Utah Birds, Utah Birding, and Utah Birders. Promoting the sharing of information, and the conservation of habitat for birds in Utah and elsewhere. We are a group of people who want to share what we know, and create a positive birding experience in Utah.


a blog by and for Utah Birders

I Hate Scopes

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Monday, January 31, 2011 

This is not a response to Tim’s post, it is in regards to hawk watching only, but the timing is good because of Tim’s post and I already had it written. I hate spotting scopes for hawk watching (I mean birds in flight on migration, not sitting birds). Why? Because I think it hinders the learning process. Birders will learn much more taking notice of shape and flight style in binoculars than trying to notice some plumage marking in a scope. Every time I look through a scope it takes my eyes several minutes to focus again. I know you should keep both eyes open when you look through a scope, but it still doesn't help me. I think scopes are great for watching perched shorebirds, gulls, ducks, etc. but for flying raptors, scopes are for suckers! In fact, any hawk watching field trips I may lead in the future, there will be one rule -- no scopes. I wonder if anyone will show up? You’d be surprised what you could identify in binoculars when you steady yourself! Honestly, is it fun to stare at some speck in the scope for minutes on end? I’d rather just study birds with my binoculars, and if its so far away its “invisible”, then screw it….who cares?

I’ve been at hawk watching sites where there were spotting scopes lined up in a row. I think most people think they need a scope to identify birds, or they think they are going to miss something that someone else with a scope can see. I used to know a guy who would scan with his scope to find the most distant bird on the horizon, and then watch it for 10 minutes, only to misidentify it in the end and miss the rest of the flight in an attempt to impress someone. Some people just feel insecure without their scope. I’m not interested in being the first to name a distant bird. There are people who swear by scopes, and will tell me I'm crazy or just dead wrong about them…I’ve heard it all. And they are probably the people who have never watched without a scope. I know this post is biased, but just my thoughts and those who like scopes for raptors…more power to you. Besides, it’s much easier to carry binoculars. If you are going to use a scope for flying birds, make sure you have an eyepiece that has a wide field of view. If you can’t find birds in flight, you are wasting your time.

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Spotting Scopes and Birders

posted by Tim Avery at
on Friday, January 28, 2011 

I'm not going to say a lot here--just sharing a few pictures that a buddy of mine took during the Great Salt Lake Audubon Gullstravaganza a couple weeks ago. When I saw the pictures I was amazed at the number of spotting scopes present. Despite having been there and seeing them, the pictures tell a better story:

It reminds me of the pictures in magazines of people chasing a mega-rarity, lined up shoulder to shoulder to see the bird. Olny in these pictures we were scanning a lake looking for anything worth taking a look at!

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My favorite Bird Photo (cont.)

posted by Jerry Liguori at

These are some of my favorite photos...of course most are raptors. I just couldn't narrow it down to one, and didn't want to post 10 times. To all, let me know which one you like, I am interested to hear the choices. (click on photo to enlarge)

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On Hope for the Future

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Thursday, January 27, 2011 

The recent post on this blog titled Golf and Birds (link) has sure brought out a lot of comments. At the heated center of a debate that has arisen is the notion that humans are "destroying the planet". I think we've all found common ground in acknowledgement that humanity's footprint is an untamed beast that is having a cascading effect throughout the globe. The repercussions are loss of habitat and resources and consequently some of the variety beyond homo sapiens that the processes of evolution and nature produced.

Some out there may believe that the future holds certain inevitabilities and that one of them is that we're screwed. I think you know what I mean by that but just to clarify, picture all the Hollywood movies that have been springing up about the end of the world, throw in something from the bible about God's wrath and you'll have an idea of what it means to be screwed.

To me, what's in the past is done but the future is unwritten. Yeah, we have a trash vortex the size of Texas in the North Pacific (link). Holy shit. It reminds me of The Nothing from the Neverending story. What can we do? The Industrial Revolution began just over 200 years ago. It didn't happen in a day. And if you had asked someone in 1800 if they thought that there'd be a way to instantly communicate with millions of people (OK I know we only get around 200 hits a day, but the potential is there) they'd not be able to fathom it. Change doesn't happen overnight and we're not going to clean up the ocean overnight. Maybe there won't be enough people who want to and maybe industry will keep on marching, keep on polluting in the ways it has been. I don't know. But I'm not going to sit back and accept it as an inevitability. There's such a thing as believing in the improbable. There's such a thing as one person or one act making a difference that changes the world; There are countless examples throughout history. I can't see 200 years into the future. But today I saw some of the Hawaiian Islands ban plastic bags (link). What's that going to do? I don't know, but it gives me hope for the future.


My Favorite Bird Photo

posted by Tim Avery at

This is my favorite photo I have taken, and of my favorite bird, Piranga ludoviciana, or the Western Tanager as most of us know it. I took this near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in May of 2010 as the northern Utah valleys were being overwhelmed by literally flocks of tanagers heading north. I may have also photshopped a stick that ran across the birds back to make the image look a little prettier than it initially was.

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My Top 10 List – Costa Rica Planning Part 3

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 

At some point in most people lives I assume they have made a “top 10” list of one sort or another. Maybe the top 10 places they want to go, the top 10 things they want to do, the top 10 songs on their iPod. You get the idea. I have done a few top 10 lists over the years—and as it’s probably no surprise, more than a few of those have involved birds. While I am on my Costa Rica kick (this will be a couple more months long I’m sure) I figured I would throw out there my “top 10 birds to see in Costa Rica” list.

