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

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, January 10, 2011 

So last week you might have read my piece on feeling that records committees were irrelevant to birding and that I was going to make the case for eBird being the solution. Let's jump right in with part 2 then!

I am going to start by saying that there is no perfect way to accept or not accept records for rare birds. More so who is to say that it even matters one way or another. Moving on I would propose that eBird is the solution for state records committee issues. I for one have given up on submitting sight records to these committees as in my opinion they are not relevant to my sighting—and not an important aspect of the sighting. With eBird the information becomes part of a database and a pool of other sightings. Using any number of ways to create reports this information can become quite useful for scientific purposes, but also as a record keeping medium.

But how can it replace a committee? eBird relies on the volunteers just like committees to accept or reject sightings that are entered into the database. Inherently the same issue can arise here as arises with a committee. The main difference is that one person is now in charge of making the decision, instead of a group of individuals. More so this person is usually asked by Cornell to be the decision maker, and in reality they may not be the most skilled or knowledgeable of birder—but the person who has the time and is willing to take on the responsibility. It is not a perfect system. Further, this person is not a records committee and their primary role isn't to think like a committee, but instead to maintain the integrity of the data being submitted. A good reviewer takes the time to go through the records that are submitted and follow up on questionable sightings, requesting more information to try and make an informed decision on whether or not to accept or reject.

Little Gull I found in 2009.
Others submitted a record to the committee which was accepted.

This one person is the sole gate keeper between the data becoming part of the accepted database, or data as a whole that has been submitted. That which has been accepted can then be viewed by the public and become part of the official record in eBird. Again, same flaws as the records committee system, however the politics is removed. I feel far more comfortable having one individual make a decision as to whether or not the data I submit is important to the data pool and that I have done enough of a job in documenting it to be accepted—than I do having a committee try to decide based on what they believe of the record to add it to a state list. It's a personal thing.

Bay-breasted Warbler in found in 2009.
Accepted into eBird, no records committee record submitted.

I am not saying one way is better than the other. What I am saying is that the function of eBird comes across as a far more valuable database than the few records the committee compiles every year. What importance do 86 accepted and 11 rejected records have in the big picture? Those are a small fraction of the reported sightings and alone they are hardly important—they are interesting, and can hold some information, but in general they are just single pieces of information. Now take that information and throw it into eBird—add in all other sightings form city, state, region, and the entire country and you can start seeing patterns, and trends, and relationships to other pieces of information. The data becomes relevant. The single record is still insignificant, but as a part of the bigger picture it become a part of what Carl Ingwell called, "the greatest citizen science project that has ever been created." And I agree.

Yellow-billed Loon I found in 2009.
Others submitted a record to the committee which was accepted.

For a long time I used past records of rare birds in Utah to help me determine when to look for the rarities I was going to be on the lookout for when I was birding. I have long ditched that resource for eBird which simply provides way more information, and shows it to me in a manner in which I can use it on a broader spectrum.

There will always be the issue of people not using eBird. "Those damn computers are taking over everything!!!" The generational gap as I have spoken of previously has something to do with this. There are others who feel the same way about eBird that I feel about committees. I have heard plenty of similar stories about people having issues with the eBird reviewers. But when it comes to eBird the reviewer isn't a committee, and the information isn't being used for whatever the purpose of a records committee is. The information in eBird is for the data.

Field Sparrow in found in 2009.
Accepted into eBird, no records committee record submitted.

And that's the end of my opine. I will always plea for people to use eBird—not only for the usefulness of the data in the pool, but also as a great way to track your own sightings. And whether or not you care about rare bird records, it's hard to argue that eBird is far more useful than a pile of dusty records (or pages on a website), and will have a far more lasting reach than the aforementioned.

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Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

A committee of one is certainly more convenient. eBird's policies for reviewers are pretty straight forward and don't require all the much subjective judgment. (Please correct me if I'm wrong)

The nice thing about data points is that if they don't fit, you can throw them out for the purposes of whatever you are doing, or you can leave them as "possible".

