News & Features

Documenting Rare Birds – the relationship between eBird and WSO

The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO) and eBird are entwined in many ways, most prominently including WSO’s use of eBird data in its seasonal bird reports many of us read about in their quarterly journal The Passenger Pigeon.  However, this relationship is still relatively new and we are still fine tuning details of the bird reporting process across both entities.  Some birders have recently expressed confusion about documenting rare birds for eBird and WSO.  The purpose of this article is to clarify what is required of observers and how the validation process works for flagged eBird records and WSO Review situations.

WSO is the organization responsible for maintenance of Wisconsin’s official state bird checklist and rare bird records.  It accomplishes this through a Records Committee (WSORC), which reviews and votes to accept or not accept reports of rare birds.  Documentations of these rare birds are received ONLY via an observer’s submission of a WSO Rare Bird Documentation Form. Two types of records warrant review by the WSORC, including (1) any species on the newly-revised WSO Review List, and (2) any seasonally rare observation of a common bird that falls within the top 3 earliest arrival or latest departure dates, which you can find here.

The upshot is that any documentation (text, images, etc.) provided by birders in eBird for an observation requiring WSORC review (the two instances described above) does NOT immediately qualify as documentation for WSO and is NOT automatically forwarded by eBird to the WSORC.  It is incumbent on the observer to submit separate documentation for WSO using the Rare Bird Documentation Form linked above if they want their record in the published seasonal reports and official state record books.   Additionally, the WI eBird team (which includes two members of the WSORC) maintains the policy that observations requiring WSORC review will not be independently validated in eBird, i.e. no matter how good an observer’s documentation is in eBird the record must go through the WSORC for acceptance into the eBird database.

When an observer submits documentation in eBird for such a bird, they should receive an email reply from a WI eBird team reviewer prompting them to document the bird for WSO.  The eBird team then defers its validation of the record to the voting decision of the WSORC, which often does not come until 6+ months later.  Thus your record may not publicly show in eBird as validated until this time.  The exception is an eBird submission with an obviously-identifiable photo or of a bird seen by multiple observers over multiple days where the identification is not in doubt.  Regardless, the eBird team can always re-evaluate records at a later time and change their validity status in the database based on WSORC rulings.

Of course not all flagged eBird records are observations requiring WSORC review.  These may include high counts, marginally early/late records, or local but not state-level rarities.  In such cases birders need not submit anything to WSO directly and their documentation comments in eBird fully suffice.  The WI eBird team then solely assesses these records based on the quality of evidence supporting the identification.  See this eBird article and this Passenger Pigeon article for what makes a good documentation but it should be noted that many records are “lost” annually because observers did not adequately justify their sightings with good descriptions of a bird’s appearance and why it wasn’t some other more expected species. Although the percentage of flagged eBird records with comments has gone up over time, the quality of comments continues to be highly variable, and once again we remind users that comments that do not describe the bird are ineffective for documentation and will be invalidated.

In a more perfect world, when your record is flagged in eBird you would automatically be linked to the WSO Rare Bird Documentation Form in situations requiring WSORC review.  However, we’re just not there yet as the international eBird template just can’t handle such a state-level need at this time.  Perhaps this development will occur in the future but for now, WSO and the WI eBird team suggest birders use the following process:

1.  I saw what I think may be a rare bird.

2.  Visit the WSO Records website and consult the Review List and/or Arrivals-Departures document (both are also linked on the right sidebar of the WI eBird page).

3.  If the bird is on the Review List or falls within the top 3 earliest arrivals or latest departures, then fill out the WSO Rare Bird Documentation Form on the WSO Records page.  Be sure to describe in detail the bird’s appearance and how you eliminated similar species.  Avoid just telling stories about the sighting, how you see species X all the time and it wasn’t that, or that fellow birder Bill identified it for you.

4.  When you submit the form you will get a confirmation email with everything you just entered.  Copy and paste your text into the comments field for that species in your eBird checklist and indicate you already filled out the WSO form.  If you don’t indicate such, you’ll likely get a nagging prompt from an eBird team reviewer.

5.  If you include a good photograph, eBird will likely approve your sighting within a day or two.  If you do not, then eBird will wait for the WSORC ruling, which usually comes 6+ months later.  WSORC decisions are published seasonally in the Passenger Pigeon.

Thanks for your cooperation!  Please send any questions on this or other eBird issues to the WI eBird team at wiebird@gmail.com

-Ryan Brady, WSO Records Committee Chair & WI eBird Team
-Nick Anich, WI eBird Team