WSO Unveils New Rare-Bird Review Policy

Wisconsin has typically been a pioneer when it comes to using current technology for birding. Look no further than being one of the first states to promote eBird and being the first state to enter data for a Breeding Bird Atlas on eBird as examples. While these aspects of Wisconsin birding have flourished, documentation of rare species has fallen behind the times and resulted in many birders ignoring the long-form writeup process. Therefore, as of March 1, 2018, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology Records Committee (WSORC) will be revamping the way records of rare birds are reviewed. This decision was made for several reasons, the most significant was making it easier and less time-consuming for observers to report rare birds. Other benefits will be more prompt review of records and fewer instances where rare birds do not enter the record books just because they were never officially written up. Details in the new policy are below but the cliffnotes are that for review list species, all you need to do is eBird your sighting (which most of us already do anyway) and provide adequate comments or other documentation such as a photo/video/recording. Please read on for further details.

Why the change?

In the last decade, use of eBird has skyrocketed in Wisconsin. An eBird checklist already has many of the things you had to fill out on the long-form rare bird writeup, such as location, date, and time. eBird archives information permanently where it can be sorted, searched, displayed, and interpreted at the click of a button. The process of reviewing and storing records will be more streamlined than at any point in the past.

Wisconsin is already fortunate to have many extremely talented and knowledgeable local eBird reviewers. Although the 5-person records committee will still make the final call on records, the local eBird reviewers will be utilized during the process (more details below).

Okay, so enough about eBird for now. Rare bird review is also changing due to advances in technology. With reasonably-priced digital cameras and recorders in the hands of birders, there is often enough information for a record to be accepted without writing up a long form. Every season, we see rare birds that do not get officially documented. In cases where many observers see a rare bird, very few birders (if any) provide official documention. The WSORC has dug up enough information in most of these instances to establish a record but this is not a sustainable practice.  Since one of the WSORC’s main goals is to catalog the occurrence of rare birds in Wisconsin, we want to make it easier to document rarities. So, with the new process, birders will be no longer be duplicating their efforts by submitting write-ups to eBird and the WSORC.

What if I don’t eBird and like the traditional way of documenting rarities?

Don’t worry, if you’d like to stick to the traditional long-form writeup, that link will still be available on the WSO website here.  You can keep documenting birds that way if you’d like. We encourage you to join the eBird but if you’d rather not, that’s okay and we still want to receive your documentation. We also realize that not all casual observers are aware of eBird and would rather fill out a form for a one-time documentation. Records submitted this way will still be evaluated by WSORC.

Has this been done before?

Yes, the new records review policy is based on successful implementation of similar policies by the Massachusetts and Virginia records committees.

Changes to the WSO Review List

With the other changes occurring to the records review process, this is an opportune time to re-evaluate the WSO Review List. The full WSO Review List is at this link. You will notice that quite a few species have been removedlargely species that are annual or nearly annual, and identification is relatively straight-forward. You will note that some nearly-annual species are still on the Review List- this is because the committee felt they were particularly difficult to identify.

For species that are no longer review species, just enter them in eBird and provide comments or photo/video/recording. If your comments are not sufficient, you will be contacted by a local eBird reviewer.

For quick reference, here are the species that have been removed from the WSO Review list:

Eurasian Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Pacific Loon, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow Rail, King Rail, Red Phalarope, Little Gull, White-winged Dove, Northern Hawk Owl, Great Gray Owl, Rufous Hummingbird, Western Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Black-billed Magpie, Western Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Revised special circumstances:

Glossy Ibis (Review list everywhere away from Horicon Marsh)

Black-legged Kittiwake (Review list species away from Great Lakes)

Sabine’s Gull (Review list everywhere away from Wisconsin Point)


Below is the detailed new protocol for WSORC review:

  • If there is an easily identifiable photo/video/recording embedded in an eBird checklist or link in the eBird checklist to another website, the record will be accepted by a local eBird reviewer
  • If a record contains a clearly misidentified photo/video/recording, the record will be rejected by a local eBird reviewer
  • If there is a photo/video/recording of a Review List Species that is not easily identifiable, the record will be evaluated by WSORC
  • Records with no photo/video/recording will ultimately be evaluated by WSORC
  • In the special case of continuing rarities, the record will be accepted without new detailed comments or photo/video/recording if it is plotted at the correct location. If a raritiy disappears for a period, then reappears thorough documentation may be required by WSORC to re-establish the identification.
  • WSORC reserves the right to pull any pending, accepted, or rejected records into WSORC review
  • Local eBird reviewers may forward any record of any species to WSORC review
  • All records of WSO review species will be included in the quarterly Passenger Pigeon report

How to Submit Good Documentation

Although the procedure for reviewing has changed, what makes a documentation acceptable has never changed much. Below are some tips for submitting documentation:

  • If you have a picture/video/recording, please embed it in the eBird checklist or link to where it is online (link on how to do this).
  • No picture? No problem! We fully realize that not everyone has a camera and not every bird will pose for you. So….
  • Comments, Comments, Comments!!! What you say in the comments field is the meat of what the WSORC will evaluate when voting on your record. The more you say, the better.
  • Focus on field marks, call notes and/or song, shape and size of the bird, and behavior. Comparing it to similar more expected species is always very important and helpful as well. A description of the bird(s) should make up the bulk of your comments; not the weather, or your birding companions. However, sometimes this information is relevant too. Excellent information is available here
  • You may be contacted by a local eBird reviewer or a member of WSORC to provide further detail. Please respond to these inquiries!!
  • In the case of continuing rarities, if the presence of the bird has already been well-established, please provide a comment such as “continuing” or “known to be at the location”. If you took picture/video/recording, that’s great and feel free to embed it in your eBird checklist.

In Conclusion

This change in policy will fully advance Wisconsin’s Rare Bird Review into the digital era. Thank you for submitting your records to WSORC and thank you in advance for adapting to these changes. We at the WSORC are excited about the changes and anticipate records documentation being much easier for observers and reviewers, alike!