I agree with your argument that eBird has more relevance to the birding public and even to science than the list of approved and rejected sightings by the review committee.

Keep the campaign going for eBird. It is the greatest citizen science project.

January 10, 2011 at 11:24 AM  
Blogger Ryan O'Donnell said...

First, I'd like to reiterate that choosing to submit records to eBird and records committees is not an "either/or" thing. Records can (and should, I would argue) be submitted to both.

The main problem with submitting records only to eBird and not to bird records committees is that eBird does not have a system in place for the archiving of supporting information. Yes, volunteer reviewers can request details from birders, and yes, there is a Flickr group that is the home base for photos of rare birds submitted to eBird, but neither of these is (or is intended to be) an archival record. If, in 80 years, Field Sparrows are split into two species on the basis of some field mark that no one is paying attention to today, there is a good chance no one will be able to go back to Tim's record to reevaluate his sighting. Even posting his photo on Flickr will not guarantee that the photo will still be there in sixty years - Flickr may lose it, they may go out of business, or Tim may remove the photo himself. In my mind, the greatest value of the records committee is in forming an archive of rare observations that can be accessed and reevaluated in the future. For that reason, I'm not too concerned about whether my records are accepted or rejected. Some time in the future, they may be reevaluated based on new information, and I take comfort in knowing that the record will be available in a place that it can be found. (Of course, this all assumes that the bird records committee maintains records in an archival manner.)

On a related note, BiF said above, "the nice thing about data points is that if they don't fit, you can throw them out. . . ." However, this is a very dangerous and strongly discouraged practice in the statistical analyses of biological data. It is dangerous and discouraged because it is an easy way to bias your results towards what you expect them to be. Outliers, if they are not just errors, need to be included and accounted for. The value of thoroughly documenting unusual records in an archival manner is that anyone analyzing the data later will not have to make a judgment call when faced with the question of whether your record is erroneous: they can evaluate the validity of the record themselves, because the supporting information has been preserved.

January 10, 2011 at 2:18 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

I personally hope that Ebird does soon offer an outlet for "supporting information". It does seem to be a major shortcoming in the ability to submit information. Numerous times when submitting Ebird records I'll put "photos obtained" in my notes, but why not offer a spot to upload these photos? It would certainly make the public record that much stronger. I wonder if we might be able to approach someone at Ebird with some of these questions and maybe get them involved in this discussion. It seems like they are often adding new resources. Additionally, I'm hoping Ebird offers some sort of "app" soon for ease of inputting lists on smart phones. Accuracy of checklists would likely go up with the ability to input in "real time".

Per records committees, it is an interesting quandary. I see some usefulness for them on the state level but only if they have very clear goals and very thorough, consistent standards. And I believe the birding community at large should have a say in these elements and in who sits on the committees. Also they should have a proactive approach to working with Ebird to be consistent. What's the point of having differing information on a committee and on ebird for a given state?

January 10, 2011 at 3:20 PM  
Blogger Ryan O'Donnell said...

Jeff: eBird and BirdsEye are currently working on an app for iPhone that will enable entering checklists on the go. In December 2010 they said they expect it to be available "within a few months." I would hope they're working on adapting to other platforms, but they haven't mentioned it as far as I know.


In the meantime, it is possible to enter data in the field using any device capable of showing webpages, by going to ebird.org as you always do, but of course this is a bit awkward as the input pages aren't meant to be read on handheld devices.

January 10, 2011 at 4:11 PM  
Blogger Jeff Bilsky said...

Thanks Ryan, but I have a Droid so hopefully they'll work on that too. Also, I have entered checklists from the field on my phone, but as you pointed out it is a bit awkward.

January 10, 2011 at 4:20 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


I have to respectfully disagree with you as it being an "either/or", or a "neither/both". It is entirely up to any individual where they submit any type of sightings to. I know plenty of people who neither submit records to the birds records committees, or place checklists into eBird. In reality, such a small portion of the population actually cares about these records that the "neither" option appeals to and is probably the most widely used option. As for either/or, I'm not saying that someone needs to do one or the other--I'm also not saying that people should only do one or the other. What I am saying is USE eBird!

