This past weekend (February 14-17) was the Great Back Yard Bird Count (affectionately known as the GBBC). This is the weekend that birders of all skill levels go out to the neighborhood parks and back yards (or front yards) and count all the birds they see. These sightings are then entered into the vast database that is e-bird (whether you use the GBBC portal or not). As the e-bird reviewer for the Hudson-Mohawk Region of New York State, this is the most challenging weekend of the entire year.
Don’t get me wrong, the GBBC is a great event. In fact I wish more clubs and organizations took advantage of it as way to work with new birders and encourage more people to go birding and how to share their sightings and information. But most people are left to their own devices, making (at times) wild guesses from field guides or via the internet, which is where I come in.
Prior to the GBBC, I do try and take down any kind of rare or non-irruptive birds (in 2014, this means taking things like Common Redpoll and Pine Grosbeak off the checklists), the goal is the reduce the choices more casual birders have to enter. The hope being that if the species they think was sighted isn’t on the checklist that they might go back and take another look, maybe using some of the birds on the checklist as a starting point.
It doesn’t seem to matter. I partially blame the phone apps, which if they are not connected to the internet, don’t flag things properly, not giving the user any warning that their sighting may be questioned. And a few people, clearly use the internet to ID birds, which results in birds native to Southeast Africa being reported in Albany, NY.
Most of the ID mistakes are honest and rather easy. People always report Purple Finches, when most of what they are seeing are House Finches (there are a few Purple Finches). Many reports of Chipping and Field Sparrows are actually American Tree Sparrows. Carolina Wrens are often reported as Winter Wrens (a Wren in Winter, must be a Winter Wren). Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are confused. American Goldfinches and Pine Warblers (!) are also confused.
This means I spend much of the weekend not actually birding, but sending out e-mails, offering suggestions on what the correct ID is. 98% of those I respond to, are friendly and quite willing to chat with you about birds. Most are sort of embarrassed to have made the ID mistake (trust me, it’s not something to be embarrassed about!) and most happily make the changes to their checklists (reviewers can’t change any checklists). It is actually a pleasant experience for me and hopefully the user.
But those 2% can be quite nasty. They leave a bad taste in my mouth, they make me not want to be a reviewer anymore. Being mean in responding to my inquiry doesn’t make your sighting more believable. I make it a point not to respond to these e-mails. I move on. But some of these e-mails are just vile. Thankfully, they are the exception and not the rule.
I love the idea behind the GBBC. I also wish Cornell offered more resources to users (especially with common ID challenges) and encouraged more local organizations to assist in helping casual birders get this information out. But each year this event occurs, more of the kinks get worked out, more the user experience improves and more the reviewer experience improves as well!
For more information on the Great Backyard Bird Count and E-bird, check out the following links: