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Lehman: Learn S&D

LehmanDo you own a field guide to the birds of the ABA Area? If you do, odds are the range maps were created, or at least significantly contributed to, by Paul Lehman–possibly the world’s foremost expert on the status and distribution of the birds of the ABA Area.

Avian “S&D”–shorthand for “status and distribution”–isn’t mere trivia for the birder. S&D also plays a vital role in identifying and enjoying wild birds. Yet S&D is becoming something of a lost art, Lehman argues in a commentary in the March/April 2014 Birding, with today’s birders. And that’s a paradox, given that we have better access to better data on S&D than ever before.

Here’s the link to Lehman’s commentary:

The genie’s out of the bottle. eBird, Facebook, and birding apps aren’t going away. Or, if they are, they’re going to be replaced by newer and ever-more-pervasive e-technologies.

So let’s be positive and proactive about this. Let’s talk about ways that technology can advance the cause of learning about avian S&D–and about bird biology and conservation more generally.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Alan Wormington

    Superb commentary by Paul Lehman! I remember back in the 1970s birders were actually EXCITED about learning the status and distribution of birds in their area (such as here in Ontario). But I find nowadays birders are more list-oriented, chasing one rarity and then off to chase another post haste. And they really have no clue as to the status of species either regionally or seasonally. Paul you might be pleased to know that I have never owned a cellphone, smartphone, I-pod (not even sure what one is!) or a laptop.

  • Ted Floyd

    There are so many examples. I’ll share just one. Technology–especially e-technology–has utterly transformed and expanded the way I appreciate and understand bird vocalizations. Including status-and-distribution issues involving bird vocalizations.

    Today I routinely use Xeno-Canto (a website with user-generated content); a small, powerful, and inexpensive digital audio recorder; and free software (Audacity) for analyzing bird vocalizations. With these three pieces of technology, I’m enjoying bird calls and songs as never before. And I’m learning cool new stuff, including new stuff about S&D in bird songs.

    I wish I had had this stuff as a kid birder in the 1980s! I was fascinated then, as I am now, with S&D. But I would have been better at it, if I had had Xeno-Canto, Audacity, and a $100 recorder.

  • Eric DeFonso

    I’m not sure I agree with the premise that birders collectively in the “days of yore” were more pure of spirit and interested at a higher rate in S&D than their base, materialistic counterparts of today who, gasp, are interested in list-ticking….but, for the sake of argument I’ll accept that. If that’s true, then I would argue it’s the pervasiveness of photography and the development of the digital camera (and its very glorification in the pages of Birding and other bird magazines) that is influencing the minds of birders today. Brilliant and lovely close-up photography focuses our interest on the beauty of the bird itself as opposed to the context of its existence. And when that becomes the emphasis, concern about the details of the life of the bird naturally falls by the wayside. Whatever it takes to ‘get’ the bird is then what matters, and eBird facilitates that end remarkably well.

    And who’s to say that birders of the past would have remained so pure of motivation if they’d suddenly had ways of getting news on rarities as quickly as we do today, and if they were able to chase as readily as we can today? I think it’s a mistake to confuse ‘anecdote’ with ‘data’ when it comes to evaluating the nature of birding and the motivations of birders then and now.

    I would also argue that “exploration” is just as much the process of finding species that you’ve never seen before as it is finding the extent and the commonness of the species you have. Why begrudge anyone their desire to see things that are new to them? I’d never seen either a Brambling or a Ross’s Gull until just a couple years ago, but am I somehow to be judged as an incurious soul just because I found them here in Colorado when they were reported at local hot spots on our listserv? Or do I have to make an expedition to Nunavut or Kamchatka to be considered enough of an *explorer* to fit the S&D bill?

    Absolutely, S&D is very important and I think I place a pretty high value on understanding it *via* my list-keeping. But the sneering attitude this article takes toward “listers” seem a bit ironic, and makes way too many assumptions about what people (like me) do with their lists and what those lists help them learn.

  • Mary

    He tried so hard not to sound judgemental, but it really just sounds like he’s bemoaning all of the non-scientist eBird users.

    I am a big fan of the road less traveled and studying S&D. These might be my two favorite aspects of birding (though I DO chase and list!).

    However, I think these could be promoted on their own without sounding like your criticizing a whole bunch of people who love birds, but it is not their life’s calling to study them scientifically. Birds make people happy. This is how conservation organizations are able to raise money that supports research projects that scientists do. Scientists should stop trying to push those people away.

    Teach without belittling; that seems so hard for birders. I don’t know why.

    Try to figure out a way to promote S&D and exploring, and leave the criticism of eBird users out. Then you might get some results. Communicate with your audience, not just with your friends.

