Thursday, March 12, 2015

All The Times My eBird Observations Have Been Questioned by Reviewers

Misidentification is a sensitive topic for birders. Birding is a hobby with a heavy reliance on people's word, and if your word is wrong - or if you gain a reputation as someone whose word is wrong - it's not much fun.

But bird identification is hard! All these goddamn things look exactly alike, and they don't usually just sit there and let you look at them.  At the same time, thanks to online listservs, eBird and BirdLog, submitting sightings is easier than ever.  Beginning birders who could once work through their identifications at home in their own notebooks are now tempted with going "public" with their sightings, perhaps earlier than they should.

Birders are confronted with their own misidentifications most commonly through the dreaded "Question about your" emails from eBird reviewers. You hate to see one of these in your inbox. These'll come after you submit an atypical record to eBird but don't provide enough documentation (photos or notes) in the observation to satisfy the reviewer that you had the ID correct. It's not confrontational, but the burden is back on you to convince the person that you saw what you saw.

It's not pleasant when someone tells you that you're wrong. Some birders, I've heard, respond quite negatively to the idea - just the idea - that they were mistaken. We've all got reputations to maintain and self-confidence to massage.

But birders shouldn't be offended by eBird review emails. It's OK to be wrong, and you're not an idiot for misidentifying something. To try to help remove the stigma here, I want to show the world the lots of eBird review emails I've received, letting you know that even a birder who writes on THE INTERNET makes mistakes.

My Report: 3 Cassin's Finches, Lane, Oregon - Feb. 27, 2009
The Problem?: Birders need to be extra careful when they're traveling. I was in Oregon for the first time, and just assumed that all the reddish finches would be Cassin's, because I thought of them as the "Western" finch. I didn't look closely enough, and didn't realize that Cassin's were "exceptionally rare" (reviewer's words) at the elevation I was at.
Was I wrong?: Yeah probably.

My Report: 1 Nashville Warbler, Violette's Lock, MD, April 23, 2006
The Problem: April 23 is a pretty early date for Nashvilles on the East Coast, but I didn't know that, and didn't take any field notes.
Was I wrong?: I don't know

My Report: 1 Say's Phoebe, Lane, Oregon - Feb. 28, 2009
The Problem?: Another example of not being aware of the particulars in a new spot. This is an early date for Say's at this location. However, this was I think my first Say's, and I remember looking carefully. The reviewer said it's not too uncommon to have early birds here, and I think the observation was accepted.
Was I wrong?: No, I don't think so

My Report: 2 Black Vultures, Washington, Illinois - April 9, 2011
The Problem?: It helps to bird with other birders. These birds were not particularly rare at this location, and we both remembered seeing them clearly.
Was I wrong?: Nah.

My Report: 300 Smith's Longspurs, Jasper, Illinois - April 10, 2011
The Problem?: Checking the high count. We were with birders known to the reviewer who said "man this is the largest Smith's flock I've ever seen in IL." Still, put notes in your eBird reviews, OK?
Was I wrong?: Nah

My Report: 5 Song Sparrows, Shelby, TN - August 21, 2011
The Problem?: A weird one. No one ever pays attention to Song Sparrows, so we were surprised when the eBird reviewer somewhat sheepishly emailed and said "I know this is weird but SOSP are hardly ever found at Ensley Bottoms in August." My friend and I both seemed to remember hearing (not seeing) Song Sparrows, but didn't remember them specifically.  Who would?
Was I wrong?: I honestly have no idea, but probably wrong.

My Report: 1 Orange-crowned Warbler, Monhegan, Maine - Sept. 8, 2011
The Problem?: Early for this easily-misidentified species. We didn't get photos, but remembered taking a close look during an otherwise quiet day. Also, weird things come to Monhegan. Still, a good knowledge of bird arrival and departure times is valuable for ID help.
Was I wrong?: I'd say it's about 50/50.

My Report: 1 Mississippi Kite, Cumberland, NJ - May 19, 2012
The Problem?: An uncommon bird in NJ, but I saw it well.  Should have gotten a picture but my camera was still packed in the car.
Was I wrong?: Nah.

My Report: 1 Cassin's Finch, Mt. Lemmon, AZ - May 28, 2012
The Problem?: A late date, but thankfully I was able to get a terrible photo. I ended up uploading it to the checklist and everything was hunky-dory.
Was I wrong?: Nope.

My Report: 1 Least Flycatcher, Alachula, FL - Sept. 4, 2010
The Problem?: An early date, something I wasn't really thinking about when I was birding the deep South.
Was I wrong?: Yeah I was probably wrong.

