of reasons for this, and it has nothing to do with eBird. I'm not dissing the Bird Police here, just stating fact.
- I've been birding for over 20 years now, and I am comfortable saying that there are more birders now than ever before...which means there are more new birders than ever before. Shouldn't that automatically translate to more love for the Bird Police? Well, no. Newer birders generally do not concern themselves with submitting records to the Bird Police. They often lack the skills and the confidence to submit records, and it probably does not seem like a high priority for them if they are still struggling finding and seeing comparatively common birds. And if they associate with other birders who don't submit documentation either, then they won't be doing it any time soon; it's just not in their culture, so to speak.
This is one of two (2) Rusty Blackbirds I have ever seen, both of which fall under the jurisdiction of the CBRC. I've yet to see one where they actually belong, though I have a chance next month! Photographed in Santa Cruz County, CA.
- One thing that eBird is great for, in terms of rarities, is documenting exactly how long a rarity is being seen at a particular site. The Bird Police, as far as I know, has no good mechanism for this; they just hope birders will keep on submitting records for an (usually) already well-documented bird. I suspect it is a common situation in which a records committee will receive a small number of records of an individual Vague Runt that may actually be seen over a span of weeks or months. Do the Bird Police completely ignore the data that is readily available on eBird about the dates the bird was really being seen for? I suspect it depends on which department (er, state) we are talking about.
- I will readily admit that I was one of those birders who eBirded the Thick-billed Kingbird mentioned above, but did not send a record to the Bird Police. For posterity, here is my description: "Heard only by Dan Maxwell and myself. Originally heard from a great distance in the housing tract west of the park making short, 2 or 3 note calls that I was not familiar with that sounded similar to a Cassin's Kingbird. Eventually the bird came considerably closer, and once clearly and loudly uttered a single series of distinct and varied calls that Western (extremely unlikely to be present here during this season), Tropical and Cassin's Kingbirds are incapable of making; Thick-billed Kingbird has much more variability (and sometimes, melody?) in their vocalizations than any of these species, which we clearly could discern. Identification was confirmed by checking recorded vocalizations on site. We lingered in the area but we never heard the bird again."
That's it. That's all I've got. I would never in a million years send this to the Bird Police had I not known that a Thick-billed Kingbird was present on site, and I feel that follow-up reports should bear the depth worthy of accepting the record as if it were a first-time sighting...or at least have a decent photo/recording of the bird. I am 100% sure we heard the Thick-billed Kingbird, but let's face it, my description sucks! Would it really get accepted? Does it belong in the annals of Bird Police History? I think that when you yourself would strongly consider rejecting your own record (and I am #7!), that is a valid reason for not offering your observation to the Bird Police.
- I think there is a very strong case for claiming that birders will use eBird instead of notifying birders of notable species via listserv or RBA or North American Birds, you won't get any argument from me there. I'm guilty of that myself, though I don't consider myself a chronic offender.
- Birders are generally unaware that when hundreds or thousands of people see a review bird, almost no one is submitting documentation to the Bird Police. Kimball was right to bring this up; it is not a widely-known fact. Even some Bird Police will neglect to submit documentation of committee birds that someone else found, and they know full well about this problem.
This is the famous Monterey Arctic Loon, which wintered near the Municipal Wharf and was relatively easy to see, unlike the other members of its species I've seen in the Aleutian Islands. Querying the CBRC database, I found out that the first Arctic Loon I chased (unsuccessfully) years ago ended up being rejected by the committee...good to know, and I'm glad that information is available online. Bird Police departments everywhere should do their best to maintain an active online presence; I think it's good for all of us.
So the real question is this: how often do birders submit their sightings to eBird as a direct substitute for submitting documentation to the Bird Police? Despite appearances, I believe this happens relatively rarely. When I enter a record of a committee bird into eBird, that does not mean that I would have sent the CBRC documentation had I not been an eBird user, and I think that the same applies for thousands of other birders. I do not make the conscious decision to submit a photo or description of a review to bird an eBird checklist as a direct substitute for sending it to the Bird Police. Personally speaking, when I don't submit documentation of a review species, but know that I should, it's almost always because I know that other Bird Police officers have seen the bird. Part of their sworn duties as Bird Police are to submit documentation of review species they see, amirite? As Kimball said, I suppose one should never assume that a rarity is being packaged up, sealed, and sent to the Bird Police's evidence room for safe keeping. All birders, even the Bird Police, are fallible, and all but the most demented of us have tendencies of laziness.
EBird has brought countless rarities and birds of interest to the public sphere that likely would never have seen the light of day otherwise. As others have pointed out, there are a lot of birders who utilize eBird who do not contribute to listservs or RBAs at all, let alone bend the knee to the Bird Police. By now, many thousands of birders owe something to eBird, whether they are active users or not. The Bird Police are going to have to start incorporating eBird data sooner or later; it is truly the elephant in the Bird Police Station. Exactly how this unfolds will be fun to watch.
Thank you for all your hard work officers, for keeping us safe from the stringers and the sketchy birders. And thank you, eBird, for being god's gift to birders...you seem to be winning the popularity contest. If you are one of those people who do pledge allegiance to the Bird Police, at least once in a while, we would like to hear your take on all of this, and obviously if you are a Sworn Officer of the Birding Law, we need to hear from you. Despite appearances, your birders need you...now, more than ever.