Make it your New Year’s eBird resolution to enter details for flagged records!

By odboyle January 1, 2012

Long-tailed Duck. Photo by Tom Prestby.

Wisconsin eBird has among the best eBird participation rates of any state — that’s great news, but results in a lot of flagged records heading into review.  In fact, even though eBird reviewers work most days to clear records, we still currently have a backlog of nearly 600 records in review, many without comments, which take much longer to process.

Read on to discover the importance of including comments for flagged species to make sure your observations are getting quickly processed and added to the eBird database.

Records are flagged because they are rare birds, out-of-season birds, or high counts.  When you enter a bird that is flagged, a green box pops up on the top of your checklist like this that requests that you “add identification details”:



Why is it important to add identification details?

This is important because your sighting exceeded one of our checklist filters and is rare enough to need some further documentation in order for us to accept it into the database.  The goal here is to try to weed out any mistakes showing up in the eBird database so when people refer to eBird data for any reason, they can have some confidence in the quality of the maps and data.  Lots of scientists are now using your eBird data, and eBird reviewers try to approve flagged records only when they meet high quality standards.  You can read much more about the importance of eBird data quality here.

Entering comments is the single most important thing you can do to make sure your record gets processed quickly and gets accepted into the database.  We are unfortunately forced to reject some records because of no comments or inadequate comments.

We at Wisconsin eBird are striving to get comments (with field marks) entered for EVERY flagged record from EVERY observer *(except for the two exceptions we’ll discuss below).  This way we are not favoring birders with good reputations, rather we are trying to objectively evaluate each record.  And we’re also ensuring there are notes included in case someone in the future wants to evaluate our sightings. We hope in the future people won’t have to ask “Did they really used to have Ruby-crowned Kinglets breeding in northern Wisconsin?”, but if they do ask this skeptically, and turn to the eBird data, it would be nice to pull up records and see




Does anybody actually read these?

Yes!  Rest assured every time a bird gets flagged, a person (for Wisconsin, usually Tom Prestby, Nick Anich, Murray Berner, Andy Paulios, or Ryan Brady) goes in and looks at the record and has to process it. And of course, in the future if a scientist is interested in the eBird data, they might be very interested in knowing details about sightings considered rare, to decide whether to include or exclude them from a data set.


What do I have to write? 

In most instances, we’re looking for 1-3 sentences describing the bird. That means FIELD MARKS and other descriptions of the bird. We want to be able to have some documentation for the eBird files that lists field marks and eliminates other species.

For major rarities, or very out-of-season birds, the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology Records Committee will be interested in a longer writeup.  The list of WSO long-form birds will be undergoing some changes soon and some of the former short-form birds will soon primarily be documented through eBird — another reason to make sure you are entering good comments.

In general we give Wisconsin eBird users a gold star for a major increase in the percentage of checklists with comments in 2010. Dozens of regular users regularly enter quality comments or photos when species are flagged. However, there are still some holdouts who never enter comments, and we still see some checklists that have comments, but the comments don’t have enough content to be useful for evaluating which species was seen.


Good examples vs. bad examples of checklist comments

GOOD Grasshopper Sparrow: Giving ptup-zeeeee song perched on grass. Plain buffy chest with no streaking on flanks, white eye ring, yellow in front of eye, dark crown with white stripe down center. Known breeder at this location for past 5 years.

BAD Grasshopper Sparrow: brown sparrow, gave buzzy song in grass

GOOD Summer Tanager: All red songbird, larger than Scarlet Tanager with larger bill. Bill was olive-colored. No crest, so it wasn’t a Northern Cardinal. No sign of dark on the wings so it wasn’t a Scarlet Tanager. Came to an orange at my feeder.

BAD Summer Tanager: It was definitely a Summer Tanager, I know what they look like.

GOOD Glaucous Gull:  Massive gull, dwarfed nearby Ring-billeds. Young bird, pale gray overall, including throughout wings.  Bill was black at the tip but pink on the other half.  Much bigger than an Iceland Gull would be.

BAD Glaucous Gull:  Joe Smith saw it and said it was one.

Note that good descriptions focus on field marks and reporting how you distinguished this bird from similar species.  Descriptions that report no features of the bird aren’t really valuable to us at all.


If you have a photo, great! 

In the case of bird identification, a photo is often worth a thousand words. You can either embed your photo in the checklist, upload it to the Wisconsin eBird flickr pool, or email it to the Wisconsin eBird email account (


*Exceptions to always entering comments

We have no desire to make data entry any more tedious than it should be, so you’re off the hook in two instances:

If there’s a bird at your feeder that flagged, you already sent us a good description or a picture of it, we approved it, and the bird stays there all winter, you don’t have to keep writing comments every additional day it’s still there. You could just write “continuing”.

If there’s a bird that everybody and their brother has already gone to see (the recent Milwaukee King Eider or Purple Sandpipers) and pictures have been posted to the listserv and the flickr pool, then we don’t need comments if you submit it shortly after you observed it. You can put “seen by many”, (however, if you feel like embedding photos or entering field notes for your own personal records, it’s a good habit to get into, and don’t let us discourage you!).  However, if you submit it 5 years later, we DO want you to then document it, because we can’t remember every bird that was ever seen and the dates for it.  Much of the current backlog in review is due to historic records that don’t have any comments, and we have to go looking through Passenger Pigeons to check them. If you know your bird was accepted by the records committee or it was photographed or featured in the “By the wayside” section of the Passenger Pigeon, please say so in the comments field for historic records.


Flagged birds are cool!

We know some of you might view entering comments on flagged birds as tedious, and we know keeping good track of bird records can be somewhat tedious at times.  But we hope you will see the value in entering checklist comments and not only that — enjoy seeing those flagged birds come up.  Because that means you found a good bird for your area, maybe a bird someone else will want to see, or researchers will be interested in, maybe a bird that is pioneering a new breeding site or migration route.  Most birders get a kick out of that, and while it may take 1 minute to write-up a short comment, during that minute you can pat yourself on the back for finding something cool. And you can ensure your sighting will be preserved for posterity, if anyone in the future goes back in to question your sighting, they’ll pull up your description and photo about it.


Thanks for eBirding and Happy 2012!