A Lost Art?: Writing Descriptions of Rare Birds

I first served on a bird records committee back in the early 1980's, took a long break while living in the Midwest for eight years, then was re-elected to Oregon's committee several years ago. Over this 30-year period, I've noticed a steady decline in the quality of the written descriptions our committee receives, so I thought I might offer a some tips for crafting a well-written rare bird description.

Granted, easy-to-use digital cameras have resulted in almost every rare bird being documented with readily identifiable photos. Many of the reports our committee now receives  include a photo or series of photos accompanied by minimal if any written details. Most of the time the absence of a written description isn't problematic. "Yep, that's a male Vermilion Flycatcher." However, there are occasions when a picture comes up a few paragraphs short of the "thousand words" it is supposed to be worth. When your photos don't tell the whole story, a detailed written report can make all the difference in determining whether your record gets accepted or is not accepted by the local records committee.

A common shortfall with written descriptions involves those elements that are left out. It is typical for a records committee to have an example of a report outline posted on their website. Most suggest that you include the time of day, lighting conditions, cloud cover, and viewing angle in your description. Some may wonder why this matters. Light angle and general light availability make all the difference when it comes to the colors that appear on your photo. In low-light situations colors are lost or muted. In bright light, color and feather detail are enhanced. Early morning or late afternoon sun angles can be particularly troublesome, often producing significant alterations in the colors one perceives. Including the time and lighting conditions may help explain why the bird in your photo looks more buffy than it should.


This photograph was taken in late afternoon sun near Eugene, Oregon on 12 November, 2009. As you can see, every aspect of this image has a rusty orange cast to it, which makes this Sooty Fox Sparrow look more like a Red Fox Sparrow (Photo by Dave Irons)


This photo was taken in the pre-dawn hours of 29 September, 2008 aboard a cruise ship off the Oregon coast, also shows a Sooty Fox Sparrow. Admittedly, it is one of the darker outer coastal birds, but with no source of light other than the flash on my camera the warmer tones in the brown feathers disappear. All things being equal in terms of lighting this bird and the one in the image above would look much more alike. (Photo by Dave Irons)

Additionally, report outlines usually include a space for "age" and "sex." With some birds, determining the age is an important factor in making a proper identification (i.e. shorebirds and gulls). In others (many Passerines) the sex can be easily determined and should be included in your report. Conversely, "unknown" is a perfectly reasonable answer and the recommended response to these questions if you don't know. I've seen more than one observer undermine their own report by assigning an age or sex that did not match what they described or the bird in their photo. With many species it is all but impossible to determine their age in the field once they've gone through their first prebasic molt.

When describing a bird, it is very helpful when the observer compares its features to those of a common species. For instance, if you describe your bird as having a "long, fairly thick bill," the first question to ask yourself is, compared to what? Let's say the bill of the bird you are describing is similar in length and shape to that of a Brown Thrasher. You could say, it had a thrasher-like bill, but it might be better to describe the bill this way: 

The bird's bill was about 25% longer than the bill of a robin and about the same thickness, plus it was  somewhat down-curved on the outer third. In total length, the bill was about the length of the head (front to back).

Following the example above, when describing the overall size, shape, and length of a bird, it is best to make comparisons with common birds. Let's say you live in Vermont and you find a Green-tailed Towhee. It may sound presumptive if you simply describe the bird as being "towhee-sized" and "towhee-shaped." It might be more effective to describe it as follows:

The size and shape of the bird immediately brought to mind a towhee, as it was larger than a song sparrow and smaller than a robin and not quite as plump. The tail seemed fairly long, at least half the body length, and was typically held cocked up at a slight angle, just like the Eastern Towhees I see at my bird feeder.

When describing colors, try to use comparisons with colors that we all know. In describing the orange on the flanks of a Spotted or Eastern Towhee, one might compare that orange to the orange on the underparts of a robin. If describing the orange on a adult male Baltimore Oriole, one might compare the color to a bright pumpkin or the rind of an orange. At times, finding color comparisons is very difficult. Most all sparrows present a combination of  brown earth tones that are very similar to those seen on other sparrows. The continuum between green and yellow is also a challenge, begging the question, "is that yellowish-green or greenish-yellow?" If there is a difference, I can't effectively describe it. In such cases it is probably best to describe the color as follows:

It was brighter than A, but not as bright as B, or it was darker than X, but lighter than Y. Or, it was not as bright yellow as a male Yellow Warbler, but it was more yellow than an Orange-crowned Warbler.

When describing a bird's behavior, the same rules that guide your descriptions of size, shape, and color also apply. If you describe a behavior, be sure to answer the compared to what question. As an example, you may want to describe your bird as having an "indirect" flight style. Think of other birds that you might describe as having an indirect flight style. Was it swooping and gliding all over the place like a swallow or a nighthawk?  Or, was it undulating like a woodpecker or a goldfinch? Perhaps it was more zig-zagging, like a snipe. Try to paint a mental picture for those who will be trying understand what you are describing. If you can't compare a behavior to another bird's behavior, think of other moving things that might be used for comparison. A wonderful example of this is the probing feeding style of Long-billed and Short-billed dowitchers, which is often described as being like the action of a sewing machine.