Now for everyone there are probably a couple of birds that are obvious, like the Resplendent Quetzal, or Scarlet Macaw that will be on the tops of the lists. These obvious species both make my list, but neither are in the top 5. I went a little obscure, with my picks, not because they were odd birds, but because they are interesting to me for one reason or another. So here goes.

First the honorable mentions. I am a bit of a Tanager freak and there are so many types of tanagers in Central and South America that I was bound to have a few favorites. I decided to only have one in my top 10 but I have three runners up. The Spangle-cheeked Tanager, the Rosy Thrush-Tanager, and the White-throated Shrike-Tanager are three species I would love to see. They are up there, but not quite in the top 10.

#10 – Scarlet Macaw
This large parrot is somewhat of an icon for habitat destruction. It is large, loud, and highly noticeable. I really want to see one, and probably will as there are a couple of very reliable locations along the Pacific coast. To see a Scarlet Macaw soaring over the forests might be one of the most majestic sights in the country.

#9 – Common Potoo
Is it a nighthawk? Is it an owl? Really what is a Potoo? A Potoo is very similar to a nighthawk, but they sit upright when they roost. It is kind of comical too see and quite unique. I can’t leave Costa Rica with out seeing one of these—I will probably hear them, but finding one roosting might be a little more difficult.

#8 – Red-headed Barbet
It’s like a mini-toucan almost—it’s in the same family s the toucans and the colors make it a perfect fit. In my opinion it is one of the most spectacularly patterned birds in terms of their colors and how they work together. This species should be on the easier side of the species in my top 10 list.

#7 – Tiny Hawk
It’s tiny, and it’s a hawk. Only slightly larger than an American Kestrel, it looks sort of like an accipiter but is either all dark gray, or all rufous brown in markings and pattern—never combining the two like our North American accipiters. Where I will be it is only found in a small region so it might be a long shot, but one can always hope!

#6 – Resplendent Quetzal

The quintessential icon of Costa Rican birding. This species is the highlight for many going to Costa Rica and it surely is an amazing creature. I hope our last morning in the country ends with a handful of these close enough to get some killer photos. The only reason it doesn’t make it in the top 5 or even the top spot is that this is for so many people the bird of choice. I decided to throw 5 less common and harder to find species ahead of it for my own personal satisfaction.

#5 – Bran-colored Flycatcher
Its name brings to mind cereal for me, and I don’t know why but that makes it interesting. It doesn’t have an interesting pattern, or bright colors, but the subtle browns, along with the streaked breast, and yellow crown make it unique. It’s only found in the extreme southern part of the country where I will have one afternoon to scare one up.

#4 – Three-wattled Bellbird

I think the name says it all for this species. If you have never seen a picture of one you will never forget it when you have. Aside from the three strings that hang from the bill, the white head along with rufous body make it a sight. Perhaps the only thing more interesting is that this species is that it sits at 12” in length—seemingly large for a “songbird”. Definitely one of the coolest birds in Costa Rica.

#3 – Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
This rather drab skulker might leave a few people wondering what am I thinking? For starters the name is pretty cool, Tapaculo. This is the furthest north any member of the family goes and is found high in the mountains of Costa Rica. If I get to see one it will probably be a few minutes after I see my first Quetzal—but I will just have to wait and see.

#2 – Yellow-billed Cotinga
Truth be told this species has juggled for the number one spot recently. In the field if you are lucky enough to see one of the remaining 250-1000 of these that still roam the coast of the south pacific side of Costa Rica you will see a startlingly white bird with a yellow bill. It is quite a spectacular bird and how rare it is makes it a very desirable sighting. There are several spots where I might get lucky enough to see one, but the best is probably the bridge of the Rio Rincon on the Osa Peninsula. I will only have a little bit of time here, but I hope that I will get lucky as many others have in the past couple years.

#1 – Speckled Tanager
Last but definitely not least, and as probably not a surprise to many, a tanager tops my list. This species is hardly rare, but has a pretty limited range in the country and very specific habitat needs. When I started looking for places to find them the same name kept popping up again and again: Wilson Botanical Gardens. Just a few miles from the Panama border on the edge of one of the intermontane valleys in the south Pacific this place is a hotspot that is pretty remote—meaning most birders don’t go there while visiting the country. We are going to be within a two hours drive so I couldn’t say no to making the trip there. Aside from the tanager there are a number of other specialties I will probably see here, but his gem is the target. So you may be asking why? Well that is pretty simple for me. It is simply a beautiful bird. The pattern is so intricate and colorful that it makes all other tanagers seem a bit bland. Now this is highly debatable as everyone sees things differently—but for me the pattern of this striking bird makes it my most highly sought after species for Costa Rica. It tops the top 10, the top 50 and the top 100 lists.

And that’s that. If you were going to Costa Rica, what would your #1 target species be? Leave a comment and let’s get a conversation going!

All photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons except for:
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo copyright Worldtwitch
Yellow billed Cotinga copyright Michael Lindsey

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Golf and Birds

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 

It’s a chilly July morning in one of the canyons along the Wasatch front. Not even 6:00am but the sky is light enough to see everything—although the trees appear a deep dark green as they rustle in a slight breeze. I should have brought coffee to cut the chill, but it’s July! I have a gallon of half frozen water to keep me hydrated on what will surely turn into a warm day—warm drinks weren’t exactly a thought. I can already hear the robins and chickadees singing away in the oaks. A Virginia’s Warbler is trilling just down the hill from where I have parked. I slide out of my flip flops and into my shoes. I need some good traction on days like this, and the flip flops don’t cut it. I check my bag to make sure I have everything I need for the day. I am ready to go. Just then my buddy pulls up in the golf cart and hollers, “are you ready for this?” I respond, “Can’t think of a better way to start the day than 18 holes!”

