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I found a rare bird. Now what? - A guide to finding and reporting rare birds

So, you've found a rare bird. Bravo! But guess what? You are about to be the G.O.A.T. or the goat, and there is rarely a middle ground.

Long-tailed Jaeger in Wyoming
Long-tailed Jaeger lost in the sagebrush sea in Wyoming

This Long-tailed Jaeger showed up in Wyoming during the summer of 2020. It is the first documented Long-tailed Jaeger for the state. I chose to keep this rarity's location hidden, as it was in a position of vulnerability. Read on to learn why.


How to Find a Rare Bird

This is a question every birder, young and old, wants to be able to answer. Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to find a rare bird. Experience can help in the identification of a less-common species, but experience does not guarantee success in your efforts for finding a "Code 5" rare bird.

You did not know there were 'codes' for rare birds? Oh yes, birders have thought of everything. Here are the codes and their definitions according to the ABA:

ABA Rare Bird Codes

Code-1 and Code-2: Regularly occurring North American avifauna. Includes regular breeding species and visitors. There is no firm designation between Code-1 and Code-2 species, except that logically Code-1 species are more widespread and are usually more numerous. Code-2 species have a restricted North American range, are more widespread, but occur in lower densities, or are quite secretive making their detection often difficult. We readily acknowledge that some Code-2 species are harder to find than some species that have higher codes.
Code-3: Rare. Species that occur in very low numbers, but annually, in the ABA Checklist Area. This includes visitors and rare breeding residents.
Code-4: Casual. Species not recorded annually in the ABA Checklist Area, but with six or more total records—including three or more in the past 30 years—reflecting some pattern of occurrence.
Code-5: Accidental. Species that are recorded five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area, or fewer than three records in the past 30 years.
Code-6: Cannot be found. The species is probably or actually extinct or extirpated from the ABA Checklist Area, or all survivors are held in captivity (or releases are not yet naturally re-established).

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So, what advice can I provide for finding a rare bird?

Here are some tips for finding rare birds:

  1. Find a birding 'patch' that hosts a large number and a large variety of birds.

  2. Go birding frequently, especially in your patch.

  3. Learn your local species from top to bottom. Then, when a rare bird appears, it stands out from your regulars.

  4. Go birding during rare bird season, aka migration.

  5. Go birding with others!

  6. Do not assume a bird's identification. Look at EVERY bird!

  7. Take photos to double-check identifications.

Finding a rare bird can often feel like finding a needle in a haystack. However, if you search the haystack daily, you increase your chances of finding the needle. Worth it? Probably not. But it is better than spending every day watching television.

If daily bird adventures are not something you seek, building a backyard habitat that attracts a large variety of birds should be part of your best efforts. Native plants are best for birds, and supplementing a native garden with bird feeders can attract a stunning variety of birds.

Varied Thrush in Wyoming
Varied Thrush found during a Christmas Bird Count

How to Document a Rare Bird?

Before cameras were commonplace in the birding community, a written description would often suffice as evidence of a rare bird sighting. However, as technology grows and becomes more available, photos are encouraged by the committees and officials who 'confirm' these sightings.

Superzoom cameras are great cameras for documenting birds. Additionally, digiscoping or digibinning can provide documentation shots. Below is a list of optics that are great for those new to documenting rare birds.


Need a powerful zoom camera for birding?

Check out the Sony RX10 IV!

Sony RX10 IV camera for birds and wildlife

See our full camera recommendation list!


Personally, I do not put great effort into sharing my sightings with 'birding committees' unless it is part of a greater effort (CBC, breeding atlas, etc). If I have photo documentation, I will submit that documentation to eBird, but I rarely fill out a rare bird form. I do always try to share my sightings with a local birding community so they can enjoy unusual bird sightings.

How to Report a Rare Bird?

After you have found a rare bird and documented it properly, you may want to share it. eBird is a great way to share the sighting globally. Most states also have email listservs where you can also share your sightings with locals who do not use eBird or Facebook. If you do not know how to report to a bird committee, asking in one of these listservs is a great way to find out how to file an official report.

When Should You Report a Rare Bird?

As I mentioned above, reporting a rare bird to a data collection effort is always ideal. However, you may want to delay a report of your sighting if the bird is potentially at risk. The American Birding Association offers this tip on ethics:

Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger. Be particularly cautious around active nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display sites, and feeding sites. Limit the use of recordings and other audio methods of attracting birds, particularly in heavily birded areas, for species that are rare in the area, and for species that are threatened or endangered. Always exercise caution and restraint when photographing, recording, or otherwise approaching birds.

The key take-away is the line about minimizing a bird's exposure to danger. While we do not like to think of it, there are ugly sides to birding. Some rare birds can cause enough of a stir that birders will appear in droves and put a lot of stress on the individual. This has led to the deaths of birds that were far out of range. Of course, if you do not share a rare bird sighting, you may create some angry bird-lovers. This leads us to...

Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Wyoming
Fork-tailed Flycatcher in the US

Reactions to a Rare Bird Sighting

When you report a rare bird, local birders can go cuckoo! However, if you do not share that bird, you may catch flack for behavior referred to as suppressing a rarity. Some birders might also refer to you as a gripper for holding on tightly to your sighting. Do not be deterred by these people. If you choose to protect a sighting, those who disagree do so often out of jealousy and selfish behavior. Ignore them and enjoy the birds!


To identify common and rare birds, you will want a proper field guide!

Here is our top recommendation: The Sibley Guide to Birds!


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