eBirding your Christmas Bird Count data

Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season is here! The CBC represents one of the longest standing citizen science projects in birding, and generates a ton of interest from birders of all levels. And it is a lot of fun to participate in! From December 14 to January 5 each year, each 7.5 mile radius CBC circle (of over 60 circles in Michigan) is divided up into sections, with individual search parties sent out to cover each section carefully for a single day. At the end of the day, all of the parties’ totals are summed to gather a total count for each species detected in the circle.

Thankfully, your CBC data CAN be eBirded. However, because CBC data violate some of the standard protocol conventions we have established, there are specific requirements in order to have your data validated. Perhaps most importantly, we do not normally allow traveling counts longer than 5 miles, while virtually all CBC data involve a much longer traveling count than this. Here is how to properly eBird your CBC data so that they are validated in the eBird database:

  1. Enter only single-party checklists, never multi-party checklists. In other words, don’t add together the totals from separate search parties regardless of where each party birded. Keep these all separate for eBird purposes, even though the cumulative totals are what the CBC compilers will be interested in.
  2. Use traveling count, not area count. Enter only the one-way distance traveled, never including backtracking along the same routes. For instance, if you bird a one mile dead end road, then turn around and drive out the same road, this counts for 1 mile only, not 2 miles. There are several online utilities which will help you calculate your day’s distance. You just enter your route then it tells you the overall distance. See these links.
  3. If you lump the entire day’s count into one checklist, as most CBCers do, your location pin must be named according to this convention: “CBC name–Section name“. For example: “Monroe CBC–Section 2″ or “Lapeer County CBC–north zone.” Please use the double-hypen. The idea here is that checklists will be comparable between years and traceable to the same subsections of each CBC circle. If you’re willing to separate out each location birded into its own checklist, then eBird as you normally would outside the CBC window.

Any CBC checklists which do not conform to all of these standards will be invalidated for the research outputs of eBird, but as always, will stay in your account and still populate your list totals. Obviously, your local eBird review team member will ask you to change the errors before invalidating.

More information, including how to use your eBird mobile app to create your CBC totals, can be found here (and in the links therein).

Now, get out there are have some fun, while making a significant contribution to our understanding of birds! And maybe you’ll even be rewarded with a rarity for your efforts…

Adam, Brian, Caleb, Joe, and Marc

And then there were five

We’re proud to announce the addition of two new reviewers to Team eBird Michigan: Marc North and Joe Kaplan. This is a long-awaited move that we have been building toward for over a year now, and represents the culmination of much planning and preparation.

We welcome Marc North of Eaton Rapids (originally of Lupton, Ogemaw Co.). Marc was brought into birding early on by his grandmother who weaned him on her trusty porro prisms and old edition Peterson Guide. He will be familiar to anyone who follows Mich-Listers or has chased state rarities over the past several years throughout the state. Marc is a Health Physicist with a flexible travel schedule, allowing him a healthy birding habit. He is also a licensed falconer who currently flies a Terceletto (male) Aplomado named Little Arnold.


Marc will be reviewing a 5 county area encompassing Eaton, Calhoun, Jackson, Branch, and Hillsdale.

We also welcome Joe Kaplan of Escanaba (originally of Oakland Co.), an alumnus of Michigan State and Michigan Tech. Joe needs no introduction to most Michigan birders, being a multi-decade stalwart of the Michigan ornithology and birding scene. Joe is a founder of Common Coast Research and Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to the study and conservation of Great Lakes migratory birds with current projects focused on conservation and study of Common Loon, Purple Martin, and Black Tern populations in northern Michigan, along with management of stopover habitat along Lake Michigan shoreline through the Escanaba Migratory Bird Enhancement Initiative (EMBEI). Joe is also active through Michigan Audubon with Whitefish Point issues, having been instrumental in protecting the Point through the National Wildlife Refuge system. He is also a former Whitefish Point raptor counter. Further afield, Joe spends a month at sea every year in the Antarctic as a guide, lecturer, and zodiac driver for Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris. Joe will be reviewing a 12 county area encompassing all of the Upper Peninsula except Luce, Chippewa, and Mackinac.


Here is a summary map of the new review areas:


We know all of you in their areas will enjoy working with Marc and Joe. Look for at least one more addition to Team eBird Michigan over the next year.

Adam, Brian, Caleb, Joe, and Marc

Proper eBird Protocol

In order to eBird correctly, you need only do two primary things: 1) bird and 2) accurately tell eBird HOW you birded as you enter the data. Still, selecting the proper protocol is not easy, is often subjective, and requires some understanding to get it right. When users do it correctly, the value of the eBird dataset grows exponentially. This blogpost is designed to clarify how to select the proper protocol for your checklists.

Complete or incomplete?

This may be the most important element of the eBird protocol. In a nutshell, if:

a) you made a concerted effort to identify all species present by sight and sound (preferably for more than five minutes),


b) you are including all of these species in your checklist,

then you have a complete checklist. But if you answer no to either of these questions, then you should enter it as incomplete. Complete checklists should be at least a minimum of 5 minutes duration (with the exception of BBS routes, which last 3 minutes per stop), in order to reasonably capture most of the species present.

Many of us, early in our birding careers, would take field notes, but exclude birds we found uninteresting or common, such as House Sparrows, European Starlings, or Brown-headed Cowbirds. Or, we would go shorebirding and ignore the songbirds along the way, for example. In both of these scenarios, some of the species present were ignored, so these checklists would be incomplete. If eBird teaches you one thing, it should be to collect complete checklists whenever you bird.