    • David Rankin

      I didn’t feel like I was being criticized or belittled at all (maybe I just have thick skin). If you love birds but don’t really care about learning all there is to know about them, that’s fine. But ebird is first and foremost a tool for collecting data (the key word in citizen science is science). The people submitting to ebird have a responsibility to at least make sure they are submitting the correct species. If you don’t want to do that, then don’t submit your data to ebird.

  • An eBird user

    A lot of birders are getting really tired of hearing eBird reviewers complain about eBird users. eBird spent a lot of money and time begging people to “enter your checklists”. They are non-discriminant in their appeals – they want all of them from everybody. No where along the line does eBird ever ask its users to also go get a PhD in ornithology before entering data, to go learn every detail about every bird in every location.
    It’s all free data for anyone to use. **You get what you pay for** Stop complaing, because, you know what, those complaints about eBird users are really complaints about how eBird works. This is how it works.
    Spend more time educating people instead of just complaining about them. There is very little in Paul’s commentary that extoles the actual virtues of learning S&D, except that it will help you not make mistakes in eBird. Phfff! That’s your selling point! Get real.

    • Michael Retter

      I don’t understand this reaction at all. I interpret Paul’s article as pointing out common pitfalls and trying to encourage people to educate themselves. I don’t understand how that’s complaining. And he was pretty explicit with this paragraph:

      “[N]othing gets my hackles up more than hearing someone complain about how other people should or shouldn’t bird, especially when it comes across in some holier-than-thou way. Let people bird the way they like. If they are having fun, or gain any level of self-satisfaction, then that’s what matters most. If they are also somehow contributing to our knowledge of bird status and distribution, changing bird populations and conservation, bird behavior, and the like—then so much the better. Sure, let’s encourage contributing to the greater good. But such “birding with a purpose” is not a requirement.”

      One of the ways eBird reviewers (who are not paid, by the way, and donate countless hours of their own time) can help make eBird better is by educating the users they interact with. I applaud Paul for trying to do just that. He was not criticizing eBird users on the whole. He was explaining why he doesn’t validate reports from eBird users who shun eBird protocol by not providing additional information on sightings that require it.

      Perhaps Paul could have spelled it out more plainly, but being careful and correct in one’s reports and learning something about the natural world are virtues in themselves. eBird is citizen science, after all, and science is the pursuit of truth, for the sake of knowing truth.

      • Andy Wraithmell

        I agree, I think some people just don’t like being questioned by eBird reviewers, period…I speak from experience. I recently resigned as our local eBird reviewer because I did not enjoy receiving nasty emails at 11pm at night from people who couldn’t believe why I was asking for further details regarding their records. Like Michael stated, I did this in my own free time often late at night. Most birders took my request for further details in good spirit and would engage in a healthy, interesting discussion on bird id, distribution etc. The few who did not like their record being reviewed were not interested in entering a discussion on why their record needed to be validated. They were not interested in my opinion, or experience, or alternative identifications even when pictures they had taken did not support their original id.

        In my opinion, Paul’s article is spot on. Rather than take it personally, take the time to better your birding skills. Moaning and feeling you are being ostracized and left out is the lazy way out. There are so many resources out there, so many great birders you can learn from. Don’t take Paul’s article or being questioned personally, take it as a challenge to improve yourself. There are thousands of schools and colleges across the world but it requires the students to actually enter the building to be educated. Nobody is going to educate you unless you want to be educated.

        I have been using eBird since 2004. Several years ago my family and I visited California for a wedding in Santa Barbara. One morning we were birding along the coast and I spotted a Black Turnstone. It was a lifer. Yay! My wife wanted to see it, it was a lifer for her too so asked me for directions. I remember the words like it was yesterday, “It’s just left of the Tricolored Heron.” A Tricolored Heron is a very common bird in Florida, where I live. In Florida, it’s one of those birds you might not spend more than a few seconds looking at on most birding trips, even though they are gorgeous and fascinating. We carried on birding. I entered my eBird checklist when we got back home to Florida a week later and I was shocked when our Tricolored Heron flagged. Shock was turned to embarrassment after I looked in my Sibley at the range map. My reaction to the eBird reviewer’s email was also, in retrospect, embarrassing and regretful. At the time I felt it was beneath me to write a description of a bird I saw almost on a daily basis. Tricolored Heron is rare in California and as such merited a description and proper documentation. I still have regrets over that bird and my reaction, but I vowed I would never behave like that again and be a grown up in future. Next time I see a Trike in California (not likely) I’ll make sure I document it properly for the record.

