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BRCs v.s. eBird—Record Keeping Part 1/2

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, January 4, 2011 

Please keep all comments related to this post civil and informative.

This morning the UBRC announced changes to the records committee, welcoming new members and re-electees, and thanking those who vacated their posts. The records committee is somewhat nepotistic in the sense that the core members always seem to be the same people, with one or two different individuals every couple years. After someone has served two terms they are forced to sit out a year, before they are inevitably voted back in. The committee decides who they are going to vote for within themselves—it’s not really democratic and the general birding public has no say in who should or shouldn’t be accepting and not accepting records for the state. Aside from this there also seems to be some serious question as to why and why not records are accepted based off the information provided in sighting reports.

Birder Jeff Bilsky and Committee Member Colby Neuman Birding in Harmony

Over the years I have seen a number of birders distance themselves from the committee by no longer submitting records to this group. Many question the validity and need for such an organization, aside from the nepotism mentioned above. I stopped submitting records almost two years ago for a number of reasons.

First and foremost I became disillusioned with the idea of a committee in general. I personally have no need to prove my sightings to anyone but myself. If I was submitting a record, I was actually doing a favor to the committee. Without that record they would not have that species on their checklist, or in their records. It isn’t a matter of I don’t feel the record is important—it is a matter of I don’t feel the decision of the committee is important. That is to say there are better ways to keep track of these records.

Secondly, the burden of proof that was required for a non-members record seemed to be higher than that of a member. Every person submitting a record should be held to the same standard. That means that for any first state record photo, video, or sound evidence, or a specimen should be required to accept a record. A detailed write up is not sufficient in any case by any observer. That however is not the case. I always try to put images with my reports, but in some cases it is impossible to get a picture when you are trying to watch the bird—and in many cases the sighting is so brief that time for a picture was not available.

Thirdly, it became apparent that some of the members were not only not experts in bird identification, but the extent of what they knew about birds was limited to what they had read in books and what they knew from the areas they birded most. I know a lot about birds of Utah because I bird here more than anywhere. And I know even more about the birds of Salt Lake County because I bird here more than anywhere in the state. And I know even more about the birds of Lee Kay Ponds, and the South Shore, and the canyons because those are places I go a lot—and so on and so forth. There are hundreds of local experts that have intimate knowledge of local areas and the birds that are found there.

Lastly, I just stopped caring. The combination of the above elements jaded me. And with it my care for submitting records disappeared. The “I don’t care” issue is probably one that most birders can relate too. Most I have talked to say their biggest issue is with “feeling judged”. Committee members will tell you that it isn’t like that, and argue that even an unaccepted record is important. But to most birders, their record is their word, and for many their reputation. When a record is not accepted they take it as the committee does not believe them and therefore they aren’t credible. I have submitted records knowing they wouldn’t get accepted—and even with that knowledge it still bothered me. Feeling judged leads to people not caring.

This turned into something longer than I anticipated, so this will be part 1 of a 2 part series—in the second half I will cover why eBird is the solution for records committees.

Photos: possible Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and possible Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Copyright Tim Avery

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Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

My experience with the Idaho Bird Review Committee was a positive one. I only submitted a couple of records. I know and have birded with a few of the people on the Idaho committee and have a lot of respect for them. They have been mentoring rather than demeaning. I have heard that my luck is not the same for everyone everywhere and that the birding elite are sometimes egotistical jerks. In that case, I would certainly join you in abstaining from submitting rare bird reports and I wouldn’t care what they do.

My most interesting rare bird report was the Rusty Blackbird I found in my Boise foothills neighborhood one year ago. I even had photo evidence, albeit terrible photos. A dozen other birders confirmed the sighting with their own eyes and dozens more reviewed my photos. The photos were good enough to rule out every other possible blackbird. My report was approved by the review committee in the 2nd round of voting with only one dissenting vote. I admit that that one negative vote bothers me. It makes me question the abilities of that committee member, or at least their review method. Even with my sensitivity, I still see a need for reviewers of rare bird sightings for the sake of general bird distribution understanding.

Just because a committee or an eBird reviewer does not accept your sighting, it doesn’t mean you didn’t see that bird. If you are 100% certain of your sighting, that should be good enough for you!

eBird reviewers aren't always selected from the "best" bird identifiers in a region, but rather from among those willing to serve and follow some simple yet strict policies and procedures. Even with such policies, subjective judgment calls must be made based on the reviewer’s confidence in the skill of the birder and more especially the skill of the birder in reporting what and how they saw it.

It'll be interesting to see what you have to say about eBird taking away the need for review committees; eBird does trump a lot of what review committees do. Other birders are much more likely to use eBird to see if birds exist in a location rather than look up what birds are approved by the state committee. I like that the sheer volume of reports in eBird, whether valid or not, will provide great long-term accurate data...even if you have to ignore a few outliers on the reports. Even questionable sightings are important because they convey the hope and possibility that that bird was there, which makes birding fun!

In summary, I'm okay with bird review committees and eBird reviewers and recognize a need for them. I just hope they are benevolent and mentoring rather than egotistical and demeaning.