Now wait a minute—golf? Surely he jests, this post sure started off sounding a lot like a morning bird outing. It’s amazing how the two things can go together so well. Let’s talk about golfing and birding.

Me Golfing in Lander, Wyoming

Most birders aren’t golfers, and vice versa, most golfers aren’t birders. Of course there are quite a few that dabble in both but they are different hobbies and pique different interests. I have been golfing since before I started birding. However, I am a much better birder than golfer. I wouldn’t say I’m bad, but I won’t make the cut anytime soon—well ever. But golfing has always provided me with a chance to take advantage of some great birding territory that may otherwise be inaccessible and therefore making it a great way to go birding.

For most Utah birders we are familiar with birding along the edges of golf courses. There are a number of course that have great habitat and good birds in tow. I remember talking to my friend Dave Slager about this once and he thought it was just strange! Back east (Dave was form Michigan) he never would have thought to go birding at a golf course. Why after all? The birds were found ion hundreds of other locations with the same habitats. I of course would argue the point that we are in Utah—a desert, and by god, those golf courses were a source of great birding. They were mini oases. It made sense in Utah, and other locations around the Great Basin and Mountain West.

Mountain Dell Golf Course. Courtesy of slcgov.com

Think about it for a minute. Most golf courses have some sort of water feature, or features. Many are centered around large bodies of water, ponds, or rivers. The grass is keep bright green by constant watering, and along the edges of the course there is usually brush, buses, shrubs ,trees etc. Some courses have a rather impressive set of habitats to go along with the beautifully laid out courses. Some of my favorite courses in Utah have turned up a few good birds over the years, and have always provided me with 3-6 hours of good birding while golfing. This past year I saw Neotropic Cormorant at River Oaks; in 2009 an Osprey at Nibley Park; in 2008 I had a Winter Wren at McRiley; and in 2007 the best bird I have had while golfing was a Least Tern at Rose Park.

Least Tern being chased by Forster's Tern at Rose Park Golf Course

If you are lucky enough to go birding while golfing in St. George, that opens up a whole new world of what you might be able to see! If you have never combined the two it may be something worth giving a swing at this spring. Golf season is right around the corner, and spring migration will follow suit.

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A thought on raptors

posted by Jerry Liguori at

Can I say something straight up? Raptors such as Peregrine, Merlin, Red-tailed Hawk, and Red-shouldered Hawk are polytypic (having several races), and there is overlap in plumage between the races of each species. There is a continuum of plumages from light to dark of birds that show polymorphism (several color forms). It is simply impossible to tell the race or morph of every raptor…or bird for that matter. It’s O.K. to have unknowns. Are these first two birds (Red-tailed Hawk and Ferruginous Hawk) rufous morphs....and what is a rufous morph compared to a rufous-toned light morph or compared to a dark morph? What about the race of the juvenile Peregrine on the right? Does any of it matter? (click on photo to enlarge)

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Making a List - Costa Rica Planning Part 2

posted by Tim Avery at
on Saturday, January 22, 2011 

So for the better part of the last week I have lived in Microsoft Excel during the wee hours of the night. Bouncing between eBird, Garrigues's The Birds of Costa Rica, and Excel I made my initial list, of species. I then went through and based of the field guide assigned each species an abundance:

VC-very common
FC-fairly common
FUC-fairly uncommon
VUC-very uncommon
VR-very rare
EXR-extremely rare

After that most of my time was in eBird and seeing which birds we could find at the places we were planning on visiting. I'm not nearly done as I am trying to come up with 2-3 locations for each species, but I have a rough start. As I have started going through, I added about 16 species, but removed 13 others so it is all breaking even.

When all is said an done, I will post a copy on the blog to go along with this series of posts.

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Hawk watching and coffee?

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Friday, January 21, 2011 

One day in early April 2001, I was sitting outside the Coffee Garden on 9th & 9th, and scanned the sky just casually with the naked eye as I always do when I’m outdoors. This was at the former location on the opposite corner of where the Coffee Garden is now, so I was faced south, perfect for spotting northbound hawks. Anyway, as I looked up after my first sip of coffee (light roast with a touch of cream), I saw 3 Red-tailed Hawks high up gliding over. Boy, did my adrenaline kick in…3 birds at once; was I going to be pleasantly surprised with a hawk flight? A minute later, a Cooper’s Hawk and another Red-tailed Hawk cruised by. Now I was excited, I called a friend (who was staying with me indefinitely) to meet me, and to bring binoculars.

I knew birds migrated over town on certain winds in spring and fall, when they would “cut the corner” from Mount Olympus to North Salt Lake on certain winds in spring or vice versa in fall. But, as the flight picked up by mid-morning, I realized that this was the main flight line on some days. My dream was coming true, fresh coffee and food (I love their desserts) within arms reach, and a hawk flight overhead. I stayed out all day, eating lunch and dinner on the corner, and counted hundreds of hawks of all sorts. I’ve seen record-high one-day counts over the years, but that was one of the most memorable days I had watching hawks. Every time I go to the Coffee Garden now, I look up first before walking in…actually, I do that everywhere.

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Starlings Poisoned

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Thursday, January 20, 2011 

Hundreds of Starlings were found dead in South Dakota. The US Government poisoned them for crapping in the wrong spot:

They assure that the poisoned dead birds do not pose a risk to nearby animals or humans.

I'm wondering how they can be sure there's no risk. I would think if another animal ate an animal that had been poisoned there would be a risk of ingesting the same poison. That seems a little odd but who knows.

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Conan Goes Birding

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 

This one is a couple years old, but it is definitely worth the watch. If you can't laugh at yourselves you take birding way too serious.