One reason eBird is interested in this information is to determine species frequencies. Frequency refers to the percentage of complete checklists that a species is recorded on at a certain time of year in a certain geographic area. If a person detected, but failed to record, the species in question, the checklist will bias the frequency calculation, since the bird was actually detected but went unreported. Frequency graphs, such as this one showing Orange-crowned Warbler frequency in the Upper Peninsula, are designed to sample the actual seasonal and geographic occurrence of each species. Frequency data represent one of eBird’s signature datasets, because of the broad geographic scope and high number of submissions.  So, if you knowingly omitted any species from your checklist, make sure to mark it as incomplete.

Stationary, Traveling, or Incidental?

As long as birding was your primary purpose, most checklists will fall into either stationary or traveling protocol. If birding was NOT your primary purpose during all or part of the outing, you should use the incidental designation.

Deciding between stationary and traveling is usually straightforward. Basically, if you move more than a slight distance during your birding outing, it becomes a traveling count of whatever one-way distance you moved (ie. if you walk the same path out as in, enter only the one-way distance!). Otherwise you’ll use the stationary protocol.

For stationary counts, the only additional information needed is the duration of the observation. However, it’s important to make sure the entire duration was dedicated to birding.  If, for example, you periodically watch your backyard feeders over the course of three hours, this should not be entered as a three-hour stationary count.  The time entered is assumed to be continuous birding effort, so if it is not, please enter such checklists as several shorter intervals that represent the actual effort OR as one three hour incidental checklist.

For traveling counts, things are more complicated. eBird recommends traveling counts of no more than 5 miles, or for whatever distance you were in a uniform habitat. These counts are designed to allow researchers to tie birds to specific habitats. As traveling counts get longer, it becomes more difficult to make these habitat associations, as the pin may be miles from where a specific bird was observed. Here’s some background and how to proceed:

In urbanized and fragmented landscapes, such as much of the southern Lower Peninsula, traveling counts of more than about 1/4 mile will often include multiple habitat types. However, in the northern Lower Peninsula, and especially in places like the Upper Peninsula, the habitat is vast and more uniform. At the Peshekee Grade for example, there is only one major habitat type: spruce bog. In these cases, reviewers will be more flexible about allowing longer traveling counts, but would still encourage checklists that are based on shorter intervals. In other cases, however, we will ask users to break up their visit into smaller units. In the end, several checklists encompassing shorter distances are always better than a single long, travelling checklist.

County, City, & Township level checklists

Many users regularly utilize county level eBird checklists. While this is valuable for keeping track of one’s county lists, there are serious drawbacks to the quality of these data, and Team eBird is now instructing reviewers to invalidate all such checklists (and will soon be doing so automatically). Because the pin is placed in the center of the county (at times 20+ miles from the actual location a bird was), the species maps resulting from these pins become cluttered and badly imprecise, especially for coastal species and those with very limited distributions (such as nesting Kirtland’s Warblers). Additionally, users wanting to locate rare species in such checklists will have no way of doing so.

We ask all eBirders to utilize site-level pins from the immediate area birded *whenever possible*.  This often requires a few minutes of additional investment in note-keeping or data entry on BirdLog, but it really is necessary to retain the high value of the eBird dataset. Remember, eBird primarily exists not for listing purposes, but to gather a robust citizen science dataset. If you choose to use the county level designation purposely to build your lists, it will be invalidated for the research outputs of eBird, but will still populate your listing totals. City and township level checklists are, for the most part, acceptable, but this judgment is at the discretion of the reviewer.

Incidental vs. Historical Protocol

Team eBird prefers users to use stationary and traveling counts for most of their birding effort, as these checklists provide the most valuable data. But if your data do not fit neatly into these categories, until recently you really only had one option: incidental. For example, if you were manually transcribing old checklists from written field notes where birding WAS the primary purpose, but you had failed to note the start time, duration, or distance, you had no recourse except to use the incidental designation. But this is problematic, since incidental checklists are by definition those where birding was NOT the primary purpose of the outing. To rectify this mismatch, eBird recently added a category called historical, for exactly this type of data. Please refer to this article for more detail of the historical protocol.

Again, to summarize: if birding was the primary purpose of your outing, but you lack start time, duration, or distance, then use historical protocol. If birding was not the primary purpose of the outing, use incidental.

“Other” protocols

Finally, you will note that there are several specialty protocols available that we have not covered in this blogpost. We want to draw your attention to each of these options, in the event you have a specialty dataset that doesn’t qualify for the standard options we have laid out. The additonal options are:

-eBird pelagic protocol
-Nocturnal flight call count
-Oiled birds
-TNC California waterbird count
-CWC Point Count
-CWC Area Search
-Rusty Blackbird spring migration blitz

Each of these options requires a rigid adherence to the unique requirements of each protocol. But rather than go into the details here, we simply suggest you click on each option and read the explanation which pops up, and the links therein thoroughly before using them. If at any time you have questions, please feel free to email your local reviewer.

Proper use of subspecies categories

One of the things you’ll notice while entering eBird data is that we include the option of entering subspecies for a small number of birds. Categories like “Fox Sparrow (Red)” and “Red-tailed Hawk (Eastern)” are offered in addition to “Fox Sparrow” and “Red-tailed Hawk,” for example. But other subspecies, such as “Herring Gull (American)” or “Dark-eyed Junco (Red-backed),” are not. While it may appear there is no rhyme or reason to all this, this is actually something we have thought through carefully.  Our selections were designed to inform users of our recommended proper uses of subspecies. In this blogpost, we would like to showcase a number of examples of subspecies currently allowed in Michigan, with notes on our recommended uses. Our overarching goal is to implore users to only claim identifications that are based on field marks they observed in the field, not on expectation/range.

