An unusual or rare observation is one of birding’s many great joys. One of the key parts of such a discovery is documenting what you found: ensuring that any unique bird report can be appreciated by others!
What is "documentation"?
"Documentation" consists of written comments, photographs, sound recordings, or videos of a bird or birds. Documentation provides key evidence to support an unusual or unexpected observation. It is important to always try to provide the best evidence possible. The more evidence you provide, the easier it is for others to appreciate your report!
When should I document birds?
You are asked to provide documentation when eBird's automated data quality filters detect an unusual species or count on your checklist. You may not be able to submit the checklist without first adding some comments about that observation. Even when not required for a rare observation, we highly encourage eBirders to document birds on your checklists. A few quick comments about what you saw or heard provides other eBirders and regional data reviewers with useful information, and can serve as wonderful memories for you years later.
Documentation applies to counts, too! If you are asked to document an unusual count of a species, you could take a picture or recording of the flock, and/or you could describe how you counted and why you are sure your number is correct. For example: "Exact count of every individual in the large flock." or "Count estimated by groups of 100 while they were flying by." (Read more about different ways of counting birds.)
What does not constitute documentation?
At eBird, we limit documentation to notes, recordings, or photographs of wild, living birds. We do not consider tracks, feathers, nests, eggs, pellets, etc. as "documentation".
How do I document birds?
Documenting your observations is both important and easy! All eBirders can provide excellent documentation for their notable birds by following two simple steps: 1) include physical documentation when possible, 2) write a detailed description. Check out our video from the eBird Essentials course, or read the tips below to learn more.
1. Collect physical documentation
Photos and recordings are the best documentation possible. Even poor quality media can conclusively establish an identification. Check out our article on how to upload photos and recordings. It’s a win-win scenario: you have a permanent, free archive of your rare bird documentation in eBird, and your media will also contribute to a vast scientific archive in the Macaulay Library.
Documentation of a Rough-legged Hawk high count by Karl Bardon (S50147388).
You don't need a fancy camera or expensive recording set-up to provide physical documentation. A "digiscoped" photograph taken through your binoculars, or a sound recording on your smart phone, is still documentation and still valuable!
2. Provide a thorough written description
Not everyone has access to a camera or recording device. Even the best photo can't replace your in-person experience. A detailed, thorough written description of what you saw or heard can be extremely helpful with or without physical evidence. In our experience, writing down your observations in the field will improve your skills and help you get more out of birding. See below for some tips on what to write in your description.
Accurately conveying what you observed is the most valuable thing you can do in a written description: either how you counted birds for a ‘high count’, or what field marks you observed for a ‘rare’ species. For more on what makes a good bird description, see our "Elements of a Bird Description" below, and read this very helpful article by Dave Irons.
Elements of a Bird Description
Below, eBird reviewer Lauren Harter has expertly summarized the elements of a written bird description, structured from most helpful to least helpful. Remember: any information you provide is useful, and more information is always better!
Note diagnostic features
Most birds have unique traits that distinguish them from even very similar-looking relatives. In your description, include the notable characteristics that helped you identify an unusual bird. For example: "Incomplete eye ring", "Two white wing bars", or "Distinctive, repeated whit call". A good rule of thumb is to try and include at least three independent, diagnostic features you saw or heard. If in doubt, describe all the features you observed.
Explain how similar species were eliminated
This category is often more valuable than the description of the bird itself! Sometimes this is not needed - it's hard to confuse anything with an adult male Painted Bunting. But what about birds with look-alike relatives? For example, if you are reporting a Glossy Ibis out of range, the description: “Tall dark bird, glossy reddish and brown, long down-curved bill, pale lines on the face” could describe White-faced Ibis just as well! For most rare birds, some explanation of how you were able to rule out similar looking species is very helpful.
Documentation of a White-faced Ibis by Michael Brown (S37280165).
Make detailed notes in the field
The best time to write down your observations is right as you are seeing or hearing them. Take notes in the field, ideally right in eBird Mobile. What did the bird look like? What is its behavior? Does it vocalize? Even if you get a photo, video, or sound recording, "live" descriptions are still immensely helpful. Learning to write a field bird description goes hand-in-hand with becoming a keen observer.
Note age and sex
When it can be determined, noting the age and sex of the bird(s) is essential and should be a key part of your bird description. Many birds look drastically different depending on these factors, which can make them much easier or much harder to identify!
Recognize the rarity of the sighting
If you browse sightings in eBird, you may have noticed notations like “*Early” “**Very rare” “***First county record!” or “****MEGA!!!”. We encourage these notations as an indication that the observer knew the sighting was unusual. Here are just a few examples of things you could say to let the reviewer know that you have given the sighting some thought:
“My first of spring, early this year.”
“I was scanning a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers hoping for a Short-billed, which would be a state bird, and when I spotted this bird I suspected I had one.”
The following points are the most common elements of bird descriptions in eBird, but users often stop here and fall short of actually describing the bird in question. The elements below are often insufficient on their own to constitute adequate documentation of a species. Please consider adding the "Most Useful" details above!
Explain your familiarity with this species vs. similar species
Perhaps you have some expertise on this species from your travels elsewhere; this can be good to note. Remember, though, that “Have seen this species many times in my backyard” is probably not enough to have the record validated on its own. In fact, this can be a warning sign, as it implies the bird wasn't looked at carefully under the assumption that it was common. In reality, traveling birders frequently make misidentifications because they assume a species to be common when it is in fact rare where they are birding.
Is this a known individual?
If you know you are seeing a continuing bird, it is important to note it as such. Even if you aren’t sure, take note of your suspicions. E.g., “Possibly the bird that was seen here a month ago.” On the flip side, if it was not a continuing bird but could be confused with one, note that too: e.g., “Not the one that was seen here a month ago. That one was an adult and this is a juvenile.” Sometimes, all that is needed for a continuing bird is that one word: “Continuing.” If you have photos, write something like “Continuing. Photos coming soon.” Of course, it never hurts to document even a known rarity with more information. This information becomes especially valuable if your sighting ends up being the last time the bird is seen.
What habitat was it in?
Some birds are very particular about their habitat, and it may be difficult to infer from the sighting location what the exact habitat was like. Noting elevation, habitat type, dominant vegetation, nearby water bodies, etc. can be very helpful.
Where the bird was perched, When it flew
Example: “The bird was perched on a dead oak stick 30 feet from the second waterfall about two feet above the ground. After it saw me come around the corner, it stayed for about 10 seconds before flying off.” It’s helpful to know exactly where the bird was in case people want to chase it, and behavior can be useful in evaluating a record. But for a record that is flagged, this is not enough.
Distance to the bird, lighting, optics, length of observation
These and similar details can be important, especially for very notable sightings, and are often requested by bird records committees.
Incidental narratives have value. They help put the sighting in context and will help you remember it years down the road. Sometimes they can contain valuable information, like time of day, precise location, weather, or other observers. However, they generally aren’t much help in evaluating the record because they don't actually provide any documentation of the bird itself. Example: “I was just taking a break from setting up my cousin Bob’s wedding and decided to go for a walk. I was walking down by the creek, going really slowly because it was muddy, and contemplating life, etc. etc. when I spotted this bird!”
Massive thanks to reviewer Lauren Harter for contributing much of the content for this article!