"Have you seen a Bushtit?" - Conan

I think my favorite part is when the one lady tells Conan he looks like a Red-headed Woodpecker... Or when Conan climbs the tree with the fake bird... There are too many good parts to choose just one!

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Dreaming Big - Costa Rica Planning Part 1

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, January 18, 2011 

If you are a birder there is one place you must go during your lifetime--Costa Rica.

I have dreamed of going there for some time and in 2008 started rough planning for a trip. However, several things fell through and the trip never materialized. At the time I purchased The Birds of Costa Rica by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean and started learning the birds I planned to look for. The trip was going to be self guided and therefore knowing the birds was a must. Learning some 500-600 new species without ever setting foot in the tropics is quite the task, and I had barely started when I put the book on the shelf where it sat for more than 2 years.

Then last May I asked my girlfriend to marry me, and after saying yes, and putting off most of the planning for a few months we started to put things together in the fall of 2010. As winter hit northern Utah we knew we had to make a decision on where to go for our honeymoon and the top of my list was of course--Costa Rica. Now I know the honeymoon isn't a birding trip, and I will be sharing the trip with someone who isn't an avid birder, so that means planning my birding to be as concise as possible. That means making the most out of the time I do go birding while there, to maximize the number of species I will see.

So in early December the book was back off the shelve and has been a constant in the living room, at the kitchen table, in the car, in bed, and pretty much anywhere else when I have free time to study and learn. As we finalized the locations we are going to stay I was able to narrow the species I might encounter down to 450 or so (this is the "dreaming big" portion of the post title). This is pretty much every species that is known to occur during June in the areas we will be traveling--from rare to abundant. Oh, to be more specific, that's 450 life birds--I didn't count anything I have already seen, as I don't need to learn those birds.

So 450 species and 4 and a half months to learn. With a good start I have about 150-200 species names basic field marks memorized--or as memorized as I plan on having them. More importantly I am learning the families and groups to help narrow down those I don't recognize when and if I see them so that I can study them enough to check the guide and verify what I saw. From this list I am working out a spreadsheet with the species abundance, habitat type, elevation type, and any other important notes. From there I am going to create lists of what I could see an where. I also picked up A bird-Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barret Larson on Amazon.com today. This should help me as well.

Of course I do have plans to hire a guide or two at a couple of locations to help in my endeavor, but I am not a birder who wants someone else to ID the birds for me. I want to know what I am seeing and be able to name it on my own--so this learning experience is an important part of the trip. With that I will end this post as it has dragged on--but over the next couple months I will post a couple more pieces on the planning and prep as I get ready to make my first trip outside of the United States to one of the most bio-diverse places in the world!

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Birders Rising

posted by Jeff Bilsky at

An article from Slate magazine that dissects the current state of birding and it's apparent increase: LINK


Starlings, Tamarisk Beetles & Cheatgrass

posted by Anonymous eBirder at

"Biotic pollution, the introduction of a foreign species into an area where it is not native, often upsets the balance among the organisms living in that area and interferes with the ecosystem's normal functioning. Unlike other forms of pollution, which may be cleaned up, biotic pollution is usually permanent." –Solomon, Berg, Martin. Biology.

Removal of a native species or addition of an exotic species usually has drastic consequences on the local ecosystem. When it comes to additions, Phragmites, Starlings, Russian Olives, Salt Cedar or Tamarisk, Zebra Mussels, and Cheatgrass all come to mind. When it comes to removals, I think of the Gray Wolf.

Now that the Gray Wolf is absent in the Southwest, ungulate herds runs unchecked; when Elk and Deer numbers are too high, they destroy native vegetation. Since the Gray Wolf has been eradicated, coyote populations have increased, which decreases the population of small game such as rabbits, voles, etc. When there isn't enough small game in an area, it affects Red-Tailed Hawks, Golden Eagles, and other birds of prey. It's been known for a long time that the removal of an ecosystems top predator will greatly affect that ecosystem.

The addition of a species to an ecosystem can also have dire consequences. The Great Basin ecosystem has been evolving to its present state for millions of years. The organisms here have been coevolving with each other for hundreds of thousands of years. Everything worked pretty well together before we started shuffling the deck.

Recently I've been worried about the Tamarisk Beetle. The Tamarisk Beetle is a Eurasian species of beetle that eats (you guessed it) Tamarisk. So what's the big deal? The beetle eats and destroys Tamarisk, which is a non-native, exotic species; when they kill all the Tamarisk, the beetle dies off too, right? What worries me is that the Tamarisk beetle could evolve to exploit other food sources. Many beetles in the history of the world have shown such an ability to evolve in short periods of time. What would happen if the Tamarisk Beetle suddenly evolved into the Fremont Cottonwood Beetle?

So why would it hurt to introduce a Starling (I have to tie this into birds somehow)? Birds have been coevolving with their environments for the past 66 million years. In a way, birds are genetically programmed to kind of know what to expect throughout their lives. They were anyway. We introduced European Starlings to the United States in 1890; that's 120 years ago. Our native species have been coevolving with their environment for the past 66 million years, and 120 years ago we threw them a huge curveball.

One thing that impresses people about Starlings is their ability to outcompete other species and survive in a hostile environment in which they are not endemic. To me, that's what is scary about Starlings: They outcompete native bird populations. Starlings are cavity nesters that outcompete native species of birds. I think it's safe to state that most of our cavity nesters in the state of Utah have been affected by the arrival of European Starlings. It's not about one species displacing another. This very well could be about 1 species displacing 20 or 30 other species. Here are just a few, off the top of my head, which I think could be affected by Starlings: Lucy's Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Western Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Wood Duck, American Kestrel, Purple Martin (not in Utah), House Wren, etc. I'm sure there are many more. I also read a study on Starlings displacing Gila Woodpeckers in Arizona.