To take one example, even though “Yellow Warbler (Northern)” is the only subspecies of Yellow Warbler which has ever occurred in Michigan, we do not include this category in the Michigan filters, arguing that it doesn’t add any information to the eBird dataset here. “Yellow Warbler” data from Michigan can already be assumed to be of the Northern subspecies, so records entered under both titles are interchangeable. So, we just have “Yellow Warbler” in the filters, which also creates less clutter to scroll through during data entry. Of course, if you prefer to enter Yellow Warblers as Northerns, you can click “add species” and do this. Do note, however, that these observations will flag.

So, if you don’t observe the field marks necessary to identify a species down to the subspecies level, we ask that you use the general category. But, if you carefully checked to make sure the bird actually possessed the critical field marks of the subspecies claimed, and you carefully counted all the individuals that did, then go ahead and use the subspecies category for those individuals. Here are some detailed notes about how to eBird some of our most commonly-used categories.

Example 1: Dark-eyed Junco

Filter options:

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored)
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored/Cassiar)
Dark-eyed Junco (Cassiar)

This extremely variable species has three forms which occur annually in Michigan: Slate-colored (the common, numerous form), Oregon (a few annually), and Cassiar (complicated, but perhaps 1-3 well-documented birds annually). Of these, we only allow Slate-colored (nearly as many as Dark-eyed Junco) and Slate-colored/Cassiar (only one bird during winter) to be claimed without the observation flagging. Slate-colored/Cassiar is intended to capture those unusually orangish or buffy birds which often stand out among your wintering Slate-coloreds, but cannot be identified easily. However, since Oregon and Cassiar represent very difficult identification quagmires and are genuinely very uncommon, all observations will flag.

In a nutshell, if you check carefully and your junco(s) is/are clearly Slate-colored, then use “Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored).” If you hear a singing junco, or see one but don’t check carefully, then it should be entered as “Dark-eyed Junco.” If you observe an unusually buffy junco, but one that is not clearly an Oregon or Cassiar, then use “Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored/Cassiar)”. If you feel confident you’ve seen an Oregon or Cassiar Junco, please include extensive notes and attempt to get photos, if at all possible.

Example 2: Fox Sparrow

Filter options:

Fox Sparrow
Fox Sparrow (Red)

Only one form has been recorded in Michigan: Fox Sparrow (Red). None of the western races have been recorded in Michigan and, thus, are excluded from the filters.

If you see a Fox Sparrow well enough to rule out the darker-backed forms of the Rockies and the west coast, enter it as “Fox Sparrow (Red).” If not, please use “Fox Sparrow.”

Example 3: Herring Gull

Filter options:

Herring Gull

In this case, only one subspecies is known to occur in Michigan: American (smithsonianus). The European subspecies argenteus (and possibly, argentatus) is known from the Atlantic coast of North America, but its true occurrence is clouded by the difficulty of positively identifying it. In any event, in Michigan, our “Herring Gull” data can already be used interchangeably with “Herring Gull (American),” so we only include “Herring Gull” in the filter. If you take the time to identify birds to subspecies, feel free to add “Herring Gull (American)” to your checklist, but again, it will flag and reviewers will ask how you determined them to be “American.”

Example 4: Northern Flicker

Filter options:

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)
Northern Flicker (intergrade)

Currently, the only common flicker in Michigan is Yellow-shafted. Red-shafted is accidental, based on a single state record, and is excluded from the filter. However, the status of intergrade birds is less clear. Birds with mixed color flight feathers are recorded annually or nearly annually in Michigan, but whether these are true Great Plains-originating hybrids, or Yellow-shafteds with pigmentation issues, is not clear. In any event, heard only or distant flickers should be eBirded as “Northern Flicker,” while birds with all yellow remiges and facial characteristics eliminating Red-shafted, should be eBirded as “Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted).”

Side note: all filters allow an additional category for heard-only woodpecker drumming, “woodpecker sp.” Though drumming by Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Pileated Woodpecker are readily identifiable the drums of other species are much more difficult to identify and should only be eBirded if the bird is seen.

Example 5: Green-winged Teal

Filter options:

Green-winged Teal
Green-winged Teal (American)

The only regularly-occurring subspecies of Green-winged Teal is American (carolinensis). There is only one record of the Eurasian form (crecca), so this option is excluded from the filters. An additional complication comes with the fact that intergrades (ie. carolinensis x crecca) are at least as common as pure crecca in the interior of North America; for example, see this bird from Kent County in spring 2014. These are also accidental and thus not in the filter.

For most sightings, our recommendation for well-seen males is to use “Green-winged Teal (American),” as long as the vertical lateral breast bar is present and the horizontal scapular bar of Eurasian is totally absent. However, all female-type birds (including young males and eclipse males) should be eBirded as “Green-winged Teal,” since it is not possible to separate these birds definitively from crecca or intergrades. If you don’t care to take the time to check each drake, then eBird them all as “Green-winged Teal.” We just don’t recommend using “Green-winged Teal (American),” unless it refers to a breeding-plumaged (ie. basic) male.

