'Spuhs' and 'Slashes'

These gulls, if seen from a distance, could be labelled as gull sp. if you are unsure what species of gull they are, or black-billed/silver gull if unsure whether they are red or black-billed gulls. © Dan Burgin

Whilst ‘spuh’ and ‘slash’ may sound like words from a Batman comic book fight scene they are in fact a great resource to a birder’s tool belt. This is especially true when you encounter those hard to identify bird species.

Whilst it is impossible to detect every single bird around you when birding, you may also get only brief or somewhat distant glimpses, or clips of song, from others. Every time you go birding, you’ll see birds that you can’t quite identify, or can only roughly guess what they are. It’s OK if there are birds you couldn’t identify, such as an unknown birdsong, a distant gull, or a briefly observed albatross species at sea. However, rather than leave these individuals off your list you can, if possible, still report these unknown birds on your checklists by assigning them to a ‘spuh’ or a ‘slash’.

Even if you cannot assign a bird to a particular species, you may be able to identify it to a general group/family and log these uncertain sightings in eBird using ‘spuhs’ and ‘slashes’. We actively encourage you to not be afraid of using them! A common example is ‘passerine sp.’ which can be used when hearing an unknown birdsong from an out of sight individual, or when a small songbird quickly darts through the foliage and disappears before you can raise your binoculars. Another useful ‘spuh’ is ‘duck sp.’ which is a great resource when unsure of a distance duck outline at a wetland, as you know it could be a myriad species; Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Grey Duck (Anas superciliosa), Mallard x Grey Duck (Hybrid), Grey Teal (Anas gracilis), or New Zealand Scaup (Aythya novaeseelandiae). These ‘spuhs’ can therefore be immensely useful to document that you can see and identify a species to a family, whether a duck, songbird or other species, but were unable to get the ID down to species level further due to the distance, or just not having the confidence to accurately pin them to a single species.

duck sp. | Anatinae sp.  © Irene Crosland / Macaulay Library

So what about ‘slashes’?

A ‘slash’ is handy for birds identified to one of two or even three species. Many New Zealand options are often related to seabirds. Whilst standing on a beach or out on a boat, you may encounter a small shearwater and be unsure whether it is a Fluttering or a Hutton’s. Rather than have to use ‘shearwater sp.’ (see below) you can use ‘Hutton’s/Fluttering Shearwater’. The same applies if you see what you know to be a Royal Albatross out at sea, but aren’t close enough to distinguish between the Southern and Northern variants. Here you can use ‘Southern/Northern Royal Albatross’ to note down the species on your list, whilst still being unable to precisely split the two, which can often only be done with closer views of the bird.

So now you have some ‘spuhs’ or ‘slashes’ in your checklist, remember it’s always great practice to add in some notes about why you were unsure or what got you to that family. Noting down what characteristics you saw could help a reviewer or other birder reading your notes help you accurately identify the species beyond the ‘spuh’ or ‘slash’. Additionally, since the eBird filters also define which species you see during checklist entry, editors sometimes must strike a balance between showing the most likely options and every conceivable option for the area. If you have a subspecies, ‘spuh’, hybrid, or ‘slash’ combo that you feel should be added to the filter, write “Please add to filter” in the species comments along with your observation. Reviewers see these comments, so you are giving them information about what additions may be needed on the regional filters. You can also email the NZ Bird Atlas team too, as we are in regular contact with the eBird team and can request a new ‘spuh’ or ‘slash’ if we think it would be of value to Atlasers and NZ birders.


Ultimately ‘spuhs’ and ‘slashes’  allow us all to document those hard to identify species, particularly when we can ID it to a family, and allow researchers to then differentiate when a species may be there (but was too far or too difficult to identify), from when it truly was not there. The hope of this article is to give all birders/Atlasers, new and old, the confidence to not be afraid of putting a ‘spuh’ or ‘slash’. Many of the best birders around the globe use them on a daily basis, so we hope you feel more comfortable using them in the future!



You can review all available ‘spuhs’ or ‘slash’ combos by searching for “sp.” or “/” in the “Find a species” box during checklist entry, respectively. We have also listed all ‘spuhs’ and ‘slashes’ available/applicable in New Zealand below with some examples or explanatory text listed for a few common ones.


Happy Atlasing!




Passerine sp. (Passeriformes sp.) – Incredibly handy when you only get a quick glimpse of a small brown songbird in the bush.

Finch sp. (Fringillidae sp.) – Applicable when encountering a large group of finches in a paddock that you can’t identify to European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Lesser Redpoll (Acanthis cabaret), Common Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) or European Greenfinch (Chloris chloris).

