Elements of a Bird Description

Documenting a notable bird sighting is a part of everyday life for most birders, especially with the growing popularity of eBird. With the increase in documentation out there, though, in many ways there has been a decline in the quality of documentation. I’ve been an eBird editor for a few years now. In that and other capacities, I see a lot of variety in bird documentation. Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what to write in the comments box, or what to give when you’re asked about a bird sighting. I’d like to discuss some of the elements I commonly see in bird descriptions in eBird, and which of these are more or less valuable as documentation. My focus here is eBird, but much of this also applies to writing bird descriptions for other purposes, such as North American Birds or submitting a report to a bird records committee.

If you’re not sold on eBird, read about why I use it. If you feel that writing a bird description is more trouble than it’s worth, I would recommend this article by Dave Irons. Another great article on the why, how, and what of bird documentation is here. Finally, I urge all eBird users to get to know the review process by reading this article regularly!

The list below is structured from least helpful to most helpful in bird documentation, from my own subjective view. I want to stress that no information is useless or should be left out–more information is always better! My point here is to encourage eBird users (and others) to include more of the really helpful information. Disclaimer: all the examples below are made up by me; I’m not actually quoting anyone here.

Incidental Narrative
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 are great. 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. Often, though, they aren’t much help to the reviewer.

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.”
I mention this category because these are the most common elements of bird descriptions in eBird, and users often end here. 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.

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 species, nearby water bodies, etc. can be very helpful.

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.

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. “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. “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.” One practice I really appreciate is to say “Continuing. Photos available if requested.” 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.

Familiarity with this species and confusion species
Whether it is a species you know well or one you had never heard of before, it is good to make note of it. Remember, though, that “Have seen this species many times in my backyard on Nantucket Island” is probably not enough to have the record validated on its own.

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!!!”. eBird encourages these notations as an indication that the observer knew why the sighting was being flagged. It’s good to note whether you knew it was rare, or not! 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 the spring.”
“Very unexpected in this habitat!”
“I see this regularly back home on Nantucket Island, but now I’m looking in the guides and see that this species is rare in this area. Still, I’m confident of what I saw.”
“I just snapped the photo, not thinking much about it at the time, so I did not take any further notes.”
“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.”
Also completely valid to say: “Species is not unexpected in this area at this time of year” If you know for certain that is true.

Age and Sex
When it can be determined, noting the age and sex of the bird(s) is essential and should be the first part of your bird description.

At this point, if you have included all the above information, you may be on your way to a great bird description. However, if you stop here, you are stopping short of documenting the bird! Take this hypothetical example: “I came upon the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet in the Bill Williams River NWR around 11 a.m. Sunday morning. It foraged low in a cottonwood 3 feet from my face for 30 minutes! I was shocked to see one this far north, but I am very familiar with the species from my travels in Mexico and am certain of the sighting.” If I were to see this in eBird, I would certainly be intrigued, but such a rarity would require some sort of documentation to back up the sighting in order to be considered “confirmed”.

The three items below may not be required for a really low-end or continuing rarity, but without them, you have not documented your sighting and you may just receive one of those pesky emails asking for more details.

A description of the bird
This is the heart of bird documentation: a description of what you saw. For a high count in eBird, it may not be necessary to describe your identification of the species involved (but it can’t hurt). In those cases, a description of how you arrived at your count or estimate is more helpful. Otherwise, a bird description means just that: a description of the bird. What did it look like? If you realize it is a rarity at the time of the sighting, take some time to make mental, if not physical, notes. 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. Say you got great photos from all angles. Now, stop and watch the bird for a while. What is its behavior? Does it vocalize? Try to describe the vocalizations, as they are sometimes extremely important in identification. For much more on what makes a good bird description, I highly recommend this very helpful article by Dave Irons.

How similar species were eliminated
Yes, I’m counting this category as more valuable than the description of the bird. In some cases, it may not be needed. What could you confuse with an adult male Painted Bunting? But, if you are claiming a Glossy Ibis, it isn’t enough to note “Tall dark bird, glossy reddish and brown, long legs and long downcurved bill, pale lines on the face.” That could describe White-faced Ibis just as well, and some folks with an older field guide may not know that White-faced Ibis exists! For most rare birds, some analysis of how similar species were eliminated will go a long way.