Example 6: Red-tailed Hawk

Filter options:

Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk (Eastern)
Red-tailed Hawk (Western)
Red-tailed Hawk (Northern)

Red-tailed Hawks can be very difficult to identify to subspecies. This may be the only species in Michigan with multiple regularly-occurring subspecies. Michigan has three: Eastern (borealis) is resident and partially migratory; Western (calurus) is rare, but annual, during migration and winter; and Northern (albieticola) is poorly-known but occurs during migration and winter. Any claims of Western or Northern will flag. The identification criteria for Northern are very poorly recognized by most birders, and the first official detailed treatise by Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan of this Canadian- and Alaskan-nesting form was only recently published in 2004. We strongly recommend all birders read this article in detail before claiming any Northern in Michigan.

The vast majority of Red-tailed Hawks in Michigan (and the only ones in summer) are Easterns. During migration and winter one must also consider the relatively rare options of Western and Northern. Nesting or territorial pairs can be assumed to be Eastern on behavior, but the plumage of birds during migration and winter should be checked, especially throat color, breast band, and tail barring (see Liguori and Sullivan 2014). So, for the majority of relaxed birding outings, we recommend using only “Red-tailed Hawk.” But, if you make an effort to assess plumage and/or territorial behaviors, feel free to eBird individuals to the appropriate subspecies category.

Example 7: Cackling Goose

Filter options:

Cackling Goose
Cackling Goose (Richardson’s)

As outlined in our detailed blogpost, identification of this complex can be extremely tricky. The only subspecies of Cackling Goose known from Michigan is Richardson’s (hutchinsii), so all reports are assumed to be this subspecies.

If a Cackling Goose is seen well enough to eliminate taverneri (perhaps a remote possibility to occur in Michigan) and the Alaskan/west coast specialty subspecies (minima and leucopareia), then use “Cackling Goose (Richardson’s).” If not, use Cackling Goose. And as always, be prepared for “Cackling-ish Geese,” as outlined by David Sibley in December 2014 and us in our blogpost. These birds appear smaller than the Canadas they are with, but are not countable as Cackling Geese. These should always be eBirded as Cackling/Canada Goose.

Example 8: Yellow-rumped Warbler

Filter Options:

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s)

The only regularly-occurring subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler in Michigan is Myrtle (coronota), which breeds in large numbers north of the tension line, and winters in very small numbers to its south. The western subspecies auduboni is accidental. Furthermore, these two subspecies hybridize (technically: intergade) in western Canada on the nesting grounds. See the eBird map for hybrids and study the photos (click “Explore Rich Media”) to get an idea of the variation and difficult identification of these birds. No Michigan records of known intergrades exist, but this Audubon’s-like bird from Lowell in winter 2007/2008 may have been a hybrid.

So, if you study a Yellow-rumped well enough to eliminate Audubon’s and an intergrade, use “Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle),” but if not, use “Yellow-rumped Warbler.” Any presumed Audubon’s or intergrade should be added to the checklist with detailed notes (and photos, if possible).

Example 9: Palm Warbler

Filter options:

Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler (Western)

Palm Warblers are common migrants throughout Michigan. They nest in our northern bogs and dry coniferous forests, but do not winter. The Western subspecies (palmarum) is the only regularly-occurring subspecies here, however the Yellow, eastern, subspecies hypochrysea has occurred a handful of times, but it still accidental.

In order to eBird a Palm Warbler as Western, one should check to confirm that the lower breast and belly are white and the breast and undertail coverts are yellow. In basic/juvenal plumage focus on the color of the back, rump, and wing covert edgings. Otherwise, all Palm Warblers (especially heard only) should be eBirded as “Palm Warbler.”

Example 10: White-crowned Sparrow

Filter options:

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow (Eastern)
White-crowned Sparrow (Gambel’s)

Eastern White-crowned Sparrow (leucophrys) is the only common subspecies in Michigan. It has dark lores, a pinkish bill, and brown lateral crown stripes. The western form gambelli (Gambel’s), annual in small numbers in Michigan, has pale lores, a pale orange and yellow “candy corn” bill, and rufous lateral crown stripes. However, identification in this complex is complicated by intermediate birds not perfectly matching either category. So all Gambel’s will flag. See this helpful summary of birds banded by Julie Craves of River Rouge Bird Observatory for help sorting through the variation.

Well-studied birds matching leucophrys can be eBirded as such. However, heard only birds, or those not studied carefully, should be eBirded as “White-crowned Sparrow.” We do not recommend using “White-crowned Sparrow (Dark-lored)” in Michigan, as this category includes both leucophrys and the western Mountain subspecies oriantha, which has not occurred (or expected) in Michigan.

In order to de-clutter the Michigan eBird filters, we have eliminated subspecies which are accidental. Those that are casual or regular are included. However, tricky identifications are also not allowed without flagging. We implore all users to check birds carefully for subspecies traits, and never to claim subspecies based on expectation or range, even when only one subspecies occurs. Claim only those individuals that were carefully checked, and let the rest go under the broad category.

We hope this blogpost helps you to better understand how and when to use the various subspecies categories offered in Michigan! Enjoy the waves of neotropical migrants currently arriving…

Team eBird Michigan
Adam, Caleb, and Brian


Team eBird Michigan’s newest member: Brian Allen

Team eBird Michigan has grown! We are happy to introduce Brian Allen of Manistee as our newest reviewer.


Brian is well-known on the Michigan birding scene, a stalwart of Manistee County, all things Lake Michigan, and rare bird stakeouts in many of our 83 counties. If you’ve chased anything over the years you have likely bumped into him. Brian is a former Michigan Bird Records Committee member and one of the editors for the ABA Birdfinding Guide to Michigan. He often leads birding tours, recently organized a ‘pelagic’ trip to Beaver Island, and has long compiled eBird list competitions for Michigan. Needless to say, he eats and sleeps birds. Brian is also an intrepid world birder, having visited 19 countries and counting. His life list recently surpassed 2,000 with the addition of Spotted Redshank on a recent trip to Italy.

