Saturday, April 10, 2010

Documenting Rare Birds

 A rare bird

Nate wrote an interesting post yesterday about rare bird reports.
Birding, like many activities that require developing specific skills, has an obvious hierarchy.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be disconcerting and intimidating for those who are new to the hobby.  Because if you’re in the field enough you’re probably going to find something fairly unusual eventually, and if you’re interested in contributing to the greater birding community as well as to scientific study of vagrants (and you should be) you’re going to come up against a rare bird committee or an eBird reviewer at some point.  While it’s easy to get the impression that there’s some sort of secretive birding cabal standing between you and your rare bird sighting, that’s not true.  What these individuals are looking for is fairly straight-forward.  They want to know how well you saw the bird in question and how you made the identification.
Nate reviews unusual bird reports in the Carolinas for eBird, so he has had plenty of interaction with birders who submit unusual sightings. His post at the link provides some advice for writing a persuasive report and communicating with eBird's reviewers. A good report should include a clear and detailed description of the bird and discuss what details eliminate other similar species. Not all reports will require the same level of detail. A sighting out of season will not need the same level of documentation as a first state or county record.

I doubt that I have reviewed as many sightings as Nate has, but I have reviewed some, for both the Great Backyard Bird Count and the C&O Canal Midwinter Bird Survey. In my experience, as both a reviewer and as a contributor of sightings, being prepared to document a sighting is key to submitting a persuasive report. I think that contributors would feel less frustrated by the review process if they knew what to do ahead of time. This is especially a problem for the Great Backyard Bird Count, when many birders are participating for the first time.

Good preparation starts with a basic familiarity with what species are expected in a given area at a given time of year. If a bird seems out of place or out of season, there is a good chance that it is unusual enough to be reviewed. I find that it is difficult to remember details of a sighting hours or days later, when my memory has been diluted by subsequent sightings. The best thing is to take notes right away, while the bird is still visible, and to record as many details of the bird's shape, appearance, and behavior as possible. Photographs may help but are not always necessary, and even with a photo it helps to have a good description of the bird and what it was doing. Those notes will provide a basis for communicating with eBird reviewers or anyone else who wants details on the sighting. Even if it turns out to be unnecessary, note-taking is a good exercise for looking at birds more closely, so the effort will not be wasted.