Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Birder's Guide To Rare Bird Reporting

On October 19, Juli Chamberlin and Bob Toleno found, described, photographed, received independent confirmation of, and reported a Red-throated Pipit (above) at Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland, CA. Since then, there have been up to 3 Red-throated Pipits and at least one japonicus American Pipit found there, which hundreds of birders have gotten to enjoy through tears of joy and sobs of ecstasy. A birding success story often starts with good reporting.

The moment of truth has are in the right place at the right time, and have found a rare bird. At least, you think you have. What next?

Welcome friends, to another groundbreaking post by the Human Birdwatcher Project, who boldly asserts that "Birders are people too!", despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary. The topic of the day? Not rare birds per se, but the people who see them. One of the most frustrating things that established birders deal with are miscues in rare bird reporting made by others. If an amazing bird is rumored to be around, you want to feel good about it before you drive 3 hours to lay eyes on that Spotted Redshank, Northern Wheatear, White-cheeked Pintail, or whatever it may be. Unfortunately, complications frequently come up that (to put it mildly) frustrate others who may want to look at a bird. Every birder that is down for a good twitch has spent many, many burned hours and gallons of gasoline to hunt for birds that simply didn't pan out, for one reason or another. I don't mean a simple dip, I mean other observers are left wondering (or outright believing) that the bird they searched for never existed in the first place.

You might think, "Seagull Steve, you are a stupid elitist asshole. I wouldn't drive an hour to see a rare bird that someone else found if my life depended on it. Are you really about to dictate how people bird? Asshole.", and you may be right, but I can live with that. After all, you don't get to be the nation's #7 birder by having soft skin and not looking at rare birds. BUT, this post isn't for those who have no interest in sharing bird sightings with other people. Take heed of these words, and you may find yourself bathed in the warm glow of admiration from the birding community, instead of mildly resented and/or suspected of being a major stringer.

Brian Sullivan earned 34 GBRS points when he found, identified, documented and properly reported this Arctic Loon last winter. Photographed at the Municipal Wharf in Monterey, CA.

So let us return to our moment of truth. You found a real vagrant, lets say an out of range Smith's Longspur. Huzzah! What do you do next? Many birders may do the following:

- Before reporting the bird, fail to rule out similar species.
- Not report the bird in a timely matter, if at all.
- Report the bird solely via eBird, whom many birders don't regularly monitor or participate in.
- Leave out crucial details like specific location, directions, time of day, other birds the longspur was associating with, etc.
- Fail to provide links to photos and/or give a rudimentary description, let alone a detailed one.
- Assume that even though the bird is inaccessible on private property, no one will care about it.
- Report the bird in such a casual, flippant manner that others are left wondering if you have any idea about what you are talking about.
- Think about unintended consequences of their report: is it a species a hunter might like to bag? Is it somewhere where hunting is allowed? Is it a sensitive/protected species that could react poorly to disturbance?  Is it a bird photographers will crowd and chase around mercilessly?

Every winter I run into visiting birders at Oakland's Lake Merritt who are looking for this Tufted Duck, but they are desperately wandering all over the place because many birders fail to report minimal details about where the bird actually is being seen. For those birders who actually miss this usually cooperative bird because they are looking in the wrong places, it must be extremely frustrating.

Obviously, from time to time birders have good reason to do these things...if so-and-so happened to find this longspur in a place they were completely unfamiliar with (i.e. outside of their home state), it would make sense to just chuck the thing onto eBird instead of search for the appropriate listserv, sign up, wait to be confirmed, then hope you are not on "moderated" status when you attempt your first post. In such situations, even finding an appropriate Facebook group (this one perhaps?) can be useful in getting the word out.

To use another example, Paul Lehman, a Great Birder, recently passed along information about a Marsh Sandpiper in California that he did not even see, with no description or photo to speak of...but everyone knows Paul Lehman is a Great Birder, so no one fussed about this. That said, almost every birder in the world is certainly not Paul Lehman. Literally. And of course, when the photos were made public, it was obviously a Marsh Sandpiper (a one day wonder, unfortunately).

Right. So how does one deal with this Smith's Longspur correctly?

- Run through the field marks, photograph it, wait around to see if it vocalizes.
- Get a hold of a field guide. Make sure it's not another species of longspur, or more shamefully, a Eurasian Skylark (this infamous botch happened in California once).
- If you're unsure, use a reference to ascertain the rarity of your longspur.
- Think about the consequences of reporting the bird...hunters, private property issues, potential disturbance, etc.
- Get a message out to the appropriate listserv/rare bird alert as soon as it is convenient. Contact area birders if you know any. Put your photos up somewhere accessible online.
- If you completely crushed the bird, often your photos alone will inform others as to the validity and awesomeness of your sighting. If not, a few lines of description in your report will be very helpful, with or without a photo. I cannot stress this enough. Include time of day, directions to the spot, and other pertinent details, such as having your car broken in to by tweakers while you were in a longspur daze.
- Let the glory rain down upon you. It is birder gold.

This is a Short-tailed Hawk from the Florida Keys. If I found it in California (a first state record) and had nothing but this mediocre picture to show for it, I would probably go to Curtis Marantz-like lengths to explain the bird (not a simple feat for a mere human), even though many current and former Bird Police know me. If I did nothing but lackadaisically lob this essentially undiagnostic photo online somewhere, the bird cops would no doubt make sure my kneecaps were broken within 24 hours.

I'm not going to go into birders and private property issues (that's a huge clusterfuck situation in and of itself), but even if you see your longspur someplace with no public access, most people would be very interested to know the bird was there in the first place...we are nerds after all, and nerds crave knowledge. Without a doubt there are those who whine and complain about having to hear about these sorts of teasing sightings (why???), but they are a small minority who are used to having much scorn heaped upon them.

There you have it...that is the mental checklist I go through whenever I find a rare bird. With 19 years of experience behind me, I think it's about as refined as its going to get. I could sit here and regale you with stories of pointless and unsuccessful rarity chases, but when you walk around with a huge #7-shaped chip on your shoulder, you will find that you have enough enemies already.


  1. That was a good loon. That tufted duck, on the other hand, can go fuck itself. Just sayin.

    1. We looked for it today, didnt see it...but then again, no one has seen it yet this fall.

  2. Wow, thanks for the callout! It's one of the first real rarities that Juli and i have found since we started birding. It's been immensely gratifying that so many other birders got to see the pipit we found (and the others that we didn't).

    1. No Bob, thank you! Those pipits were good times.

  3. What do you think about reporting to the phone-in rare bird alerts? Obsolete? I recently found a rarity but got flogged by private email for only phoning it in to the "birdbox" and waiting (gasp) several hours before reporting it on the web (don't have a smart phone yet).

    1. Phone reporting does seem to be going the way of the buffalo, although in certain areas (northwest California, for example) it is still the de facto reporting method. Reporting a rarity to birdbox is a lot better than not reporting it at all (especially without a smartphone available), so I hope you told your flogger to fuck off. That said, it rarely occurs to me to check the local birdbox, but there's no point in getting all butthurt about a phone-only bird.

  4. Fantastic post! Good advice for good-natured birders