Brian will be reviewing a 10 county area of the NW Lower Peninsula encompassing Oceana, Mason, Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Antrim, Kalkaska, Missaukee, and Wexford. There are a couple of smaller changes taking place outside Brian’s review area, with Caleb Putnam taking over review duties for four new counties in addition to his seven initial ones: adding Allegan, Ottawa, Lake, and Osceola. Here is a map showing the current review areas:

2015 April County Reviewers Map

This is our first of several additions to the team over the next year, and we know that those of you submitting records in Brian’s review areas will enjoy working with him.

Adam, Brian, and Caleb

Identifying Cackling Goose in Michigan

It is that time of year when the neotropical migrants are rapidly rushing south, giving way to the true denizens of autumn in Michigan: the Myrtle and Palm Warblers, Hermit Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, and kinglets, among others. Waterfowl, also in this category, can begin to appear surprisingly early as well, such as this September 4 Cackling Goose from Grand Rapids and this September 14 Snow Goose from Muskegon Wastewater, both present well before the last Magnolia Warblers and Bay-breasted Warblers are south of us.

Cackling Goose is decidedly uncommon in Michigan (contra Wisconsin and Illinois, where flocks can outnumber Canada Geese at times). But it is not its rarity which causes us to flag all observations in Michigan, as we currently do. It is its very difficult identification, something not always recognized when looking at overly simplistic representations in field guides and apps. This species is thus similar to Iceland and Thayer’s Gulls, Greater White-fronted Goose, Sharp-shinned Hawks (midwinter and midsummer in the southern lower peninsula), and Northern Goshawks (anywhere in the southern lower peninsula). Each of these species represent underrated identification pitfalls, requiring a great deal of knowledge and excellent views/study to identify. We ask all eBirders to carefully document all individuals of these species, which allows us to apply a consistent standard to all of the records in the Michigan eBird database. We do consider part of our job to help users work through such identification quagmires, so we’d like to begin this quest by tackling Cackling Goose.

Cackling Goose used to be thought of as just a small subspecies of Canada Goose, one of many subgroups within this complex species. But Cackling Goose was split from Canada Goose in 2004 by the AOU, and subsequently birders began to take a much closer look at them here. As it turns out, there are at least eleven populations of Canada/Cackling (hereafter “White-cheeked Geese”), represented in this excellent summary map from David Sibley’s blog (the map is clickable):

©David Sibley (http://www.sibleyguides.com/)

Here is another visual representation of these groups by the Irish Rare Birds Committee.

Currently, Cackling is comprised of four of these taxa: hutchinsii, taverneri, minima, and leucopareia, while Canada is composed of the other seven: maxima, moffitti, canadensis, interior, parvipes (“Lesser Canada Goose”), fulva, and occidentalis.

Subspecies occurrence in Michigan

The only well-documented white-cheeked goose taxa to occur in Michigan are maxima (“Giant” Canada Goose, which nests here), interior (“migrant” Canada Goose: smaller birds, many of which have orange neck tags from banding efforts at Akimiski Island, Hudson Bay), and hutchinsii (“Richardson’s” Cackling Goose). Neither moffitti (which is not identifiable with certainty from maxima except by range) or canadensis are known from Michigan. The status of parvipes (also known as Lesser Canada Goose) in Michigan is more complicated. As in Ontario, it is likely that the subspecies occurs, but no confirmation of its occurrence has been shown to date. An apparent Michigan specimen of parvipes is rumored to exist at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, but cannot currently be located in either the database or specimen drawers (Janet Hinshaw, pers. comm.). So we do not know of any confirmed records for Michigan currently. This subspecies also has an uncertain occurrence anywhere in the east, but has been reported by reputable birders multiple times, such as by David Sibley in New Jersey. Also see the eBird map for this group here, which shows dozens of records east of the Mississippi. For clarification, there is some confusion over the definition of Lesser Canada Goose, with most authors using it only to refer to parvipes, but others lumping interior into this category as well. For the purposes of this article, we use it to refer only to parvipes.


The task in Michigan is seemingly pretty simple: if a bird can be shown to possess the classic characters of hutchinsii, it is a Cackling Goose, and if not, one can assume it is a Canada Goose of either interior or maxima. This works much, if not even most, of the time here in Michigan. But the problem is that there is an immense amount of variation within each of these taxa, with multiple intermediate appearing birds showing up annually in Michigan, all of which appear obviously smaller than any Canada Geese they are with. Further, hutchinsii reportedly hybridizes throughout Northwest Territories and Nunavut with parvipes (though citations clearly documenting this are frustratingly hard to locate), adding another layer of uncertainty and confusion. A final twist comes with the knowledge that some ‘runt’ interior individuals suffering from nutritional deficiency on the nesting grounds appear nearly or fully as small as normal hutchinsii (see the 2nd and 3rd photo of a banded runt interior at this link)! Just what are we to do given this set of facts?