Physical documentation: Photo, audio, video
It is now possible to embed photos, audio, and video directly into an eBird checklist. This is the best way to share your documentation, since it will be easily visible to all users. See eBird’s helpful how-to for details. A simple link will also work, or, if you choose not to share your documentation online, leave a note for the reviewer: “Photo/audio/video available upon request” and wait for them to contact you. These are the most common forms of what is called physical documentation and are the only way to prove what you saw without a specimen. Still, sometimes the bird may not be identifiable from the material, so remember to take notes and include a written description of the bird, as well.

Keep in mind also that reviewers see records from all kinds of observers, from records committee members and other eBird reviewers, to brand-new birders using Google to identify birds. The skill of the birder may be taken into consideration if it is known, but it is always best to assume that the reviewer has no idea who you are or what your experience is, especially if you are traveling to a new area. Take the time to describe even an easy ID (American White Pelican: Counted a flock of gigantic white birds swimming and sitting on a sand bar. Short yellow legs, very long yellow bill.) to make it clear that the ID is correct, for the reviewer and for anyone revisiting the record down the road.

In summary, when documenting a notable bird sighting for eBird or any other purpose, all information is useful information. Before you hit “submit”, stop and ask yourself, did I describe the bird? If someone is looking at this record 50 years from now, will they be satisfied with this documentation? Bird documentation is essential to citizen science and the ornithological record. When you take the time to practice it, you will not only make your sightings more useful, you will make yourself a more keen observer. I hope this information will be helpful for eBird users and others. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below!


About Lauren Harter

I live in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where I work as a field biologist and spend as much of the rest of my time as possible looking at (and listening to!) birds.
This entry was posted in eBird, Techniques and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Elements of a Bird Description

  1. Nina Hansen says:

    Wonderful, Lauren! Thanks so much for this!~

  2. Rob Fowler says:

    Excellent article, Lauren. Everything you need to know as an eBirder on how to document birds (high counts or actual rarities). Thanks!

  3. Gordon Karre says:

    Excellent advise! I have had to learn a lot of this the hard way. (VBG!) But am doing better now that I understand all the inner workings of eBird. Thanks for putting this info out there!

  4. Peggy Wyman says:

    Excellent article…I definitely need to practice describing birds! I love eBIrd!

  5. Jay says:

    Not to be a buzz-kill or anything, but there’s a lot that eBird could do better for its users as well. I mean, don’t get me wrong, eBird has been great for me. I’m seeing so many more birds, learning so much about places to go and when to go there, and am finally keeping a nice clean record of my birding experiences. Yay! That’s all great. But, for the most part, eBird only works because people are using it. Birders are building those databases. We are taking time out of our day, time away from our families, friends (for those of us who have lives outside of birding), and financially gainful activities to sit there and voluntarily type in very tedious information. Like I said, I get it. eBird is great. But, there’s a certain point where eBird needs to understand that there is a real cost involved to its users for entering all of these data. They are getting tons of data for free. I think it’s time eBird began to consider the well-being of its users.

    For one thing, how about being *very* upfront about the way reports are shared with the public. I see reports coming through on the alerts and its so painfully obvious the person has no clue that 100s of people are seeing their report, and in some cases laughing at it. Sometimes there is personal information. Sometimes there is a risk to the eBird user who has not been properly and rightfully informed of how their reports are being used.

    This is unethical. eBird should take immediate steps to make sure every one of its users knows their information is being shared – not just available for research, but actually shared, in real time, and that privacy is lost.

    And, now, about this reporting of rare birds. It’s so unbelievably biased. One person can give a great report of a rare bird, filled with details, but if they don’t have the right name recognition, then they don’t get accepted. Meanwhile, we’ve all seen reports with absolutely no information at all confirmed. I’ve even seen reports confirmed for people who chased a bird reported by someone else and the first person was never approved. Name recognition. Chronyism. What ever it is, it sure does look biased to me. Recently there was a bird reported. Three people had their reports confirmed, nobody else did, including the people who had the bird in the scope that the people whose reports were confirmed looked through. Not biased? Not a chance. It’s totally biased.