I will probably never submit a record to the UBRC again. I have at least 2 first state records write-ups that because of the way the organization is run, I don't feel it's worth my time or effort to give that to them anymore. In a sense it’s selfish, but it's the way the perceived politics have driven me. Those records are in eBird, and on the internet in a number of other places. Whether or not they are around in 100 years doesn't really matter to me. If they are, then that's great, and if eBird become the golden standard they are there. My guess is that over time eBird will develop more detailed input techniques to gather more information and make the data even more useful.

I won't lie; I would love to see eBird replace records committees, from a political and scientific standpoint.

To one other point, who is to say the records that the committee receives will be around in 100 years? I think 99% of what they do is currently handled electronically, and just as my site, or jo blo's site, or eBird, or anything else that is run on the web could one day be corrupted, deleted, or just plain lost, the same could happen to those records.

The same also goes for paper records in museums and archives. In reality what percent of historical documents have actually been saved and stood up to the test of time? Especially those that are as insignificant to the general population as bird records?

To each his own I say. I applaud you for submitting records to the UBRC, as well as the very thorough eBird checklists you submit. The information is invaluable and very useful. I have submitted more records than I can count to the committee, and I am just over it. That is one man's position. To many that have read this they probably wonder: who cares? I obviously do care about the subject or I wouldn't have brought it up, and it has generated some great discussion which is the point of this blog. My end goal isn't to stop people from using the records committee, but it was to point out the flaws--in both systems, and give my opinion on which I felt was more significant.


January 10, 2011 at 4:42 PM  
Blogger Birding is Fun! said...

Ryan, I agree with your point about outliers in data. My comment was based on a birder looking at eBird data to determine if he/she could see a species in a state. If there is only one record ever in eBird, I would not expect to see that bird in that state and therefore would throw it out when compiling my list of birds I want to see in a state. That one-off record may indeed be valid and its so important for it to be logged and publicly accessible on eBird. I wonder how many records committee rejected the first Eurasian Collared-doves in the U.S..

January 10, 2011 at 4:50 PM  
Blogger Ryan O'Donnell said...

Just to clarify, Tim, I don't think you are respectfully disagreeing in your first paragraph of your last comment; I think we're saying the same thing. I was just saying, as you already had, that one does not need to choose BETWEEN submitting to eBird and to the records committee. These are two separate decisions: Do you submit to eBird? and Do you submit to the committee? The two answers do not depend on one another. I was just trying to make sure it is clear to any novices out there that IF you choose to submit to eBird you still have the option of submitting to the committee. Sorry if my clarification just caused more confusion!

Also, you said that if eBird is around in 100 years, your records will be there. But my point is that although your RECORD will be there, the DOCUMENTATION will not. And, in fact, it is not even there now. That is my point: there needs to be some way for DOCUMENTATION to be linked to records. At the moment, this is the role that bird record committees fills that is not filled by eBird.

Good post and good discussion. Thanks.

January 10, 2011 at 5:15 PM  
Blogger CarlIngwell said...

Ryan & Tim

I won't comment either way, but I would like to add that you can enter notes in eBird about species identification (or sex, or subspecies, or whatever you want) & I think it is pretty important to use the note feature for future reference.

January 10, 2011 at 5:19 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


My last comment wasn't meant to sound abrasive or be disrespectful--it was a genuine plea which I will plug and plug as long as I am birding--and that is use eBird. What I was disagreeing about was the "either/or" statement, and I thought I did so in a respectful manner.

But I do agree that I think we are on the same page with what the point of eBird is. The main difference is what we feel the role of the records committee is. I just saw your post, I need to go read it and of course comment!

Thanks for the back and forth!


January 10, 2011 at 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Cliff Weisse said...

I just read the posts and discussion of eBird vs BRCs. As an eBird reviewer and BRC member (Idaho BRC) I feel compelled to respond to some of the opinions that have been expressed.