Starlings are terrible for our native bird populations, and I think they should be managed a little more intensively. Should we all go buy bb guns and take out a handful on a weekly basis? Maybe. Should we destroy their nests when they set up shop in our Kestrel or Bluebird boxes? Probably. Should we knock their nests out of our roofs, trees, buildings, and bridges? Probably.

Exotics don't belong in Utah. The Utah ecosystem has shown that it isn't fit to deal with exotic, introduced species. The more that we introduce, and the less that we control the ones we already have, the worse it will get.

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Swainson’s Hawks Migrate at Night?

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Monday, January 17, 2011 

This may sound strange, but every fall I see Swainson’s Hawks (and some Red-tailed and Broad-winged Hawks) migrating after sunset along the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and Goshute Mountains in Nevada. I’m not the only one, previous observers at the Goshutes are aware of this, and others who have visited ridge sites in the West have witnessed it. Buteos are generally thought to migrate during peak thermal times (late morning to late afternoon), but this is not the case along ridges, as it is quite common to see them moving in the darkness in late September through early October. I assume they feed early morning, and fly all day including after sundown if the updrafts are still sufficient.

I do see many Swainson’s flying after dark that settle in the Pines before it is pitch-black though. One night (after sundown) at the Goshutes, a kettle of 10 Broad-winged Hawks settled into a group of trees off the east side of the ridge. The next day at sunrise, the same group of 10 took flight from the trees. I know it was the same group because it included 2 DARK BIRDS (an adult and a juvenile), a neat sighting anywhere!

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Highlights Videos

posted by Jeff Bilsky at

When I was younger, I used to watch Wild America. My sister, Sarah, and I would joke that someday I'd take Marty Stouffer's place. In fact I can do a pretty solid impression of his end of show tagline: "Until next time enjoy our willlllllllld America". Well, you can judge for yourself if I'm worthy of following in his footsteps with the shaky handed/digibinoc'd efforts below.

I made a brief video of some of the scenery I captured with my cameras in 2010.

And here's the two year one I made last year for 2008-2009.

It's always fun to go back and relive some of the memories. "Until next time...."


Call it "Gullstravaganza"

posted by Tim Avery at
on Saturday, January 15, 2011 

The "Gullstravaganza" Party. Copyright Tim Avery

This morning 24 birders (including me) ventured into the soupy Salt Lake Valley to look for gulls. Our first stop at Decker Lake rewarded us with 4 species. The expected California, Ring-billed, and Herring gull were all picked up here, as well as a beautiful 3rd winter LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL that everyone was able to see before we left. 2 HOODED MERGANSER, along, with 7 Long-billed Dowitchers were nice additions here as well.

Moving on to Lake Park it was mostly pretty desolate. Very few geese were around and nothing out of the ordinary. A Common Goldeneye on one pond along with several Common Merganser on the Fishing Pond were added to the day list—and all 3 common gull species were seen, but only a few individuals.

Our next stop was Lee Kay Ponds which as it often can be was miss—instead of hit. No gulls on the ice was a disappointment, but a fly over Bald Eagle provided great looks for everyone. Talking to a landfill employee we were told that the gulls were all up on top of the landfill—we decided to move on and come back later seeing if anything changed.

After the caravan of cars made their way up 7200 west, we hit the North Temple Frontage Road that runs west to Great Salt Lake State Park. Just past the Lees Creek flow on the south end of the Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve we spotted a flock of gulls from the frontage road. When I looked through my binoculars I saw a pale gull with a black bill and got really excited. After putting my scope on the bird I checked everything out and confirmed it was a 1st winter ICELAND GULL—most likely the same bird Carl Ingwell found at Great Salt Lake State Park this past week. Everyone in the group was able to set up scopes and get looks at the bird while it sat and roosted on the ice, along with the 3 common Utah winter gulls.

Taking in the Gulls. Copyright Tim Avery

The Iceland Gull has a storied past in Utah with much dispute over individuals being pure bred or hybrids—leading to very few submitted, and only 1 accepted record. There have however been at lest 6 reports in the last 2 years, signs that this species is now being identified more often than in the past. This is the 4th individual to be reported in Salt Lake County. More importantly than how rare this bird is, is how many people were able to see it for not only for their Utah list, but also for their life list. David Wheeler ticked it off for his state leading 392nd species in Utah, and the world traveled Barbara Watkins added it to her impressive 6,000+ species life list.

Digiscoped Iceland Gull. Copyright Jeff Bilsky

From here on a gull high we continued to Saltair and Great Salt Lake State Park where the highlight was a Killdeer—the last day of the duck hunt saw the shore lined with hunters, and birds were far and few between. We left the state park and traveled to the Salt Lake International Center where the entire group was treated to great looks a Great Horned Owl. We planned on going back to Lee Kay Ponds, but Steve and Cindy Sommerfeld went ahead and alerted us that there was nothing on the ice still—so instead we hopped on the freeway and drove north to Farmington Bay WMA.

In the lead car I caught a brief glimpse of a fly over “yellow-shafted” Northern Flicker just outside of the WMA on Glover Lane. At Farmington portions of the group were treated to looks at NORTHERN SHRIKE, and a surprise EARED GREBE with the Pied-billed Grebes. After scanning through the few gulls that were there with the strangest bird being a tiny “herring-esque” gull, we decided to call it a day. At the parking area at the end of the main dike as we were about to disembark someone heard a Virginia Rail. Piquing everyone’s interest we went to the edge of the marsh where within a couple minutes had 3-4 rails calling out. Eventually a couple jumped out of the reeds for people to see. To make things better several SORA soon appeared allowing for great photo opportunities for those with cameras, and great views for all.

