Birding 101: What Makes a Good Bird Report?

by Feb 11, 2020

What makes a good bird report?

I’ve been thinking recently about what makes a good bird report. Since I run the South Bay Birds mailing list that covers reports in Santa Clara County, I get the emails from people who need help with using the list. I’ve noticed a trend recently on the south bay birds list I run, and I wanted to do a birding 101 on this. Two or three times a month, I get an email from someone where the question is, essentially “I saw this bird report and I want to look for the bird, but I have no idea where this place is”.

The number of times I get this question has gone down a lot since I built this map of common birding locations for the county — it’s definitely helped people find locations since I added it to the message footer.

In looking back at recent emails like this, I see a couple of common things we do when filing reports to the list. One is one I have been guilty of at times and I have been trying to break that habit: using a location identifier that makes sense if you know the location, and makes absolutely no sense if you don’t. Two examples I’ve been guilty of and had emails sent to me asking for help are “State and Spreckles” and the “Milpitas Eagle Nest”.

If you’ve been birding in the county for a while, “State and Spreckles” is likely burned into your brain and you know it’s in Alviso. But if you’re fairly new to the area or to birding, that’s not really helpful in finding the place. “State and Spreckles in Alviso”, on the other hand, is a simple improvement that makes the location a lot easier to figure out for someone who doesn’t already know the answer. That eagle nest term is similar, but I also think suggesting we always spell it out as the “Eagle Nest at Curtner elementary” is a bit much, so I guess there are no simple answers to things like these.

The other thing I see happening are reports like “I found the bird at the spot Jerry reported last Tuesday”, which is fine if you haven’t already deleted that email, you know the list has archives and how to go searching in them and you know who Jerry is. Maybe I should add a link to the footer of each message to the archive, too, but honestly, I already feel it’s too long.

There’s a commonality in both of these problems: we get comfortable with what we’re doing and we tend to start communicating in shorthand. Which works fine if you’ve been doing it long enough to understand the shorthand, but it’s confusing and opaque to people without the experience to decode it.

Since this impacts our newer and less experienced birders most and they are less likely to drop into the list and ask questions when they’re unsure, I think it makes the list a less inclusive and fun place for those birders, and those are people we want to nurture and welcome into our birding community, not exclude with shorthand and jargon. So I’m writing this to ask people to please think about how they post to the list and whether what they’re posting is understandable to those that don’t have the experience we senior birders have.

To me, the easiest way to solve this — I’m I’m horribly guilty of not doing this and need to change — is if you file your reports to eBird, to include a link to the eBird report when you post to SBB. That includes the hotspot you reported on, and the hotspot has a map, and that will get people close enough to location to be able to explore.

If you don’t use eBird or prefer not to post links to your reports, I want to suggest you include at least the city and street, not just an intersection, or some specific location identifier like “Coyote Valley OSP”. Whatever location you offer I’d like someone to be able to type into a map app and have it resolve out to something useful.

I’m going to commit to trying to get better at avoiding shorthand in my reports — and this is an open call that any time I post one and you have no idea where I’m discussing, please email me and call me on it. I’ll appreciate the feedback to better understand where things aren’t clear, so I can not only improve my own postings, but also perhaps that map and other documentation about how to bird the county.