The final element to a convincing report is a comparative analysis that eliminates other species. By describing how you decided that the bird you saw wasn't a species similar to the one being reported helps the reviewer understand your thought process. As an example, let's say you are walking down your favorite beach in early July and you come upon a breeding-plumaged adult Red-necked Stint. Part of your analysis might include the following:

My first thought when I saw this bird was, it could be a breeding-plumaged Sanderling, which also shows rusty reddish coloration on the throat and breast and is superficially similar in other ways. However, the bird was with a flock of Western Sandpipers and it was the smallest-looking bird in the flock. I often see Sanderlings on this beach and when I've seen them next to Western Sandpipers, Sanderlings are always noticeably larger. Also, the bill on this bird was not as thick or as blunt-tipped as the bill of a Sanderling. It was thinner overall and more tapered towards the tip.

When this sort of analysis is included in a report, it tells me that the observer was cautious and considered a common species first, but then realized that the bird was not a good match for the familiar bird. Often times the first impression of a rare/out-of-place bird is that it looks odd or is in some way different from familiar species. From there it becomes a process of carefully looking at every aspect of the bird and making mental or written notes about your observations.

When it comes to presenting documentation of rare birds you find, it's important to remember that by submitting a report you are by no means putting yourself or your birding skills on trial. When a records committee chooses not to accept your report, they are not telling you that you didn't see what you know you saw. In general, the committee members believe you, but for some reason the documentation you have presented has not met their criteria for acceptance. There is a perception in the birding world that records committees exist in order vote "no" and to exclude the records that come from folks they don't know. This is simply not the case. Over the course of its history, the California Bird Records Committee, which has had a reputation of being more conservative than most, has approved well over 80% of all records that they've reviewed.

No one but you can truly know what you saw or determine what you get to count on your own life list. The purpose of collecting written documentations is so that they can be archived for future generations. In my view, an unaccepted report is just as valid as one that has been accepted. In each case, the only thing we know for sure is that a particular time and place the reporting observer believed that they saw a particular species of bird and was confident enough in their observation that they reported it to others. Whether the local field notes editor or your regional records committee decides that your description is sufficient to endorse and further publish is a completely different matter.

It is also important to remember that no matter what your skill level, no one gets a pass, not even those of us who are regional field notes editors and records committee members. In recent weeks I've been asked to provide descriptions (I did) for three unusual birds that I found a local Christmas Bird Count (I had decent photos of one of them). As chance would have it, I found a Red-throated Loon in my home area today. Since Red-throated Loons are considered somewhat rare here in the Winter, shortly after submitting my report to eBird, I got a pleasant note from the local reviewer asking me for a description of the bird.  While admittedly a bit annoyed at having to describe a bird I've seen thousands of times, I dutifully provided the description seen below.

I saw this bird along Broughton Beach just east of the Sea Scout Base along Marine Dr. It was along the near shore about 200 yards upstream (east) from where we were scoping. During the course of the morning's birding, we saw a Common Loon, several Horned Grebes and two Western Grebes.

This bird was similar in general shape and posture to the Common Loon but noticeably smaller and less bulky and it had a shorter, thinner bill. It also had a flatter back profile and less bulbous head shape than the Common Loon. It was decidedly larger and proportionally shorter-necked than the Horned Grebes and it had a much longer bill than that species. The overall length and bulk of the body of the bird most closely matched that of a Western Grebe. It was perhaps a bit longer than a Western Grebe, but it had a much shorter and thicker neck. There was little if any expansion from the neck to the head (like a Pelagic Cormorant). Its bill was not as long as that of a Western Grebe and it was essentially colorless (dark gray) compared to the greenish-yellow bill of a Western Grebe. The crown, nape and back of this bird were fairly uniform medium to pale gray, definitely not as dark above as either the Common Loon or the Western Grebe. Most of the face, foreneck and underparts appeared white and when sitting on the water there was white showing above the water line along almost the entire length of the flanks. The amount of white shown by this bird indicates that it was an adult in basic (winter) plumage. On both Common Loons (and even Pacific Loon, which would be even more rare at this location) and Western Grebes, the dark flanks extend down to and below the water line. The face showed more extensive white than either a Common or a Pacific Loon, or a Western Grebe. The eye was mostly surrounded by white. The bird held its bill pointed slightly above horizontal at all times.

The bottom line is this, you don't have to be an expert birder to expertly describe a bird. By engaging in the process of describing unusual birds when you do see them (you can practice on common birds) you will hone your observational skills and, ultimately, make yourself a better birder.