Thursday, January 23, 2014

Rare Bird Alerts and You

You woke up this morning, looked at yourself in the mirror, and decided to be completely honest.
You have a problem.
You took the journey down the rabbit hole, and came out a twitcher.
You're addicted to birding.

It happens. You could have chosen sex, drugs, alcohol, or birding. We at Natural Austerity would like to think you made the better choice. 

This is your support group. We're going to support you in your new addiction.

But first, for some of you who don't know the dirty words that are said to you behind your back.

What is a twitcher?
A twitcher is a person who chases rare birds and goes to sometimes extraordinary lengths to do so. These are the people who take off lunch breaks to go chase a county first record Spotted Towhee or first of the year Eastern Peewee. It's sometimes quite arbitrary in the grand scheme of things how rare is the bird. It's just important if it will be a first somehow.

A lister is someone who's main goal is to see as many birds in a predetermined amount of space and time. Listers run the gamet of extreme listing (big years) to more innocuous listing (life lists).

Twitchers and listers are many times synonymous. These two types of birders get a bad rap not only in the birding but conservation community as well. When you run around on a frantic quest to see as many birds as you can, you lose a certain amount of appreciation for the moment. It can be difficult to really sit down and appreciate a new life bird if you know your day light is fading. The most extreme stories of birding usually come out of these camps. Adding to their bad rap, a fair amount of trespassing and illegal behavior has been associated with finding new rare birds and being the first to do so.

So A Warning
Evolution took millions of years to evolve not just one of these airborne pioneers but over 10,000 different species of them. This is a family with members who once darkened the sky with their sheer numbers, and are capable of heroic migration sometimes spanning the entire globe. It's because of this we encourage you to take more than a second to appreciate every new bird you see. It is a wonder not only that they're here, but that you are born in a economic situation that allows you to enjoy them freely.

With that we'll move forward

Ebird is your first level go to for rare bird alerts. This extremely powerful online data set tracks users entries and allows you to see whats being seen on the ground within hours of it actually being seen

As part of Ebird's data screening process for citizen science data, these filters flag submitted birds as 'rare' based on expected birds in the area, time of the season, and particularly high counts.Ebird's volunteer editors use this as a first defense for screening new data for anomalies. Common year round residents like chickadees will not be flagged, while birds not from the area or arriving at a strange time will show up as rare and require a review by the local Ebird editor. All of these 'rare' and unusual sightings can be pulled up together in a convenient list.

Head over to Ebird, log-in and clicking the 'Explore Data' tab. Scroll all the way to the bottom and click the 'Alerts' section.

In Alerts we can play around with various regional alerts. The regions you can choose include states, counties, or countries. For example, if you type in 'Pennsylvania' into the 'Rare Bird Alerts' section, Ebird will show rare birds seen in that last seven days in Pennsylvania. If you type the same thing into the 'Needs Alerts' section, it will show you reports of birds you haven't seen in Pennsylvania

The way to get the most of this option is to sign up for daily rare bird alerts in your state and county. If you live in a large state or a highly birded area, these emails can get rather long. The county list ameliorates this by giving you a more focused list.

More advanced birders may want to choose to receive hourly lists for their county. The great thing about this is you learn much quicker about the rare birds, and can react faster. Most of the time, the hourly list will be manageable. If you live in a sparsely birded area you may not even receive alerts for days. However, in largely populated counties like San Diego county, these hourly lists quickly become overwhelming as rarities are reported almost every hour of the day.

One of the problems with Ebird and Ebird alerts is the sometimes very informal nature of the process. Birders are not required to tell you where in a patch they found them, and sometimes may just submit a list for a rather large area giving you almost no data to act upon. Not only that, not all birders use Ebird. Many older birders in particular refuse to use it, as it requires a rather large start up time importing your previous lifelist.

BirdsEye is a mobile app that integrates with Ebird to show you sightings for any area you choose. Available on iPhones, this is an incredibly valuable field tool that gives you up to date information in an easier to navigate interface. You can set anywhere as a center point and look at the species seen recently within a certain diameter circle. It will show you both common and 'notable' birds. Notables are birds that are rare or things you haven't seen (you can input your life list into the app).

You can pick a species and find the hotspots where it has been reported and plan your day from there. This can be a great tool when you are going to be traveling to a new place. You can scout out birding spots in advance and use it once your'e there.

Currently BirdsEye is only available on iPhone, but an android version is in production.
It suffers from Ebird's faults but is a plus because of Ebird's terrible interface on mobile devices.
ABA Rare bird alerts/news

The ABA maintains a rather exhaustive list of rare bird forums separated by regions. The regions lists are somewhat chaotic as each area is divided differently. California, for example, is split into 24 different forums, while Texas is just a single entry.