    So, tell me then, why would anyone in their right mind sit there and type in all of this tedious information if the reviewers simply don’t want to take you seriously? And it simply does not matter. Some people can follow every single tip you’ve mentioned, and the reviewers do what ever they want. What gives? Are we all just a bunch of grunts? I have better things to do with my time … you know, like go see birds.

    So, now I just use eBird, like many other people I know, to simply serve my purposes and I don’t really care about the “quality” of my reports to the reviewers. Don’t care at all. That’s why there’s so much missing data, so many birds going unreported. It’s a public relations issue, not a quality of reports issue.

    • Hi Jay, thanks for your comments. Of course I’m just a volunteer for eBird, so I don’t have any power over what happens at eBird Central, but I’m happy to discuss my opinions of issues like these.

      It’s been a long time since I registered for eBird so I’m not sure what kind of information you get when you sign up, but I agree that it would be nice for eBird to be straightforward and up-front with information about exactly what is and isn’t viewable to the public. Particularly that the names of your checklist locations are visible–this is where I often see people putting their addresses.

      That being said, I disagree that eBird is doing anything unethical. Maybe it could be doing better, but any user of any product on the internet needs to take responsibility for the information that they put out there. It’s right there in the privacy policy (which isn’t exactly a long document full of legalese):

      “All details of an observation and its associated location (species, numbers, etc.) are available to all users registered with eBird. However, only information pertaining to bird observations is available to eBird users; no personal contact information is ever made public.”

      I also disagree with your statement: “That’s why there’s so much missing data, so many birds going unreported. It’s a public relations issue, not a quality of reports issue.” I’m sure there are quite a few people out there who feel the same way you do, and I’ve met at least one person who specifically told me she didn’t use eBird because she felt that it was a privacy issue. Everyone should consider eBird’s privacy policy and consider whether it is a project they want to contribute to, or not. If not, that’s fine. It’s citizen science, not mandatory to being a birder. eBird will never get every bird reported, and that’s not the point of it. I think the main thing holding a lot of people back from reporting is the time investment that you mention. It takes extra time to enter eBird, and it’s just too much for a lot of people; it always will be. And that’s okay.

      As far as your other comments, first I’d like to point out that reviewers are just volunteers in a citizen science project, eBird users like you, who have simply been asked to play a larger role in the project. There is a whole lot of variation in a big network of volunteers. Yes, the experience of the observer can play a role in how much documentation is asked for by the reviewer–and this is up to the reviewer. (Keep in mind that you might not be seeing the documentation that was given to the reviewer–if the reviewer contacts the observer by email, and the observer sends smashing photos or a description, etc., that is only visible to the public if the observer adds it to the record themselves.) I’ve heard of problems like the ones you mention, such as a birder from another country not even being asked for his documentation which he stated was available, and his report was invalidated. That was a mistake on the reviewer’s part–it shouldn’t happen. I’ve had my own reports invalidated, by a friend, for reasons I disagree with. But, personally, I think that the benefits of eBird vastly outweigh the annoyance caused by minor problems like that.

      Also, keep in mind that invalidated records don’t just go away. They can be revisited and changed at any time, and this does happen. If you really feel that you’ve been wronged, especially if it’s happening regularly, try to get in touch with someone else involved in eBird in your state or region and bring up the problem. Reports with good details shouldn’t be invalidated for lack of name recognition, as you put it.

      One last point, which may or may not be related to the problems you refer to. I think the #1 reason for otherwise good reports to be invalidated is because of poor location plotting. Sometimes the wrong hotspot is used or the point was placed miles away from the actual site, in the wrong habitat. Often and increasingly, folks are submitting checklists for an entire day (or more!) of birding within a very large area. These are fine for listing for the user’s purpose, but this is often incompatible with eBird output and so are invalidated. There’s a huge amount of variation here in how far a reviewer will go to try to get the locations plotted better or the checklists broken up.