    • David Rankin

      I’m… not sure we read the same article. I read an article that lists plenty of reasons to learn status and distribution of birds, including conservation purposes and personal fulfillment. He mentions ebird a lot because it’s incredibly widely used. And ebird does regularly post articles pointing out some common bird ID pitfalls, as well as encouraging users to be conservative in what they report and document unusual finds.

      I’m actually a little disappointed that he didn’t mention what a great resource ebird is for examining status and distribution of birds species in a particular area, as that’s been my number 1 resource for learning about it.

  • John Kendall

    The intro gives us insight into what some top birders think about others and do not say. I give him credit for being that direct and honest. However, I think it may be more a lack of self-awareness than anything intentional. Just a few words in the intro tarnished the entire article for me. I am surprised to see this in print, but how instructive it is as it reminds me of the old days I grew up decades ago and the stifling effect on birding’s growth by discrediting sightings via lack of local reputation through a gauntlet and pecking order of old guard, establishment networks and note card submissions.
    Tragically, the content of most of the article is quite good about the value and mechanisms of S&D and there is much to learn from Lehman here. We all use it and strive to learn more and more as it is invaluable in field identification and records.
    Being an editor myself, the intro is dead wrong about who and where rarities are being found more and more these days, and it isn’t the “active field birders” (birding elite). Moreover, this blog and article demonstrates the lack of self-awareness that many considered to be in elite positions possess.
    He basically blasts three types of birding behaviors or birders (including heavy listers) in the intro and tries to pc give them a back handed support later on, claiming to defend with “hackles on his neck” after throwing these types of non-elite under the bus earlier.
    I believe that under the surface, some of the “established” sometimes wish for the old days, when the traps and jetties that they explored and “discovered” and built into hotspots were not so full of all these birders, were still “our turf” and yes, the rarities being found were almost entirely “ours”. Through technology in your pocket, knowledge of S&D is growing faster than it did back then and surprisingly quickly-capable birders are springing up everywhere and taking seats next to the elite.

    • I think you may be reading into this piece a but more than was intended. I honestly cannot see how the term “active field birders” could be seen as an indication of elitism (a term that I think is very much over-used in the birding community). This isn’t a gated community. Anyone can be an active field birder.

      And it shouldn’t be controversial to say that birders who get out in the field more tend to find more rare birds. But if you’re defining “active field birders” as only that old guard than I guess I can see how you’d think otherwise.

      I would think that Lehman, as much as anyone, would encourage the rise of those quickly capable birders. More capable birders means more reported birds after all, and that’s exciting for everybody.

  • Tim in Albion

    I find eBird helpful in learning S&D for birds or areas that I am unfamiliar with, because the checklists alert me to rarities. And the conversations I’ve had with regional editors have invariably been edifying and frequently benefited both of us. Guess I’m just lucky.

    I’m not a fan of “listing” and especially of competitive birding; both of which seem to be more about the birder than the birds. Perhaps a mild form of self-absorption leads to many of the issues Mr. Lehman discusses.

  • David Wiggins

    I just read Paul’s commentary on S&D and I wanted to
    raise an issue that I believe went unsaid. In
    his commentary, Paul devoted a paragraph to pointing out the importance
    of S&D to conservation efforts. It was in that paragraph that I
    thought Paul would raise the issue of birders chasing nesting records (a form of
    Status), rather than simply building up species lists (Distribution).

    Having written many conservation assessments for the US Forest Service and Canadian government, I know that nesting records per se are
    much more valuable than simple observations of an out of range bird
    during migration (for example), on the shoulder of migration season, or
    wandering during the breeding season. That is, over time sources such as
    ebird may be useful to show gradual shifts in the presence of birds
    during particular seasons, but in many cases they do not provide the
    same sort of evidence that nesting records do.

    Breeding ranges are changing rapidly, but there is little contribution from the mainstream
    birding community to documenting such changes. Cornell’s old Nest Record Card Scheme has been replaced by the NestWatch program (, which at present is vastly underused. Canada also has a national nest record card scheme (, but it is also underused. In some cases, birders may also report nesting records to state entities such as rare bird committees, or natural history museums.

    My point is that few birders are interested in documenting *nesting
    records* or Status in the way that Paul is calling for, and I think that
    is unfortunate. While atlas projects fill this need somewhat, they have
    problems (a significant % of “suspected nesting” records), are
    expensive, and are infrequent/irregular. Most birders would be surprised at how poor the data are on nesting records in their area. Filling in such gaps in knowledge can be just as challenging and fun as adding new species to local (e.g., county) lists, while providing a solid database for future bird conservation efforts.

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