As everyone departed, myself, and a few others stopped to look at gulls on the way out. The same flock we scanned earlier had been joined by a few new individuals, including a 2nd winter LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL, and 4 THAYER’S GULLS—a species we had missed in the morning. As we left a NORTHERN SHRIKE made an appearance at Egg Island.

At the ponds at the end of Glover Lane those who remained were treated to one of the coolest sightings of the day. A Merlin was being chased by a Prairie Falcon which for some time appeared to be chased by a Red-tailed Hawk. It was quite a sight to see the large falcon chase the smaller falcon across the sky and out of view.

Prairie Falcon chasing a Merlin. Copyright Tim Avery

Deciding the gulling wasn’t enough for the day we headed to the Bountiful Landfill where there were a few gulls, but nothing out of the ordinary. A couple American Crow were the highlight at the dump. Making one last stop before heading home we swung by Bountiful Lake were Jeff Bilsky was able to turn up the NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD he found the week before. As we enjoyed looks at this we looked back to the dump where several thousand gulls appeared to have poured in since we left—unfortunately I had to be back in Salt Lake, leaving those gulls for another day.

Thanks to everyone who joined me and Great Salt Lake for what was the third (now annual) South Shore Gulling trip that has been in the month following Christmas each of the past 3 years. Looks like we will have to plan something for next year that is bigger and better—after all Colorado has its annual “gullapalooza” so I guess we need to have our annual “gullstravaganza”.

Good Birding

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Fish Springs

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Thursday, January 13, 2011 

On January 1st, Carl Ingwell and I headed out Fish Springs NWR to participate in their annual Christmas Bird Count which was scheduled for the next day. Fish Springs Refuge covers 17,992 acres with a 10,000 acre marsh system. Water is supplied by 5 major springs and several lesser springs and seeps (info from their website). To access it, we had to drive 75 or so miles on the unpaved Pony Express road. In any conditions this road is not exactly easy to drive, so the winter provided some interesting challenges including a couple of mountain passes, some heavy snow, and areas of snow drifts. 4WD was a must. On the way, we came across the largest flock either of us had ever seen of Bushtits moving through some Junipers. There were probably close to 40. A good omen to be sure.

We stayed at the Fish Springs bunk-house for the night, and being the light sleeper that I am, I woke up to the singing of Great Horned Owls outside the window just after midnight. The memory of the weekend that is burned as transcendent was when an American Bittern was captured by the sun as its head stuck up through ice crystals that had formed on the surrounding vegetation. It was an unreal display of nature's unwavering beauty.

There were many other incredible moments throughout (contact me for a complete list of species seen) including the infamous great rally at the end and lots of great food, drink, and discussion.

There's something about Fish Springs that is unique and memorable. Hard to articulate, but I think if you go out there you'll see what I mean.

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My Hook Bird(s)

posted by Ryan O'Donnell at

Jerry's recent post got me thinking about "hook birds." Your hook bird is the one bird that caused your first "wow" moment, and got you hooked on birding for life. I've heard some fun hook bird stories, and in a way I wish I could point to one bird as my hook bird, but I can't. I have three hook birds, each marking a different transition in my birding.

Despite growing up in the city, I feel like I've always been interested in the natural world. I know many people have a moment in their life when they realize how interesting and wonderful wildlife is, but I think I was born with a particularly strong sense of biophilia, as E.O. Wilson calls it. In fact, my first word; before "mom," "dad," or anything else; was "bird." A few years after that, I remember being impressed with my father's knowledge of the natural world. He wasn't a biologist, or a birder, or a hunter. He worked (and still works) in automotive insurance. But he loved nature, and as a young child, I noticed. I remember, at an age of less than ten - maybe five? - hearing a bird sing in my front yard, and having my dad tell me it as a chickadee. I was fascinated that he could give a name to that sound, and even tell me what the bird looked like, just by hearing it. I wanted to be able to do that. So in a way, Black-capped Chickadee was my hook bird.

You might say that a Black-capped Chickadee in my yard in Seattle was the bird that got me into birding for life. (I photographed this one near Birch Creek, Cache County, UT on 17 Jan 2010.)

But, that was hardly the start of my birding career. I was interested in birds, but also in everything else - plants, fossils, rocks, stars, mammals . . . anything natural and real. As I grew up, my focus narrowed on animals. In my last year of college, where I majored in Zoology, I took an ornithology class, but I don't remember any of those birds standing out from any others. It wasn't until I started working on my Master's degree at Oregon State University that I ever went birding for the sole purpose of finding and observing birds. My statistics professor, Dr. Fred Ramsey, was also a birder, and author of "Birding Oregon". One morning at the start of class, before we dove into p-values and correlation coefficients, he took the time to draw a simple map on the board. The "X" on that map marked a treasure: a Snowy Owl that had been hanging out in a farm field a few miles outside of town. The next day, a couple friends and I drove to check out the owl, and were suitably impressed. I think that was the first time I realized that birding was not just learning to identify the common sparrows and warblers that were resident in my area: birding could also reveal unexpected surprises. Those surprises were worth looking for. And so, Snowy Owl was my second hook bird.

A Snowy Owl in the Willamette Valley of Oregon was my second hook bird. This one was photographed in Alaska by Floyd Davidson, and was taken from Wikimedia Commons.