Turdus sp. – Useful for a Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) or Eurasian Blackbird (Turdus merula) you couldn’t confidently identify the difference between.


Cyanoramphus sp. – Cyanoramphus is the genus of parakeets native to New Zealand and islands of the southern Pacific Ocean.

Seabirds/Coastal species

Gull sp. (Larinae sp.) – Helpful when unable to identify between Black-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus bulleri) and Red-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae).

Gull/tern sp. (Laridae sp.) 

Tern sp. (Sterninae sp.)    

Albatross sp. (Diomedeidae sp.)

Albatross sp. | Diomedeidae sp. © Greg Schrader/ Macaulay Library

Mollymawk sp. (Thalassarche sp.)      

Storm-petrel sp. (Oceanitidae/Hydrobatidae sp.)

Prion sp. (Pachyptila sp.)    

Black-and-white shearwater sp. (Puffinus sp.)    

Shearwater sp. (Procellariidae sp.)

Diving-petrel sp. (Pelecanoides sp.) 

Procellaria sp. – This relates to the genus and is handy to note when unsure between White-Chinned Petrel (P. aequincotialis), Black Petrel (P. parkinsoni), or Westland Petrel (P. westlandica).

Diomedea sp. – Genus of Albatross and could be used when not confident on a species ID in relation to the following species Southern Royal Albatross (D. epomophora), Northern Royal Albatross (D. sanfordi), Wandering Albatross (D. exulans), Antipodean Albatross (D. antipodensis), Gibson’s Albatross (D. antipodensis gibsoni), Tristan Albatross (D. dabbenena), and Amsterdam Albatross (D. amsterdamensis).

Procellariid sp. – Covers you when unsure of the ID within the fulmarine petrels, the gadfly petrels, the prions and/or the shearwaters.

Pterodroma sp. – Also known as the gadfly petrels

Oystercatcher sp. (Haematopus sp.) – Handy to use if you’re unable to tell from a distance whether a flock is Variable Oystercatcher (Haematopus unicolor) or SIPO (Haematopus finschi).

Oystercatcher sp. | Haematopus sp. © Taylor Abbott / Macaulay Library

Cormorant sp. (Phalacrocoracidae sp.) – Shag identification can be tricky at times, so this ‘spuh’ is a great resource  when you are not 100% certain about a shag species identity.

Penguin sp. (Spheniscidae sp.)

Shorebird sp. (Charadriiformes sp.)

Peep sp. (Calidris sp.) – Peeps” is a catchall term for small sandpipers in the genus Calidris, which for New Zealand birders could be used when unsure between Lesser Knot (C. canutus), Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (C. acuminata), or Red-necked Stint (C. ruficollis) which are migratory. However, this could also cover rare vagrant species too of which there are many!

Plover sp. (Charadriidae sp.) 

Small plover sp. (Charadrius sp.)


Rail/Crake sp. (Rallidae sp.) 

Grebe sp. (Podicipedidae sp.)


Kiwi sp. – now available to help with any uncertainty you may have over a species ID. We’d encourage the addition of notes to possibly help with narrowing the ID down.


And finally, the ultimate catch all which can be used if you have no idea about the species or even the family but know it was a bird!

Bird sp. (Aves sp.)




Tui/bellbird – there are some instances where the songs and calls of these two species can be tricky to tell apart when in the bush. This slash is a new addition for just such occasions!


Black-billed/silver Gull – these two gulls, particularly when in immature and juvenile plumage, or indeed from a distance, can be hard to tell apart, especially when you just see them flying overhead. This slash is also a new addition for just such occasions!


Hutton’s/Fluttering Shearwater (Puffinus huttoni/gavia)

Hutton’s/Fluttering Shearwater| Puffinus huttoni/gavia © John Davey / Macaulay Library

Brown/Southern Skua (Stercorarius antarcticus)

Pomarine/Arctic Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus/parasiticus)

Pomarine/Long-tailed Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus/longicaudus)

Arctic/Long-tailed Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus/longicaudus)

Pomarine/Arctic/Long-tailed Skua (Stercorarius sp. (jaeger sp.))

Pomarine/Arctic/Long-tailed Skua | Stercorarius sp. (jaeger sp.) © George Forsyth / Macaulay Library

Black-browed/Campbell Mollymawk (Thalassarche melanophris)

Southern/Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea epomophora)

Southern/Northern Albatross | Diomedea epomophora © Anonymous eBirder / Macaulay Library

Southern/Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus/halli)

Great-winged/Grey-faced Petrel (Pterodroma macroptera/gouldi)

Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna grisea/tenuirostris)

Grey-tailed/Wandering Tattler (Tringa brevipes/incana)