My Report: 1 Common Nighthawk, Scarborough, ME - April 27, 2005
The Problem?: Pretty early, and during the day, and in a weird spot. Also, it was the first time I'd ever seen a nighthawk and I was a beginning birder.  But it was a nighthawk! And it was sunny out so I saw it perfectly! No way was I wrong.
Was I wrong?: No way!

My Report: 1 Blue-winged Teal, Washington, DC - June 23, 2013
The Problem?: If you're not a breeding-plumaged male duck, just get right the heck out of here, will you? I didn't get a long look at this bird on the C&O Canal, but was for some reason confident it was a female BWTE.  It's not a great time of year for BWTE in DC, and I didn't give it due diligence.
Was I wrong?: Yeah probably.

My Report: 1 Red-eyed Vireo, Aspen, CO - May 31, 2007
The Problem?: I was a novice East Coast birder trying to make it in the West. Not sure what I saw here, but it probably wasn't a REVI.
Was I wrong?: Yeah probably.

My Report: 2 Lapland Longspur, Washington, DC - Dec. 10, 2013
The Problem?: Holy cow thank goodness for garbage digi-binning. I squeezed off some awful pictures of this group of birds that I eventually uploaded to the eBird checklist, and they ended up being the first longspurs seen in the District since the 1980s.
Was I wrong?: Nope.

My Report: 1 Fox Sparrow, Aspen, CO - June 5, 2007
The Problem?: Again, a novice East Coast birder working out West. It's OK!
Was I wrong?: Probably.

My Report: 1 Franklin's Gull, Salt Lake City, UT - Feb. 1, 2014
The Problem?: In a land far away, in a place (Great Salt Lake) where it seems that any species is possible at any time, in heavy fog...but that there was a gull with a black hood is indisputable! And it wasn't a Bonaparte! I'm confident in my ID (I got an awful photo), but this is a tough one.
Was I wrong?: I don't think so, but maybe.

My Report: 1 Nelson's Sparrow, Theodore Roosevelt NP, ND - June 1, 2014
The Problem?: I don't know what to say here. I swear I heard one calling, but I wasn't able to see it. There aren't really any records in June from this part of the state, but it's not heavily birded.  I don't know.
Was I wrong?: Probably.

My Report: 1 Orange-crowned Warbler, Point Lookout SP, MD - Nov. 2, 2014
The Problem?: No one trusts anyone identifying OCWA.  It's alright, don't take it personally.
Was I wrong?: Nope.

My Report: 1 Herring Gull, Aspen, CO - Dec. 21, 2006
The Problem?: Gulls are still the most difficult things to identify, and I certainly wasn't finding good ones in 2006.
Was I wrong?: Yeah.

OK that's all!  That wasn't so bad, right? Don't feel bad if you get eBird review emails.  Don't feel bad if you misidentify things. Alright goodnight.



John B. said...

What bugs me about the review process isn't so much having sightings questioned (rare birds need documentation, after all) but lack of communication about whether sightings are confirmed or rejected and why (or whether anyone has even looked at sightings that triggered eBird filters).

Josh Adams said...

The Aspen Fox Sparrow getting questioned seems weird to me. There's reports of June-July Fox Sparrows all over the place there, all without comment.

Maybe your REVI sighting a week earlier gave you a questionable reputation? :)

Sadhu Govardhan said...

I think its safe to say that the process of reporting bird sightings will never be perfect. All humans err, and anomalies in the bird world will increase as our planet increases to be out of whack.

eBird is pushing people hard to be as competitive as possible in order to get as much free data as possible. Naturally, this leads to some of the problems related to inaccurate bird sightings or validations.

eBird reviewers are human beings, and as such as biased as everyone else in life. I know that my local reviewer favors and disfavors people and along with it, their sightings. I don't like it but I have to accept it as human nature.

I do know that some birders make up things wildly (and interestingly, their sightings are often validated) while others provide photographic evidence and are their sightings are still rejected.

There is no doubt that eBird has their own agenda of what they want to see on lists and what not. Especially escaped birds are sacrilegious for them. Why? Only they know.

Almost humorously, I notice that poor photos are practically always accepted on eBird whereas excellent photos tend to be doubted by reviewers.

I also noticed that national lists are edited and re-edited at will by reviewers, without giving any explanations of why certain records that had been in the system for a long time, were all of a sudden taken out.

So, yes, there is a lot of abuse by birders as well as eBird reviewers. Solution? I think that there are no perfect solutions, but there is a lot of room for improvement. There is no need for eBird reviewers to be impersonal, act like dictators or be plain hostile toward some birders. As far as questionable reports go: some have a pattern (easy for anyone to detect who has a knack for statistics and who knows his local birding spots well) and some don't. The ones with a pattern (e.g. constant sightings of very rare species outside their range or habitat)and some don't - either because the birder is too smart or experienced to continuously report bs.