After finishing my degree at OSU, I moved to Washington, where I worked on a project studying frogs and salamanders. One of my coworkers, Casey Richart, was an avid birder. Just as I had been impressed with my father's ability to identify a chickadee by its call, I was impressed by Casey's ability to identify a raptor from what seemed like miles away. Casey and I went birding several times, and I learned a lot from those trips. We also shared a house for a while, and worked on a collective yard list (which reached 39 species by the time I moved out six months later). It was while birding with Casey that I realized that birding is not just a matter of memorizing the field marks pointed out with little arrows in the field guides, but that it is a skill that can be honed for a lifetime: learning the subtle differences in how a hawk holds its wings, recognizing the difference between chip notes of sparrows, or learning to tell the sex and age of birds. Birding was a hobby that would challenge me as long as I cared to let it.

Around the same time, I had the chance to "chase" a very rare bird that had been found right in the town we lived in: the first Redwing ever seen in western North America. (Redwing is a species of thrush from Eurasia, not to be confused with the Red-winged Blackbirds of North America.) The bird stuck around for quite a while, long enough for my aunt to read about it in the newspaper, for me to read about the bird online, and to go find the bird. When I went, I saw dozens of other birders also looking for the bird. We shared the search that morning, we shared information when we found it, and we shared optics so that everyone could get a look. It was my first rare bird chase, and I loved it. I loved seeing a bird that had never before been seen in the region, I loved the camaraderie of the group as we looked for the bird, and I loved the thrill when someone finally shouted "there it is!" as it landed in the top of a tree filled with robins. I was impressed on that day that birding isn't just an activity to do by yourself or with a friend: it can be an activity of an entire community of people who share sightings online, learn together, and share a passion for birds. That Redwing was my third hook bird. Besides showing me that there was a community of people like me who loved birds, that experience also taught me that rare birds can show up anywhere - even in your own neighborhood.

The best shot I could manage through my spotting scope of western North America's first Redwing, in Olympia, Washington, on 28 December 2004.

A flock of birders shares smiles as they watch the Redwing in a residential neighborhood in Olympia, Washington.

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The Greatest Blue Heron

posted by Jerry Liguori at

Time -- October 1994. Place -- Cape May Hawk Watch, NJ. Let me tell you about Pat Sutton, she was a Naturalist/Program Director for CMBO (Cape May Bird Observatory) for years and years…best there was! I always knew this, but one incident sums it up. I was the official Hawk Counter at Cape May for several seasons and Pat would visit regularly with (and without) groups she was leading. Pat was always enthusiastic, got people involved, and had a wealth of knowledge about all wildlife. I loved when her groups would visit the hawk watch, I could scan for hawks and eavesdrop on what they were discussing at the same time.

Apparently a Great Blue Heron took flight from out of the reeds and began to fly across the pond in front of the hawk watch. Pat immediately points it out to her group "Great Blue Heron flying to the right, ooh, look at its blue-gray color, long neck, long pointy bill…gorgeous!" "OK everyone, now it’s turning back to the left, heavy wing beats, astonishing coloration, boy will you look at that…beautiful." As Pat was describing this bird with the same enthusiasm one would describe the Grand Canyon, I felt myself tempted to look over.

Let me be honest, here I am, a 20-something, intense, fanatical, obsessive, crazy hawk watcher and above me was a sky littered with hawks. I blew off chasing mega-rarities even on slow days because I wouldn’t leave the hawk watch ‘til dark in the chance that I would miss a hawk. I put in 1,023 hours on the platform that year! I had counted the largest one-day flight of Great Blue Herons ever recorded (3,200), and have seen thousands otherwise...we're talking just another Great Blue Heron...booooring in my eyes. But I was compelled to look at this heron or I would miss perhaps the greatest Great Blue Heron I would ever see. I did it, I dropped my binoculars to watch this Great Blue Heron, and saw that every single person there was watching it too. Funny thing, I noticed how gorgeous that heron really was, loping over the pond with it’s impossibly long neck sticking out before it had settled into a normal flight posture. No one else could have gotten me to take my eyes off a hawk to look at a heron except Pat Sutton. There is no better teacher of the natural world, and Pat’s husband Clay -- an amazing naturalist himself -- would agree!

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Wintering Shorebirds in Northern Utah

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 

When most Utah birders think of shorebirds, they think of spring and fall migration. Late April and Early May when thousands of Sandpipers pass thorough accompanied by Sanderling, a few Dunlin, Phalarope, Plovers, etc. July also comes to mind when ½ a million Wilson’s Phalarope converge on the Antelope Island Causeway. And of course August, September, and October when upwards of 30 species of shorebirds pass through the state heading back south for the winter. Simply put I don’t think most of us think of winter as a time for shorebirds.

That is not to say that shorebirds don’t overwinter around and on the Greats Salt Lake. Killdeer can be found year round on the lake, or in surrounding areas. This was all brought to mind by tow recent sightings that got me thinking about wintering shorebirds up north. About 2 weeks ago there was an American Avocet seen at Saltair, and then this week a Dunlin was reported. I think most winters Avocets are reported, but the Dunlin was surely a great sighting. I decided to do a little digging and see what I could find.

There have been at least 19 species of shorebirds recorded on or around the Great Salt Lake between the months of December and February. Not bad huh? Of course some of these are few or single records; however there are quite a few regularly occurring species.

Red Phalarope. Copyright Tim Avery

Red Phalarope is the rarest of the recorded winter species. They are a late passage migrant usually coming through Utah between late October and early December. Most records falling November, but there is one report from the causeway on December 3, 1994. The causeway is the ideal location to find this species—either on the rocks or out in the water by the bridge nearest the island. Great Salt Lake State Park is also a great place to look due to the jetties and open water. There have also been overwintering records of Wilson’s Phalarope along the causeway, and a Red-necked Phalarope on the south shore from late November which curiously was a female in full breeding plumage. There is also a single record for Willet from late December at Farmington Bay, although I am not sure it was documented.