A good feature of the ABA alerts is you can search for a particular states listserv by clicking here. Once there, you can sign up for any particular states birding listserv and receive updates by email.

The ABA RBA and News list is a great way to figure out the details of a particular bird seen. The posters are usually very detailed with locations, times, and update periodically if a bird was seen recently. In addition, many people will post trip lists. These can be a good way to prepare for an upcoming trip, and get your mind set on what you might see.
State bird forums

The most intimate and interesting look into the bird world usually starts at the local birding forums. These forums are birders main way to interact with each other. In them, you'll find information not only about rare birds, but sometimes intimate details about someones backyard birds and life. If you're looking for birds that many wouldn't consider rare, this is a great tool to figure out what birds are in an area and where to find them.

To find a local bird forum you can simply go to the link previously mentioned in the ABA mailing lists or just search Google for an areas bird forum or listserv. You'll find these sites often tied to local ornithological or Audubon societies.

Love em or hate em, bird forums represent your fellow birders and their similar love and devotion for birds. As such, be nice on the forums. Birding is not something everyone does and it can be hard to find friends who share in your passion. If an old woman wants to discuss her coffee choices more so than the birds she saw, so be it. If that same woman wants to tell you how excited she is of her Jan 1st First of the Season Northern Cardinal, let her have it.

On the flip side, bird forums like anything on the internet can bring out the worst in people. The anonymity of the internet, mixed with the binary nature of sometimes very difficult bird ID, and the inherent competitiveness of birding can breed really snarky and elitists folks. A good reminder is to not take anything someone says personally. Bird IDing is difficult and no one is perfect. Some people just need to feel special. Ignore them and don't feed their troll like nature.

Why not marry the one site you never stop checking, with the obsession you never stop thinking about?

The ABA runs a great group called the ABA Rare Bird Alert where users post notable rare birds around the country. While not all encompassing and sometimes on a different schedule than the normal ABA site, this format can be a welcome addition to your Facebook news feed, and a much broader scale rare bird alert for you to stomach.

There are many regional bird groups on Facebook, including many that are just for particular states. These function similar to bird listservs but are much easier to navigate and scroll through. Adding them to your facebook feed is an easy way to keep up to date with whats going on in the bird world and stay apart of sometimes good bird discussions.

They suffer from similar faults of listservs, as moderating some of the larger pages can sometimes be a daunting task. Remember to respond politely to other members. You'll usually get a nice response back.
The North American Rare Bird Alert (NARBA) 

The North American Rare Bird Alert is a long running and iconic service which started in 1985 as a way for birders to share their rare bird reports. It's evolved from a telephone service run by a single person, to a large scale website able to notify customers instantly of new birds found around the nation.

For a fee of $50/year you can get detailed reports of rare birds including past sightings, locations, and verifications. It's the premier bird alert service used by most big year chasers.

We don't strictly condemn the use of the NARBA, it is the best resource to find all of these reports in up to the minute detail. But as budget bloggers we tend to shy away from it for cheaper alternatives. You can find most of all the information in the NARBA on the internet. It just takes much more time and effort.
Misc outlets

Koppi2 (wikicommons)
In certain communities rare bird alerts have evolved to their final form. Mobile SMS push notifications. My labmate and fantastic birder, Tim Schrekengost, helped set up the Delaware rare bird alert onto a mobile app called #Groupme. Users download the app, sign up to the group, and post their sightings instantly. These posts get sent straight to everyones phone, allowing literal real time sightings. This decreases your reaction time down to seconds.

This worked particularly well this last Black Friday. While my friend Emily and I were shopping around Rehoboth beach, I received a text message that a Snowy Owl had been reported just 10 minutes away. Needless to say, we stopped shopping immediately and rushed down to the beach. Without even our binoculars in hand (rookie move) we managed to catch the owl within an hour of it first being sighted. Truly the internet is a beautiful thing.

I expect many more options like these will crop up as technology increases and people find more unique ways to post their sightings.

That's it for now. Hopefully now you'll sign up for rare bird alerts and forums in your area. This way you'll become more involved with the bird community, learn new places to bird your local area, and be better prepared for planning your next long distance birding trip!

So go forth, sign up, and be overwhelmed by rarity reports!



  1. Just a note. The ABA does not maintain a set of regional forums at Those are simply mirrors of the local listserves, plus a few other interesting ones like ID Frontiers and the Hawkwatch listserve. It is nice to have them all in one place and in the same format, but those listserves were not started and are not maintained by the ABA. Maybe I read what you have written wrong and misinterpreted what you meant. If so my apologies.

    1. What we wrote wasn't entirely clear, it should say they maintain a list of those list-serves and forums. We've made a change to reflect this. Thanks for pointing it out.