January 4, 2011 at 9:23 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Great comment! I think a records committee can be useful, bu t the way in which most are run cut themselves off form the everyday birders. When I first started birding a member of the Utah BRC almost made want to stop because of what an a-hole he was about a sighting. I was only 14 or 15 years old, and found a bird that had never been recorded in Utah (there are at least 2 reports in the last 5 years now) and when I reported it the committee member told me that the species in question would not look how I reported it during the item of year I reported it. 4 years later when I spent my first fall in the Midwest I realized that was complete BS when I saw 100's of that same species int eh same plumage a month later then when I reported the individual I saw.

Needless to say, it made me realize that those on the committee were not the end all be all for identification. Since then I submitted numerous reports--most of which have been accepted.

But as I mentioned I stopped caring about the records committee as a valid keeper of records, and instead solely use eBird now--which I will get into in that next post I mentioned!

Thanks Again!

January 5, 2011 at 11:27 AM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

Every state records committee is different. Some are great, others are ridiculous. Of course, records committees can make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes..but the committees that are willing to correct their mistakes or refer to other opinions are the ones to be applauded. There is no question that some people have agendas, but most committees as a whole don't have agendas that effect the actual vote in the end. Or am I just naive? You can tell me if I am. I'm not going to single out any state committees as good or bad, they know who they are.


January 6, 2011 at 3:12 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Jerry, You naive man you!!! No I am kidding of course! I agree that most records committees do a good job... most of the time. Often times looking at past records, I wonder to myself, "how the hell was that accepted?" At the same time I can look at another record and wonder the exact opposite--how was THAT record NOT ACCEPTED. I will actually use you as an example here. I recall a report you submitted several years back that had something like 7 Broad-winged Hawks you saw. The Utah committee only accepted one record because there was only a photo of one bird. I almost punched my computer when I read that. Was that seriously how they were going to vote on that record? That kind of voting seems to be irresponsible.

That kind of occurrence just baffles me. I think another baffling thing is when an eBird reviewer accepts a sighting that a records committee doesn't! It seems like some definite disparity between the committees and eBird--that isn't a bad thing. I'll get more into that in my next post.

Take it easy.

January 6, 2011 at 4:19 PM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...


You're killing me!!!!

Here's the truth on that. Do I think the committee thought they were BW's...yes. But I honestly didn't even look twice at them if they weren't photographable. So, I couldn't honestly write them up. The write-up would have been phony...BW's are like starlings to me (in a sense). I've seen a ton and am jaded...so I'm not going to look at one to scrutinize it. I care if I see one on the ridge, I love them...I'm just too focused on photography. I submitted them because I felt obligated, but with a general description of what one looks like and think I even said in the write-up that I didn't really look at them (for more than a few seconds). I couldn't honestly describe each individual. I'm a lazy birder...this is embarrassing to admit.

I knew they would reject them, they were poorly recorded. Some records committees feel that records should stand the test of time. In a hundred years, was my poor write up going to be questioned....absolutely. It would have been one of those that people would shake their heads at and say "why was this accepted". I can't force myself to care.

I too have have seen some records in other states that shouldn't have been accepted or vice versa. And some have been reversed since. I have much more to say on the subject and many personal stories, but none of them are regarding the Utah committee.


January 6, 2011 at 5:44 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

I look at it a little differently. For instance if I am looking at historical bird sightings there is almost no visual, or detailed proof for the reports. Some have accompanying specimens, but there is a lot that has been recorded over time that is just the recorders word and knowledge. I imagine that in 100 years people will look back and see your report and think:

damn--the records committee didn't accept Liguori's sighting of a raptor? That guy wrote the book(s) on raptors! Psshha!

Let's be real about it--there are birds that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to identify. A few years back I was watching a pretty big rarity for Utah--it was an obvious ID, no need for in depth study to be sure of the species. I remember watching a fellow Utah birder scrutinize every detail of the bird. I thought it was strange as bird ID for the most part had always been pretty straightforward to me. When I see a bird, especially a rarity, I recognize it as being one--some birds are harder--like empids, but I can't think of a singel time seeing a rarity and not knowing what it was or that it was rare. I didn't need to spend an hour gathering details about the bird to know what it was. When it comes to having a write up for the species why would waste the time to write something up that was to the contrary of what I saw right off the bat. It was a Palm Warbler... It was a Red-necked Grebe... It was a Yellow-billed Loon... It was a Little Gull... You get the idea.

I find it almost comical at times reading sight records that look like they were copied from Sibley or National Geographic. I don't know very many people that sit with a pen and pad and write down every detail of an obvious rarity thinking they are going to need that later (field notes are fine and can be useful but in this example they are un-needed). They see it, they watch it, they enjoy the find, report it, and move on.

Anyways. This is a great discussion, I can't wait to get my eBird plug in and see where that goes!

January 7, 2011 at 11:49 AM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

I can't wait to see your next post also Tim...and I agree wholeheartedly that some write-ups are taken right out of field guides. I have also seen write-ups on raptors that could be shredded to pieces, but and were accepted.


January 7, 2011 at 2:23 PM  

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