Unedited eBird reports pose pitfalls

Did three or four Scarlet tanagers really appear in a Parma backyard earlier this month? Photo by Gary Meszaros

Enjoy birding during the pandemic, but be careful of whacky IDs
During this unprecedented worldwide pandemic, the opportunities are increasing to escape our self-imposed quarantines and explore the parks and trails available for spring birding in Northeast Ohio.The joys of birding are increasingly being discovered by new birders – a fabulous trend that occasionally can lead to problems with identification.
Consider this a cautionary column, not a finger-wagging critique. We’ve all been there; It can take years to hone our birding skills. But for some, there are embarrassing slips along the way.
I wrote about these issues more than a decade ago during my career at The Plain Dealer. One of those Aerial View columns appears below. I was reminded of this recently, as the problems have cropped up again in spectacular fashion.
Broad-winged hawks likely won't return to NE Ohio until April

For instance, a Medina County birder in February reported confidently on eBird of having spotted a broad-winged hawk – an unlikely sighting, considering these birds are in South America and won’t begin returning to Northeast Ohio until mid-April. Chances are this birder was confused after spotting a juvenile red-shouldered hawk.
The birding community received a winter chuckle after a Tennessee woman posted an eBird report that included backyard sightings of a ladder-backed woodpecker (a far West species), a golden-cheeked warbler (a rarity confined to the Hill Country of Central Texas), and an ivory-billed woodpecker (extinct).
Observed with binoculars in my forested yard,” she reported. “I provide a variety of bird food and spend an hour plus per day observing with a guide to refer to as I see each bird.”
Just last week, a Parma birder filed an eBird report that appeared on the Ohio rarities list before it could be deleted by the site monitors.
Black-throated green warblers can be mistaken for golden-cheeked warblers. Photo by Gary Meszaros
Three, maybe four Scarlet tanagers were flying around the backyard,” the birder reported. Could they possibly have been male House finches?
So as we weather these perilous days until the corona virus is defeated, enjoy the outdoors and the spring migration as it builds. If I see you on the trail I promise to keep a safe distance.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading this Aerial View from the archives as much as I did.

Think twice before hitting 'Send' button when reporting rare bird: Aerial View
By James F. McCarty, The Plain Dealer
It may be hard to imagine in these days of the Internet, Twitter, email alerts, cell phones, and high-tech optics, but it wasn't long ago that birding was a relatively low-tech hobby.
All you needed were a trusty pair of binoculars and a comfortable pair of hiking boots. If someone found a rare bird the word would spread via land-line telephone calls. If someone snapped a photo, all the better.
Eventually, other birders would verify the sighting, and someone would write up the details for the Cleveland Bird Calendar, and hopefully submit a report to the Ohio records committee.
Birding then was slower-paced, more methodical and scientific -- but remarkably accurate.
I wish I could say the same about birding today.
As bird-watching grows in popularity, the number of questionable sightings are also on the rise. In the past few weeks alone, there have been Internet and emailed reports in Northern Ohio of Anna's and broad-billed hummingbirds, pine grosbeak, an unspecified shrike, and three cinnamon teal.
All are Western or boreal birds, but that's what you get when birding reports fly out in seconds, entirely unfiltered and unvetted, broadcasted on the World Wide Web as if they were gospel.
In pre-Internet days, if someone saw a rarity, but it was unverified, usually a veteran birder would be there to save us with a noncommital ``You can't help what you see," thus saving us from potential embarrassment.
One of those helpful vets is a friend of mine from Northeast Ohio whose identity will remain anonymous. His friends will recognize him by my description. Let's just say he's one of the best birders in the country, he holds an almost religious respect for birding and he's a stickler for birding the right way.
This friend is fabulously computer literate, and recognizes the benefits that high-tech innovations have brought to birding. Yet he eschews the rampant game of Internet one-upmanship, and the social media in general for the mine fields it provides for unrestrained sighting reports.
He's soured on the lack of a scientific filter on bird sightings, and the missing benefits of vetting by birding peers before truly unbelievable or at least unlikely sightings are broadcasted worldwide -- thus saving us from ourselves.
Needless to say, you will almost never see his name on a report to the Ohio Birds list serve, rarebird.org, or any of the other favorite bird sighting sites.
If there's a moral to this story it's to hesitate before hitting the “Send” button. Try to snap a documentation photo, even if it's a fuzzy shot on a cell phone camera. Call a trusted birding buddy who has seen the rarity before. Write down as many diagnostic features as possible, and check it against a field guide with range maps.
If the bird in question resembles a species more common to this region chances are good that's probably what it is.
Now, about the prospects of uber-birders dissing our genuine unusual sightings -- have I ever told you my story about the Sprague's pipits in the California desert?


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