I am convinced that better communications between birders and reviewers would be very helpful. I also think that there should be more help for new birders who often misidentify species unintentionally. There are over 10k birds around the world, and to become familiar with even just a few hundred is very challenging.

One thing I think that is overlooked by many who report to eBird is that most birders are not environmentally conscious or active at all. If I take out the top 100 birders of the place where I live, maybe 5 have environmental concerns and practically do something about it. Most go birding because they like the adventure, pass their time, impress the world with the photo trophies or because they want some sort of recognition. But rarely is someone really working on protecting bird habitats or fighting against the systematic destruction of the planet. If we continue to poison and destroy the planet, there will soon be no more birds. As of now, the global bird population is declining heavily across the board. This is at least the bigger picture that concerns me a lot more than eBirds agenda or problems.

Anonymous said...

I really like these posts and comments on ebird. I joined ebird recently and then left. Hated it. Just HATED it. I was with a professional birder and made a list - then I got bombarded with emails from ebird - worse than the present stasi situation with the corvid-19 - telling me that I'd got it wrong - I should have chosen a hotspot option instead of the non-hotspot option (well blow me down if that's important!) then telling me that species are rare that are actually quite common where I live. I read that people complain of birders falsifying records or making mistakes (as someone commented above) but what of ebird reviewers themselves?

The biggest irony of course is that ebird relies on its App which relies on online data, which relies of electromagnetic radio waves being used in the field - the same EMRs that are interfering with the migratory patterns of birds causing species decline (if you believe what was written about some time ago in Nature) so it's not environmentally friendly either.

I'd like to make lists of the birds I've seen and upload photos to a non-confrontational and non-competitive site. If anyone knows of any (NOT ebird) do tell.

Anonymous said...

If ebird is really a tool for professional ornithologists Or ifs for amateurs who love birds, why have reviewers at all? Why not simply have an app, let people download what they want - professionals may doubt it - so what? As the above shows, sometimes reviewers are right, sometimes wrong. Like the commentor above, I grew to hate ebird. Not the app itself - I loved my lists and uploading my photos, but the whole bird police thing. Completely unecessary - and I think under European data protection laws - somewhat illegal. Where does a list app get off with thinking it can nominate complete strangers to access your email and bombard you with comments? Nah! Ebird is not professional and its certainly not fun. As for whether it provides any actual useful service. Of all the birders I’ve met - those who happily get up at dawn and spend hours stalking out their local pond, none (except one) uses ebird And the one who uses it is US - Europeans have clearly better things to do - like bird watching for instance,

Anonymous said...

I am lucky to have a friend who has cosched me patiently about posting on eBird. She is a former college professor and I feel like I'm sitting in a cramped student desk. I think we tend to forget that we are contributing to a worldwide data base. Accuracy becomes important. But, there should be a reminder like wearing shoes jn the house...please leave your egos outside. All levels of birders should try as hard as they can to ID on their own as there are many tools and resources to use. Merlin, Macauley,'s library, bird guides, Cornell. Struggling to ID helps me learn.

Anonymous said...

eBird reviewers aren't "bird police", they are "data police". You are submitting data to their database. Reviewers are there to ensure the quality of the data being entered, that is all. You are free to claim to have seen and heard any bizarre and ridiculous bird in the world at any time. Not even eBird can take that away from you. BUT, eBird can make sure that your claim doesn't contaminate their database. That is entirely within their right to do so. Too many eBird users seem not to understand this important point.

I was an eBird user for many years, and certainly received a number of ID-questioning or -correcting emails from reviewers. Did that annoy me? Yes it did. Were these reviewers right to question me? Yes they were. What got damaged more than anything by being corrected or by simply having reports unconfirmed? My ego, and that's pretty much it. I got over it though, and gradually learned that it's about learning, it's not about judging character or anything like that.

Now I'm a reviewer, and I can see what eBird looks like from the review side of things. Now I understand why it can take a long time to review some records, and I can also see why sometimes there's no point to sending an email to an observer who claims to have seen or heard something that they don't provide sufficient evidence for. Some people are still stuck in their egos, and won't listen to a sensible voice telling them that they're wrong or that they jumped the gun with their optimistic ID. Plenty others are totally open to getting advice and counsel, and those people I'm happy to correspond with and help out. Because I'm happy to learn more about birds, I gravitate to others who feel the same way. And that's why I don't waste my time with people who want the trophy more than they want to have actually earned it.

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