Examples from Michigan

Here are some examples of what we consider to be classic hutchinsii from Michigan. Note the squared forehead and pale chest, in addition to body size being perhaps 1/4 the bulk of maxima (and 1/3 to 1/2 that of interior), or just larger than a Mallard:





These birds also typically show a frostier appearance to the upperpart feathers than Canada Goose does, and usually (but not always) have an indentation in the front of the white cheek patch. Very importantly: these birds have very small bills, distinguishable from Canada Goose only by size, not shape, as eloquently demonstrated by David Sibley. The juxtaposition of the very knobby/squared forehead with the extremely small bill creates the appearance of a differently shaped bill, with Canada showing a sloping, Canvasback-like forehead, and Cackling a tiny, pinched-in bill. But it is actually the vertically-oriented forehead that is responsible for this difference, not the shape of the bill itself.

Variation in hutchinsii

Some hutchinsii have darker breasts than these classic birds above (See Fig. 6 in Mlodinow et al.), and hutchinsii regularly shows a prominent white line at the base of the black neck. Neither of these traits disqualify a potential hutchinsii in Michigan, in our opinion. Let’s now look at some contentious birds.

Problem birds

Bird #1) http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S13187894 (eBirded as parvipes)

This well-documented individual fails to show a classic bill size for hutchinsii and is clearly on the large end of the spectrum for this subspecies, rightfully giving the observers pause and moving the discussion in other directions. While we agree this bird may indeed be parvipes, we argue that the lack of at least one of the classic traits of this taxon (the long, thin bill giving a sleek, almost Canvasback-like profile to the forehead; see Figs . 7, 8, 11, and 12 in Mlodinow et al. ) argues for conservatism and that birds such as this be eBirded as Cackling/Canada Goose. Detailed notes, photos, and analysis should always be included in the species comments box, such as these observers have done (kudos to them!). For clarity, we are not saying we know this bird isn’t parvipes, just that confirming this taxon in Michigan for the first time should require a very high standard of evidence, expert commentary, or perhaps even a specimen.

Bird #2) http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S17805462

This bird was clearly smaller than all of the Canada Geese it was with, and it had a relatively sleek bill profile and lacked the white cheek indentation typical of most hutchinsii (but not diagnostic for it, see Mlodinow et al. Fig. 8, 14 and 16). This bird may represent a good candidate for parvipes, but wasn’t as small as one would expect, and its bill seemed to lack the typical fine-tipped appearance of that subspecies. Again, we recommend birds such as these be eBirded as Cackling/Canada.


This excellent North American Birds article by Mlodinow et al. is the single best source we have found for separating the white-cheeked goose taxa . We strongly recommend all eBirders read this article several times over before eBirding Cackling Geese in Michigan, and in particular study the captions and photographs very carefully.

Distinguishing Cackling and Canada Geese by David Sibley

Small Canada Geese, by Julie Craves

Canada and Cackling Goose photo gallery by Bill Schmoker

Final Notes & Identification Criteria for Michigan Cacklers

It is often thought that photographs are necessary to get difficult records such as Cackling Geese accepted. This is not true! Of course, photos can be very helpful, but we urge folks not to get caught up just taking photos, and to make sure they study the bird carefully while it is still in view. Of 501 overall eBird reports of Cackling Geese in Michigan, fully 98 were validated without any photographic or video documentation. If you can get photos, please do, but if not (and even when you do), focus intently on studying the bird in the field, as these views very often offer a better opportunity to accurately assess the needed traits, especially on distant birds or in difficult lighting/weather conditions.

Based on the all of the above information, these are our recommended criteria for identifying Cackling Geese in Michigan:

Perched birds must be shown to have the following traits:

1) Very small body size, approaching the size of Mallard. Again, these birds will appear larger if they are with interior, smaller if they are with maxima. It is helpful to record the subspecies of the birds they are with. Be specific about impressions of size, focusing on bulk vs. length in relation to nearby birds.

2) Knobby/squared forehead with vertical area at bill base. Parvipes types and intermediates very often will lack this, and possess a more sloping forehead like Canada Goose.

3) Very small bill. This is frustratingly hard to quantify or describe in words meaningfully, but again, intermediate birds often lack a bill as small as classic hutchinsii, so be on the look out for anything not quite as small as expected, and don’t be afraid to let birds go when they aren’t classic!

4) Frostier (grayer) upperparts compared to Canada Geese, especially the mantle, scapulars, and upperwing secondary coverts. These feather tracts should appear grayer and paler than those of any interior or maxima they are with. Runt interior and parvipes types will lack this, appearing the same color of brown as nearby Canadas.

5) The indented cheek patch is not obligatory, but it a very helpful supporting feature if possessed. Please note whether or not this was shown.

Small white-cheeked geese seen in flight only offer a particularly daunting challenge as most of these above traits are not likely to be evident. We recommend only calling Cackling Goose in flight if the following traits are noted:

1) Very small size around the bulk and mass of Mallard (same caveat for the bird being with interior vs. maxima).

2) Frostier, paler upperparts in comparison to larger birds they’re with.

3) Beyond this, it is not likely one will be able to assess any other traits. But of course, please make every attempt to view and amply describe any of the other traits should the bird allow close enough study. And if you have photos, please embed them into your eBird checklist automatically.


Identifying Cackling Goose in Michigan is one of our most underrated identification challenges, with numerous individuals not fitting neatly into any of the various categories currently recognized. As with any such challenge, we strongly recommend that birders get used to letting more birds go unidentified (Cackling/Canada Goose). For birds offering sufficient views, birders should spend ample time carefully studying each individual in the flock for all of the field marks we have laid out for classic hutchinsii above. Take photos when possible (which will doubly help us to fine-tune our understanding of these taxa in Michigan even when your bird isn’t an identifiable hutchinsii). Study whether impressions of size and head shape change with posture or wet/dry head feathers. And above all, please offer us reviewers abundant details in the species comments box for any claims of Cackling Goose. We hope this post emboldens all eBirders to better identify Cackling Geese this fall and in the future, and welcome comments for discussion.

