July 2020

Rare Bird Alerts

The reasons why someone might like to receive rare bird alerts are as varied as the reasons people become birders in the first place. But one common theme among most birders who seek "rare" species is a strong sense of community. A person who only wants to see birds that they themselves have found and who doesn't want to share that discovery with others is a "rare bird", indeed. Wanting to be the first to see a rarity in a given location or season is one thing, but truly few are those who then don't wish to announce that fact, unless they keep silent for specific ethical reasons[1].

All the major birding organizations such as Audubon, American Birding Association, and eBird each offer some form of rarity reporting and alerts. They vary greatly, however, in the methods used and the specificity of areas covered, which may relate to the intentions and purposes involved. The approach to subspecies, for example, reveals the differing goals and standards which exist in the birding world, as will be discussed in an upcoming article.

Rarity reporting through Audubon Societies tends to be local or regional, either through specific chapters or associated sightings email lists. There are over 20 such subscription lists in California (available through Sialia[2]), for example, but they are not as dedicated to rarities as some of those hosted directly by large Audubon chapters. Tucson[3] and New Hampshire[4] offer examples of this type of dedicated alert systems. While many of the local lists did start up focused on rarities, some have evolved into something more like social media.

The American Birding Association (ABA) takes a different approach than listservs, and offers a broad collection of reporting and alert strategies. The core ABA rarities platform is the Alerts[5] section of their website. This quickly becomes dauntingly complex, and is essentially a national ("ABA Area") overview, compiled weekly. The web page, however, also has feeds from the ABA Facebook[6] and Twitter[7] rarities accounts embedded in the main page. While some may prefer those formats, they are distinctly of non-local scope. In distinction, the ABA Birding News[8] resource is a compendium of searchable links to virtually all listservs in the ABA Area. Although it is not specifically focused on rarities, entering "Code 3" (ABA Code for relatively unusual) in the search box below "All Mailing Lists" (yes, this is a "hack") results in current links to the eBird ABA Rarities[9] mailing list being displayed.

And that brings us to the new kid on the block who is rapidly claiming the turf. eBird has the data and the analytic skills to provide customized rarity Alerts[10] for nearly any county/state/province/country where checklists are being submitted. These include both reviewed and unreviewed sightings, which keeps them timely, even if potentially inaccurate. With options for daily or even hourly updates, there's no reason to miss that lifer as it passes through! Plus, not only can logged-in eBirders subscribe to email alerts, any visitor to the website can specify a location and view the last 7 days of rarities sightings reported. In a useful twist, eBird participants can also sign up to receive "Needs Alerts" for species they personally have not added to a checklist from a given location, whether it is "rare" to others or not.

It has been pointed out, however, that those seeking unusual vagrants in their own region are unlikely to create an alert list which includes every possibility. Also what is considered a rarity is highly local, which means that it is the listservs at the most granular level that are likely to provide the best, most up-to-date sightings. However, this is true only if eBird doesn't occupy all the reporting bandwidth with the result that some local birders miss local surprises because the email list has been skipped.

The alternative can also happen, of course, when an unusual local sighting (remember, all sightings are local!) is not reported higher up the geographic scale, yet is also rare for the state or country. Novice birders wouldn't know this, but those with experience can help everyone else by suggesting that a state (in California that's CalBirds[11]) or national report is in order and offering to forward the sighting as appropriate.

Finally, one good target for national rarity reporting is the North American Rare Bird Alert (NARBA[12]) collaboration between Houston Audubon and Birds Eye Birding (see our November 2019 review). Although it is not necessary to be a member to report a sighting[13], only paying subscribers have access to the fully detailed, curated alerts. Free for everyone is the list of links to Big Year Blogs[14] (a Favorite), which help illustrate the commitment to "bird-chasing" that these rarities alerts can be all about.

The Bird Wide Web™ will be publishing a new article on the beginning of each month.

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