Friday, December 28, 2012

eBird best practices
Get to know your local Reviewer

In the last year eBird acceptance and participation continues to increase--at least it seems so to me. Most birders know what eBird is; many are using it.

As you bird in different areas you are likely to see some unusual species or high numbers that trip the eBird filter. Soon thereafter, you get an email with the subject: "Question about your [bird name] observation in eBird." Rather than shuffle these off to your spam filter (kidding!) look at these emails from eBird Reviewers as a chance to get to know an expert in an area.

OK, first off, it is possible that the local Reviewer is NOT the most expert person on the bird status of that county. But they were the most expert to volunteer to be the eBird Reviewer for that county. So, when Oregon started getting eBird Reviewers, I was initially given about 12 counties. However, 5 of those counties were in NE Oregon--a rural area with few birders. I had books on status of birds in the area, but there were many species whose status I was uncertain. I was so happy when local NE Oregon Trent Bray agreed to be Reviewer for those counties.

That leaves me with 5 counties in NW Oregon. I consider myself the expert in one of those counties, and have considerable experience birding in the others. Nevertheless, Mike Patterson in Clatsop County is the local expert in that county. He expresses no interest in being eBird Reviewer for his home county. I don't blame him; it is a bit of work that you have to take from someplace else (like actually watching birds).

Mike sometimes gives me "status updates" when he disagrees with where the filter levels are set. One of his observations was that the filter levels seem like they were set by someone from "out of town." Of course, that's true. The county filter levels were set initially with state-wide status and then refined from there--several counties lumped as one, then individual counties spit from them. There is always more work to be done. Reviewers will be happy to reset filters if you suggest reasonable limits. But each species in each county has it own filter settings.

Another observation that Mike made was that the filter levels seemed set for "average" birders rather than the actual county status. Yes, true. Hard-to-identify species generally have their filter numbers set to trip at a lower number than the actual status. For instance, I set Thayer's Gulls in Lincoln County, Oregon to trip with perhaps 10 birds, when over 50 are sometimes possible. However, inexperienced birders can easily misidentify hybrid Glaucous-winged x Western Gulls (perhaps the most common winter gull along the northern Oregon coast) as Thayer's. In such a case, I mark in the Review Tool as "unexceptional" tallies of Thayer's Gulls from birders whose expertise I know. But I am also able to look at the whole list and see if they have all the gulls in the correct proportions. If I don't know the person and the numbers of other gulls don't seem right, then I send them an email ("Question about your [bird name] observation in eBird") asking for more details. As an eBird Reviewer I can tell a lot about a person's expertise by looking at their list and number of species.

Now that I've gone off on a tangent, let me bring it back to you getting to know the Reviewer. This is important: when you are entering your sightings into the eBird checklist, every time the automatic filter says something like "That's an unusual bird! Are you sure?" a real person (eBird Reviewer) will be looking at the record to verify it.

If you don't leave any comments the Reviewer will send you an email asking for more details. We want plumage and behavior descriptions. However, if you can add just the clinching field marks you used to your comments when entering the sighting, that's often enough that the Reviewer doesn't have to send you an email to get clarification (not that the Reviewer minds--that's their job).

There is a "canned" message, but most Reviewers will personalize it. Some Reviewers don't like to "lead" a report by suggesting an alternative bird, but I see nothing wrong with saying: 'you reported this bird which is very rare here at this time of year, yet your list is missing a common look-a-like bird. Could it have been the common bird, instead?' Something like that. Or, 'wow! That's a high number. Can you verify that it isn't a typo?'

Most (but not all) eBird Reviewers are willing and happy to share their knowledge. When they contact you to verify one of your sightings, look at it as an opportunity to learn status, distribution, and ID of local birds. Be open to suggestions (not defensive), ask questions, get to know your local Reviewer and improve your birding!


  1. Since you've chosen to drag me into this…

    The other day I learned that I'm not allowed to see more than one Orange-Crowned Warbler per day in the winter in Clatsop County, at least according to eBird. On the other hand, birders from out-of-town this last summer reported House Wrens and Chipping Sparrows in the county in places where they have no business being without triggering any filters.

    And there's the rub. We tend to be very good at vetting genuinely rare stuff, but the kind-of-rare stuff? not so much. Genuinely rare stuff is exciting and fun, but of relatively low statistical value in monitoring avian biogeography. The meat is in the kind-of-rare-some-of-the-time-in some-places data. Getting extra-limital House Wren reports right is (arguably) more important to "science" than extra-limital Hooded Warbler reports. Most of us care more about the extra-limital Hooded Warblers. The list wants what it wants.

    I can't change the priorities of my fellow birders nor should I have to. The single most intractable flaw in any communal data is user bias. There will always be more data coming from areas with high birder populations. There will always be bias associated with the "hotspot" effect. We will always be able to put more faith in the Citrine Wagtail reports than the Chipping Sparrow reports.

    The editors of eBird have a Herculean task and I salute them, but my path leads elsewhere.

    1. Thanks, Mike. Every time a local expert like you notes where an eBird Reviewer can make a filter more accurate, the overall accuracy of eBird goes up. For instance, it is now possible for you to report 3 Orange-crowned Warblers from November 1 to March 1 without review! Any more than that and a reviewer will want to make sure it isn't a mistake--even though more are certainly possible.

      I've also reduced the number of Chipping Sparrows that get reviewed to any more than 2. And, I'll go back through all the reports of Chipping Sparrows in Clatsop County and ask for details from the observers.

      As for House Wrens, until we can get smaller areas than counties I will leave the filter at 10, which is reasonable for the clear cuts in the interior, but search for records close to the coastline where rare. --We've got the same problem with counties on the west slope of the Cascades where breeders in the high mountains are common (Thick-billed Fox Sparrow, Dusky Flycatcher, Pygmy Nuthatch), but reports in Salem or Portland--where they don't occur--don't set off any flags. It falls to the local Reviewer to go through the records every once and a while and clean them up.

    2. Any Chipping Sparrow in Clatsop County should set off a filter. I've seen as many Clay-colored Sparrows as Chippers over the course of 25 years here. Most of the Chipping Sparrows I've chased are HY White-crowned Sparrows.

      And I'd love to have you show me the place in the county where I can find 10 House Wrens in a day!