Making sure you’re using the newest filters & an update

We are nearing a major advance in the Michigan eBird filters: the creation of about 40 new filters. Here are the existing 26 filters for MI as described in our last blogpost:


and here are the ones that will result from our upgrade:

ebird filter07232014

This change will result in greatly fine-tuned filters for each county/group of counties, streamlining the data entry system and minimizing annoying unnecessary flagging of records. But in order to fully take advantage of this upgrade, it is important to make sure you’re not inadvertently using older, outdated versions of the filters. Here’s how it happens: If you are using BirdLog to enter your data, during data entry it asks you to tell it where you are birding with this dialog:


When you use “Choose a Recent Location” or “Create Offline Checklist,” the app accesses a cached version of the filters from the device’s hard drive. This way the device doesn’t have to waste time communicating with the cell tower or WiFi connection. This makes the process much faster and more convenient, no doubt, but you get an outdated version of the county checklist for which to enter your data (assuming changes have been made to that filter since you last used it)! In order to avoid this, simply use one of the other categories: “Choose a Location From Map”, “Create a New Personal Location”, “Choose a Nearby Hotspot”, “Choose Hotspots by City”, or “Choose a Nearby Personal Location.” Any of these will force your device to use the cell tower or WiFi to download and display the current filter, refreshing it with the current version. *Note: this issue does not apply to data entry on ebird.org, which automatically accesses the internet to generate its checklist.*

As these new splits are implemented over the next several months, Team eBird Michigan will begin the process of tweaking each filter to most accurately represent that county’s nuances of bird distribution and abundance. As those of you with local expertise notice improper species or counts flagging, we would appreciate your suggestions for fixing the filter. Please put these comments *in the species comments section of the species that flagged*. All users are still asked to submit photos and detailed descriptions even when you think the filter is too strict. But these notes are very helpful to us reviewers who are attempting to get things just right, and often don’t have time to bird each county at the level required to understand each peculiarity of bird distribution there. Here are two examples of helpful suggestions, the first of summering Redheads at St. Clair Flats, St. Clair County, which flagged (but shouldn’t, and won’t after the split):


and the second of post-nesting Acadian Flycatchers in Kent County, where we needed to allow for more than 2 individuals after July 10 (but were only allowing for 2 because singing behavior drops so precipitously during late summer).


Both of these suggestions will be used to correct the local filter, and eventually all of Michigan’s filters will very tightly track the actual abundance level of each species in each area. So, please keep the species comments coming, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rollout of these souped-up new filters over the next many months!

Understanding the eBird filters

So you’re entering a checklist into eBird, either through the ‘submit checklist’ area of ebird.org, or from the BirdLog application (which is *must-have*, and works on both Apple and Android operating systems). You enter the date and your birding location, and it then pauses briefly while it pulls up a checklist. Where does this list come from, and what does it mean?

The answer: the Michigan eBird filters. eBird filters tell users what species are expected and rare at that date and location. Filters can be set down to the county level, or up to the state level. They are set manually, species by species. Each bird is given a threshold number for each time period, with a sliding date range bar chosen by the reviewer. The system allows up to 13 date range bars per species, to allow for different thresholds at different times. Let’s look at an example (flycatchers in the Jackson Co. filter):


Notice how each species’s window opens and closes on a specific date, and that the number of birds allowed during those date ranges can be set as high as one wishes. Reviewers spend a lot of time adjusting these totals to most accurately reflect the distribution and phenology of each species at the local level, a process which takes an incredible amount of effort.

Now, if you’re entering from the internet, notice the box in the right column entitled ‘show rarities’. When unclicked, the checklist will only include species set above zero for that exact date (in this case April 2):


But when you click the box, it will now show all species including rarities (ie. those set to zero for that date):


In BirdLog this is accomplished by toggling between the ‘likely’ tab (no rarities):


and the ‘all’ tab (rarities plus expected species):


Any time a user submits a number higher than that allowed on that date (or a species not on the checklist at all), the record will ‘flag’, and the user will be asked to submit additional documentation to corroborate the record. Each of these ‘flagged’ records, statewide, is then automatically added to the Michigan eBird Review Queue, where it awaits action by the statewide reviewer overseeing that county. Here is a screenshot of the eBird Review queue, from another article on this topic authored by national eBird staff:

MI QUeue

As time is available, reviewers individually go through these records and either validate or invalidate them based upon his/her opinion of whether the documentation meets a minimum standard of identification for the species claimed. These decisions can be exceedingly difficult for reviewers, and are NOT based on the reputation of the birder. Most importantly: any time a record flags, we ask that all users please include full documentation of the record without being asked by the reviewer. Otherwise, the reviewer spends valuable volunteer time unnecessarily sending correspondences, rather than clearing records from the queue or adjusting the filters (or authoring another blog post!). But rest assured, if you forget, we will ask you. Also: if you are repeatedly eBirding a known rarity which has already been validated, a simple ‘continuing rarity’ in the species comments box will do.

Back to the Michigan eBird filters. About 2-3 years ago, some of the county-specific filters established for Michigan were apparently inadvertently lost, and replaced with a generic statewide filter that none of the state reviewers had ever seen. As a result, our filters have been in relative state of disarray, ever since.  Many species were set to improper time periods (such as allowing for Double-crested Cormorants in the Upper Peninsula in February!), counties (such as Spruce Grouse and Kirtland’s Warbler in Oceana County), and threshold levels (such as 50,000 Herring Gulls during winter, when 8,000 would be an exceptional count anywhere). These examples are the tip of the iceberg, representing in total thousands of such errors. Until now, Team eBird Michigan has not had ample time to fix them. But Caleb Putnam has been slowly chipping away at them for almost 2 years and is now nearing a major plateau in this endeavor (see below).