      Hope this helps. Thanks again for your comments.

      • Jay says:

        Thanks, Lauren.

        I do think that I have been having problems on a pretty regular basis. Once again, I have a rare bird, fully documented with a very large number of photos, and have consulted with many birding experts on the ID (which I didn’t need to do, I can ID my own birds, but I did it anyway). It’s a great bird and I think it would be nice to have it added to the database. I’m a big fan of robust data; I fully understand the beauty and value of it. Let’s add this great bird to it! But, nope. The reviewer for that particular hotspot seems to think that if HE didn’t see the bird, it didn’t occur. It’s sort of like that question about the tree falling in the woods … well, in this case it’s “If a tree falls in the woods and this guy is not there to see it … then, it never fell”. It’s really shameful. It was my bad luck that he was giving a tour that day and missed this bird. I am the only one out of 100s of birders who caught it. I’m a very good birder. I *find* birds, I don’t just chase them. Despite my name, I am female, and I can say I find more rare birds than any other female in my state. But then I have to deal with this same old BS from the reviewers, especially this one.

        So, who do I speak with? I’ve sent emails to inquire about why this keeps happening and have never heard back. I’ve even sent emails to inquire about my sightings … time and time again I have sent emails. So many emails. Why do I keep needing to send these emails? It’s very stressful. I don’t want to use eBird anymore because of this. Like so many others. And, there are more than one or two people opting out, I can assure you. Or they only report when they can add something new to their lists. 100s of people are doing it that way.

        If you look at the data for my county, for example, you would think a green heron is a very rare bird. That’s because almost everyone here only reports the bird the first time they see it. It’s not a realistic picture. We have another location that is getting slated to be plowed over. The person in charge says he looked on eBird and there are no reports of birds, or very few. It’s because, again, people only report what they need. It’s a problem.

        And the way to solve this problem is not to have eBird reviewers alienating users by harrassing them in the way that I’ve both witnessed and personally experienced. I don’t believe its really just a problem of a few bad seeds. I think there is a culture of demeaning eBird users. Just look at how you started this blog post, with the negatives (even the ridiculous) first. I know you are not quoting someone directly, but you do seem to be making fun of certain kinds of people. This does not help.

        It’s a shame. eBird could be really great. But it is falling short for the reasons I’ve stated. It’s really quite an inordinate amount of work on my part. I’m tired.

        • I’m sorry you’ve been having so much trouble. If you really want me to try to help you, you can contact me by email and I can try to put you in touch with someone in your area who could help. But, I am only one eBird reviewer, writing about my experiences and opinions. I don’t work for eBird and I can’t directly help you, especially not knowing who you are or where you report from. The problems you write about do certainly apply to some reviewers; I think I made it clear that I agree with you; but it is not systemwide and well-documented reports with proper effort information shouldn’t be invalidated.

          As to the way I structured this blog post, yes, I meant to order it from least helpful to most helpful. Nothing in here is ridiculous or even exaggerated (okay, I do think the name ‘Nantucket’ is kind of funny). The first few bolded categories are the sorts of descriptions I see most commonly, without limited or no actual information about the bird. The premise of this post is that a lot of eBird users just don’t know what is needed for documentation, whether because they are new to birding or eBirding or maybe their local reviewer just doesn’t make it clear what they are looking for. This is meant to be helpful for those folks.

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  7. Disagreement, debate, controversy, and grievances are all fine in this comments section. I draw the line at personal flaming. I understand having problems with a particular eBird editor, but this is not the place for “calling people out”. If anyone wants my help getting in touch with people at eBird, feel free to email me privately.

    • Kirk Huffstater says:


      Sorry you found my comment to be inappropriate. Please feel free to delete it, as I can’t determine how to do so. I’m a very frank and outspoken birder, and I enjoy and admire eBird so very much that it deeply irritates me when some eBird reviewers are negatively impacting the program. No offense was intended.

      Regards, “KiHu”

  8. Pingback: Advice for Describing (Rare) Birds | Mostly Birds

  9. Pingback: Describing and Documenting Birds | Mostly Birds

  10. Thanks for the helpful information!

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