Red-necked Phalarope. Copyright Tim Avery

Ruff might actually be more common than a number of the migrants that end up overwintering on the lake. There are at least 3 different winter records for the species along the lake, with 2 coming from the causeway and the other form Farmington Bay. This species prefers tidal flats with shallow pools, so it usually will be along sandy shores or in shallow pools. Overall it is one of the rarest shorebirds recorded in Utah.

From time to time Sanderling show up on the causeway in the middle of January. This one is quite odd, and ranks up there with Baird’s Sandpiper which has several random sightings along the causeway from each winter month over the years. There have also been a report or two of Western Sandpiper—again from the causeway that are just as mind boggling.

Both Snowy and Black-bellied Plover have been reported in mid winter—from the causeway again. Along with some of the above sightings, these birds bring up the point of sick and injured individuals that may not be able to head south leaving them to deal with the freezing temps and predators. It’s neat to see these birds in mid-winter, but the sad reality may be they are only here because they couldn’t leave.

We have covered most of the one-offs, leaving those birds that are reported more often. Dunlin is probably the rarest, but like the Red Phalarope it also has a migration that extends into November, lending to a couple of December records. Marbled Godwit are a bit of an oddity in that despite migrating heavily in September and October, some linger into November with a few stragglers still being seen in December from time to time. Most of these reports come from Bear River MBR on the north shore of the lake—the outlier from the causeway reports.

This leaves both species of Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, American Avocet, and Killdeer. All of these species are usually recorded annually either at the lake or in nearby marshes or lakes. Aside from Killdeer which is the most common, and Wilson’s Snipe which is always reported from locations with open water and some type of cover, Avocet is the least likely to be seen. The yellowlegs are usually reported form freshwater marshes, and other open bodies of water on a pretty regular basis making them one of the most likely to be seen candidates. Last but not least is the Least Sandpiper which overwinters at a number of locations in small numbers. Seen singularly or in small groups, this tiny yellow-legged wader will be found anywhere that open-water and food persists—mainly along the causeway.

Least Sandpiper. Copyright Tim Avery

This is not a scientific analysis of the wintering shorebirds, just an overview. Now it’s up to you to go out and find some!

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BRCs vs. eBird—Apples and Oranges?

posted by Ryan O'Donnell at
on Monday, January 10, 2011 

You just found a Western Gull in your neighborhood, Utah. There have only been three previous records accepted for the state. Should you submit a record to eBird? To the Bird Records Committee? Both? (Photographed 11 Jun 2010, Monterey, CA.)

Tim Avery has written two interesting, informative, and somewhat controversial posts (here and here) contrasting the benefits of eBird with those of state bird records committees. I've argued my side in the comments of those posts, but I thought my position could use an explanation of its own. In my opinion, the contrast is like the proverbial apples and oranges: bird records committees and eBird fill two very different roles that are both important.

Bird records committees are established in most (all?) states and many countries. They are generally not "official" in terms of having any link to the government, but they create "official" lists of the birds seen in the state and attempt to be the final word in the birding world for their areas. They are usually a group of volunteer birders that are well respected in their communities. (In Utah, they are selected by the nomination and voting of other members of the committee only, but the details of their composition and bylaws vary by state and are a separate issue from their role in birding.) Their primary purpose is to evaluate records of rare birds in their area and to judge whether those records should be included in their "official" records. As a result, they compile documentation supporting when and where the rarest species occur in the state, and attempt to provide an indication of whether each of those data points has been established beyond reasonable doubt.

EBird is an online citizen-science tool that is run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It began by accepting records from North America but has since expanded to global coverage. Its goal is to use the power of millions of birders around the world to study the abundance and distribution of every species of bird through time. Although it includes rare birds, its strength is in its numbers: it focuses on all species, regardless of how rare or common they are. By doing so, it can provide estimates of relative abundance that are lacking in many other citizen science projects. The data submitted by eBird users are already being used to generate the most detailed distribution maps ever made, and this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how such data can be used by scientists.

Bird records committees are concerned with (locally) rare birds only; eBird is concerned with all species. BRCs are concerned with one state only; eBird is concerned with birds of the entire planet. BRCs attempt to create a list of rare sightings; eBird attempts to create a database of all sightings, and to incorporate relative abundances, search effort, and other scientifically valuable data. BRCs create lists for the state; eBird provides data for scientific analyses.

Neither eBird nor BRCs are intended to complete every task, and this is why I do not feel that they are redundant. Do BRCs provide detailed abundance data? No, they do not attempt to. Does eBird require conclusive documentation and a vote of experts to accept an unusual record? No, they tend to err on the side of inclusion of all records and have only a minimal amount of vetting. Neither BRCs nor eBird does the other's job well. Neither tries to.

Certainly there is overlap between the coverage of these bodies. When a rare bird is observed, both eBird and the BRC want to hear about it. But the kind of data they seek, and the way they plan to use the data, differ greatly. If you want to contribute to citizen science, and to have your bird observations help biologists understand the distribution of birds in time and space, submit your records to eBird. If you want to help your state maintain an accurate and vetted list of the species seen in your state, submit your rare bird sightings to your BRC. And when you are lucky enough (luck tends to favor those who work hard) to find a rare bird, consider sharing that observation with both.

A White Wagtail photographed in Jordan in December 2010. If you ever found one in Utah, I'm sure both eBird and the state Bird Records Committee would like to hear about it.

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

posted by Tim Avery at

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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