Here is the current grouping of counties in the Michigan filters, with notes on what we are doing to improve them:


1) Upper Peninsula (all 15 counties). All 15 counties are going to be split into unique, county-level filters. eBird usership in the UP is still at a relatively low level, and we hope these drastically fine-tuned filters will instigate a surge in interest.

2) northern Lower Peninsula (all 33 counties north of a line from Muskegon Co. to Tuscola Co.). We are in the process of deciding how to split these counties. 33 individual county level filters probably aren’t necessary in this heavily under-eBirded region. At the very least, users can expect to see coastal vs inland filters separated, and inland filters constituting anywhere from one to several counties, to account for distributional oddities such as Kirtland’s Warbler and Evening Grosbeak, which do not occur evenly throughout this region.

3) southern Lower Peninsula (shown in yellow, all 12 coastal counties from Muskegon to Berrien and Tuscola/Huron to Monroe). This filter is about to be split into 10 separate filters, with the only lumped filter being Tuscola/Huron/Sanilac Counties. This change is badly needed, as there are major distributional rifts between Lakes Huron, Erie, and Michigan, and between these counties. Long-tailed Duck, for example, numbers in the thousands from Muskegon to Van Buren Cos. in mid-winter, but is very uncommon on Lake Erie. There are hundreds more examples which will be fixed after this long-awaited split.

4) inland southern Lower Peninsula filters (Each of the 21 inland counties south of the Muskegon Co. to Tuscola Co. line already has its own unique filter). These counties will need fewer tweaks and fixes than all previous filters, but are certainly not yet perfect. Suggested changes to any Michigan filters should be forwarded to Caleb Putnam.

In summary, we are currently preparing for a major splitting of filters in Michigan, which will drastically fine-tune the process for all users. We will go from having 26 filters for the state to around 60-65, with the majority of the state subsequently having county-specific filters. We are also hoping to create 4-5 additional *site-specific* filters for exceptional sites such as Whitefish Point, Pointe Mouillee State Game Area, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, and Muskegon Wastewater Complex, so that the huge numbers of birds at these hotspots are not being allowed in other sites in those counties. Users can expect the filters to remain frustratingly poor in certain areas until this tedious process is over, so we ask for your patience over the next 6-12 months. Birders at Muskegon Wastewater, for instance, will continue to have to put up with Eared Grebe, Ruddy Duck, and Northern Shovelers flagging at low levels (so that these species aren’t being allowed, for example, in places where large counts are rare, such as Sanilac and Wayne Counties), and Berrien County users will have to put up with Yellow-throated Warblers and Prairie Warblers flagging at relatively low levels as well.

We hope this gives you a better understanding of the functioning of Michigan’s eBird filters, and of the amount of work that the reviewers are doing to improve them. We also hope that you’ll take notice of the many drastic improvements to the Michigan filters that are being implemented behind the scenes over the next several months.

Team eBird Michigan- who we are

Welcome to the Team eBird Michigan blog; your place for all things eBird in Michigan! We are very excited to announce this blog, which will serve to help all eBirders better understand how eBird works in the Great Lakes State. Although the idea of eBird is pretty simple (enter your bird sightings!), there are many twists and turns to using eBird correctly, and it is our job to make sure everyone knows how to do that. As eBird reviewers, we also need to ensure that eBird records are vetted for accuracy, so that the database maintains its highest possible level of quality. There are lots of very neat tools for exploring the eBird dataset, and we aim to make sure you are aware of them all. As time allows, we will update this blog with all kinds of interesting content, and we hope you will check in often.

Following eBird’s inception in the late 1990s and early 2000s, its first Michigan reviewer, Adam Byrne, was brought on board by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Adam has singlehandedly nursed the Michigan eBird dataset since then, until the addition of a second reviewer in 2013 (see below). Team eBird Michigan is in the process of making some big changes to the review process and eBird filters in Michigan, and we will update you here as these changes occur.

But we wanted to start with a simple introduction of who we are currently:

Adam M. Byrne, DeWitt, MI (originally from Davisburg, MI)


Adam is a Cornell University  & Michigan State University graduate with a lifelong interest in birds. He is a plant pathology research assistant at Michigan State University, and has been involved at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory both as waterbird counter and as a member of the board of directors. Adam is Michigan’s top lister, having recorded 398 species of birds in Michigan in his lifetime, and a longstanding member and current secretary of the Michigan Bird Records Committee. Adam has statewide review responsibility for all MBRC Review Species, and for all bird species in 77 of Michigan’s 83 counties.

Caleb Putnam, Kentwood, MI (originally from Lapeer, MI)


Caleb is an Alma College and University of Montana graduate who became obsessed with birds around age 8 and hasn’t let up since. Caleb is the Michigan Important Bird Areas (IBA) program coordinator for National Audubon Society, and has worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service & Michigan Audubon as Kirtland’s Warbler tour guide, and for the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, and frequently gives presentations to state Audubon chapters and leads tours for Michigan Audubon. Caleb reviews non-MBRC review species for Muskegon, Montcalm, Newaygo, Kent, Ionia, and Barry Counties, and is currently overhauling the Michigan eBird filters for the entire state (more on this topic in a future blogpost).