While there is overlap between eBird and BRCs there is one major difference between the two. BRCs do focus on rarities/vagrants and attempt to document distribution/occurrence of unusual species. eBird's strength is gathering a lot of data on common species with much less emphasis on one-off occurrences or vagrants. Despite the lack of emphasis on rarities it is important to the success of eBird that all data be as accurate as possible and that necessarily requires screening of reports and proper documentation for rarities. eBird has a system in place that automatically puts unexpected reports into a review process which is typically handled by one person in any given area. However, the suggestion that you can circumvent BRC review of records by submitting reports to eBird instead isn't really accurate. In a recent discussion of how to handle such reports the project leaders at eBird recommended that we (eBird reviewers) defer to BRCs regarding acceptance of review species. The result is that no BRC report = no eBird record for review species.

I completely agree with Tim's assertion that BRCs should require the same level of documentation from anyone and everyone who submits a report for a rarity. The key is that the committee evaluates the documentation, NOT the observer. So I'm a bit confused by his suggestion that Jerry Ligouri's BWHA report(s) should have been accepted solely because they were submitted by an (the?) expert in raptor identification. So which is it? BRCs should accept records based on the skill level of the observer, or they should not base acceptance on the skill level of the observer?

Tim's statement "I personally have no need to prove my sightings to anyone but myself" suggests he feels the BRC is somehow responsible for verifying the skill and or integrity of birders. Sorry, but that's not the case. The committee attempts to gather data on occurrence of rare species, not to validate our state life lists or pass judgment on our skill as birders. They have criteria that must be met for acceptance of records into their database so we must "waste time" preparing detailed reports if we wish to have our sightings included in their database.


January 12, 2011 at 10:01 PM  
Anonymous Jerry Liguori said...

Interesting discussion, and I'm glad I am considered an "expert" whatever that means, however, I wish my name or reports aren't used as examples, I'm not comfortable with it. I'm sure anyone would feel the same. I explained those stupid BW's, I wrote horribly lazy reports because, quite frankly, I couldn't truly write them up. I could have fudged them and they would have easily got accepted, but that's not my style or my reputation. On most of them, I glanced, said "oh a Broad-winged", and continued to focus on closer photographable birds. The real mistake I made was submitting them because I knew they would be rejected. I commend the UBRC, because they came to the conclusion that BW's are not true rarities and there is no need to write them up anymore, and if I had a hand in that, then that is a compliment alone.

To clarify, I don't care in the least if someone mentions me, cites me, or whatever, but I'm quite embarrassed to be reminded about my poor write-ups...'nuff said. I'm not singling out Tim, Cliff, or anyone else, just wanted to state my peace and make that request.


January 12, 2011 at 11:46 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


The point I was trying to make was the disparity in "who" accepted records were from based off their skill level. It seems highly ironic that a record from a committee member with as a somewhat "field guide-esque" description and no picture of a rare warbler would be accepted--and at the same time a record with one photo that mentions multiple individuals of a annually occurring sparrow from an expert in the field would not be accepted for the lack of a write up (these are both made up obviously). It's almost a comical happening that I have witnessed on more than one occasion.

There should be the same burden of proof for all birders from beginner to expert for accepting a record. Whether that be a description and photo, or a description that looks like Sibley himself wrote it. That cross-birders burden of proof is not there and that is the issue I have.

And in no way do I feel that the BRC is responsible for verifying the skill and integrity of me or anyone else--it is however the perceived judgment that comes with the above mentioned issue that I was referring to. You say, "They have criteria that must be met for acceptance of records into their database so we must "waste time" preparing detailed reports if we wish to have our sightings included in their database." The criteria is the issue, and until the same criteria is held for ALL birders, I do see it as a waste of time, and do not care to have my sightings as part of their "database". That is "proving" I am speaking of--proof for them, that does not matter to me.


January 13, 2011 at 10:46 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


Sorry for using you as an example--I have a ton of respect for you which is why I did. Going forward I will make sure to change the people and the places whenever I am using examples!


January 13, 2011 at 10:47 AM  

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