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How to document a rare bird sighting

Learn how to document a rare bird sighting for submission to rare bird committees and community science databases like eBird!

A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sits on a fence in Wyoming.
Taking photographs of rare birds, like this Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, are a great way to document unusual bird sightings.

Finding and documenting a rare bird can be one of the most exciting moments for a birdwatcher! Learn more about finding rare birds and chasing birds in these linked articles!

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Why document a rare bird?

Documenting rare birds allows for an understanding of the true status of birds in that region that can be used in research projects by future ornithologists. A documented rare bird sighting can expand the data available for determining the range, habitat use, annual cycle, and extent of migration, or nesting, for birds for which there are currently little or incomplete data. Documenting a rare bird allows for objective evaluation of the field marks noted and helps to filter misidentified birds out of data collections.

How to document a rare bird

There are two main steps you should take when documenting a rare bird:

  1. Obtain physical documentation such as:

    1. a photo

    2. an audio recording

    3. a detailed field sketch

  2. Write a thorough description of the entire encounter


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Want a great camera for documenting rare birds? Try the 83x zoom of the Nikon Coolpix P1000!


Physical documentation of a rare bird

Photos, video, and audio recordings are the best documentation possible. Even poor-quality photos, video, or audio can conclusively establish an identification. While not as ideal, a quick field sketch while observing the bird can be the best substitute for those who carry no technology into the field. A sketch from memory can be useful but is not as beneficial due to memory biases.

Want to document a rare bird with a photo? Check out our guide to birdwatching cameras! If carrying a camera is not an option, using a cellphone with a binocular or scope to 'digiscope' a rare bird sighting can be a great alternative. Grab a digiscoping adapter to help!

Write up a rare bird encounter

Not all birders can carry cameras or even smartphones into the field when birding. While a photo, video, or audio recording is most useful, a thorough written description of what you saw or heard at the moment can be extremely helpful. Again, write this detailed description at the soonest moment possible, helping to remove the issue of memory bias. A written description is also quite useful, even when a photo or recording is obtained. It can only strengthen the observation.

A proper written bird description includes several elements. Information to include in a written description of a rare bird includes:

  1. Date

  2. Location

  3. Weather

  4. Optics

  5. Distance to bird

  6. Familiarity with species

  7. Size

  8. Shape

  9. Field Marks

  10. Habitat

  11. Behavior

  12. Sounds

Here's a further breakdown of how to properly describe a bird encounter:

Note diagnostic features or field marks of the rare bird

Most birds have unique traits that distinguish them from even very similar-looking relatives. In a rare or unusual bird description, include the field marks that helped in the identification of the sighted bird. How many features should be included? Include as many field marks or other diagnostic features that aided in identification. Which features could be included? For example:

  • Eye-ring

  • Wing bars

  • Bill color

  • Bill size

  • and more!

If it is helpful, write it down!

Describe how similar-looking or -sounding birds were eliminated

Many bird species do not require this step in the description. For example, an adult male Western Tanager has a distinct coloration that is not shared with other species. Choosing to still eliminate other birds with red or yellow would be useful but less than necessary. However, if an observer saw a Western Bluebird east of the Great Plains, describing how the Eastern Bluebird is eliminated is crucial. A description could say, "Eastern Bluebird was eliminated by the blue belly, blue throat, and rufous extending into the scapulars of the observed individual."

Note age, sex, and plumage

When possible, an observer should note the age and sex of the bird. This information is essential and should be a key part of any bird description. Many birds look drastically different depending on age, sex, and plumage, which can make them much easier or much harder to identify! Want to master aging and sexing birds? Check out these two books on molt and aging birds:

Explain your familiarity with the observed species

Perhaps you have some expertise on this species from your travels elsewhere; this can be good to note. Remember, though, that “Have seen this species many times in my backyard” is probably not enough to have the record validated on its own. In fact, this can be a warning sign, as it implies the bird wasn't looked at carefully under the assumption that it was common. In reality, traveling birders frequently make misidentifications because they assume a species to be common when it is in fact rare where they are birding.

Describe the habitat

Some birds are very particular about their habitat, and it may be difficult to infer from the sighting location what the exact habitat was like. Noting elevation, habitat type, dominant vegetation, nearby water bodies, etc. can be very helpful.

Distance to the bird, lighting, optics, length of observation

These and similar details can be important, especially for very notable sightings, and are often requested by bird records committees. If a bird was a great distance away, and low-power optics were used, a confident identification may not be as possible as an inexperienced observer would hope for. As well, poor light conditions can alter what colors are visible to the human eye.

Selecting a field guide to aid in rare bird identification

Choosing a proper field guide can help in properly identifying and documenting a rare bird. Here are some top selections:

Properly documenting a rare bird can prevent frustration if the observation is being shared with databases like eBird or rare bird records committees. Following these guidelines can ensure as smooth a process as possible.


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