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Tuesday, September 16, 2014
 
 

How and Why to Document A Rare Bird

 

Indiana Bird Records Committee,
Indiana Audubon Society
 (modified with permission from an article originally published in the August 1995 Indiana Audubon Quarterly by Timothy Keller)
There are a large number of people who bird these days and many may not be familiar with aspects of the rare-bird documentation. "Why should I bother?" is one often-asked question. There are several reasons to document the sightings that you make of rare birds. First, careful documentation of the birds you see improves your birding ability and increases your knowledge of birds. One individual that submitted documentation of a rare bird in 2002 wrote on his documentation form that the process of documenting a rarity made him “really look at the whole bird” and note details that he otherwise would have missed. In comparing your observations to field guides and other books, you will learn a great deal about similar species, and about the level of variation within a given species. Documenting a rarity often gives you a better understanding of how the appearance of a bird varies depending on its age and sex, or how species differ across their geographic range. The learning that takes place while researching a rarity that you see will make you a better birder. 
 
Second, making a permanent record of your observations will increase the confidence with which you remember your birding achievements in the future. Having a written record will allow you to maintain your life list (if you keep one) more accurately, and will allow you to compare future observations to those in your past.   
 
In addition, your observations will be extremely useful in understanding the true status of birds in Indiana. For that reason, we encourage birders to document their observations and submit them to the appropriate compilers and committees for use in research projects by future ornithologists. While this use may not be the most important factor for you, it can be a valuable contribution that you can make to the understanding and conservation of Indiana’s avian species. Your sighting can expand the data available for determining the range, time period and extent of migration or nesting for birds for which there are currently little or incomplete data. Documenting your finds allows for objective evaluation of the field marks noted and helps to keep unintentional errors out of print. This helps documentation become more of a learning experience for everyone involved, and helps to ensure that valuable contributions made are put into the published record.  
 
Another question often raised is that "Won’t someone else document it?" Some birders assume that the “experts” will document most birds, so “regular” birders don’t have to. Unfortunately a number of important records have been excluded from published records because no documentation was submitted: everyone thought that someone else would take care of it. Even if other documentation is received, your observations could very well supply the one field mark that could clinch a difficult identification, allowing a record to be accepted that might otherwise be inadequate. It is remarkable how differently two persons observing the same bird at the same time can describe what they saw. In general we believe that the more information available about a sighting,  the better.  
 
Okay, now you've decided that maybe you better start keeping records of anything that seems out of place. How do you go about it? A good start would be to carry a notebook and pen with you every time you go into the field. An alternative is to carry a tape recorder and blank tape with you, although some people argue that tapes can break and recorders can malfunction. A piece of paper and a pencil rarely are subjected to mechanical breakdown. You might think that it would be easier to write information down when you get home. Well, quite frankly if you are like most of us, by the time you get home late from a day in the bush, you will forget many details of what you saw, perhaps even whole species. By taking notes in the field, you not only get information down while it's fresh in your mind, and may even think to look for additional details. Memory is at best a tricky way to document birds as the tendency is to remember more than you actually saw.  
 
One important thing is to include only those field marks that you actually observe, not what you think should be there or what someone tells you that they saw. These are your notes after all, so why confuse the issue by including things that you didn’t really see. It is also important to note things that you looked for, but did not observe.  If you were documenting that a small, dark goose is a Brant, rather than the more common Canada Goose, it would be important to note that you looked for the white chinstrap of the Canada, but it was not present on your bird.
 
Things to look for are numerous in some situations and less so in others, but it's important to record even the most minute details that you see, as they may matter in differentiating one species from another. Most people tend to emphasize the color of the bird when recording details, but other aspects may be just as important, or even more important. Body size is always a handy thing to note. When birding, this virtually always means a relative size: the bird you saw was as big as or as small as other birds with which it was observed. Actual size is difficult for most people to estimate without some frame of reference. In fact, it may be challenging to get an actual size unless you have the bird in hand and measure it. Since many species that are difficult to separate may differ in actual size by only fractions of an inch, guessing at a bird’s actual dimensions may be worthless.
 
Shape of the bill, wings, and other parts are also useful in differentiating some birds so include this in your notes.  Many birders look at bill shape first to identify an unusual bird, since the bill often tells you what group a bird belongs to. In 2002, a difficult bird appeared in the Indianapolis area and speculation centered on whether the bird was an immature gull or some kind of duck. These two groups have very different bills, and that could have settled that part of the debate easily. [The bird turned out to be an exotic species of duck.]
 
Plumage coloration is one of the most diagnostic marks available in identification of avian species. Take meticulous notes on the colors of the back, underparts, wings and tail of the bird being studied. Be as accurate about the colors as possible. "Is it light gray or dark gray?" or better yet, if you're familiar with color charts, use those to pin down the exact color of gray. Just be sure to include whose color chart you use. All of the field guides give a description of the various parts of the bird often in the beginning of the guides. Become familiar with these terms and use them to make an accurate description. David Sibley’s Birding Basics also provides an excellent description of the parts of birds. There are differences between wing bars versus wing stripes and eyebrows versus eye lines. Improper use of terms can lead to future confusion on the part of everyone. The size, shape and color of soft parts (non-feathered areas such as the bill, legs and eyes) are also vital pieces of information. All of the above information that applies to plumage is relevant to describing soft parts as well.  
 
Behavior is an important aid to bird identification. How was the bird acting – how would you describe its flight, feeding, or other behavior? Bird flight can tell a lot about a bird. Is the flight rapid and smooth or slow and floppy? Did the bird hover? Are the wings pointed or round, and is the tail forked or square in flight? Can you observe any additional field marks when the bird was flying that you couldn't see when the bird was at rest?
 
Did the bird vocalize while you were watching it? This doesn't mean just singing, but did it make any calls such as chips or alarm calls. What else did the bird do while you watched it? Was it feeding? Was it gathering nest material or food? Did you find a nest? Was it interacting with other species of birds? If so, what kind and how many? What type of habitat was it located in: old field, deep woods, marsh, etc.? While habitat is not diagnostic, it is an indicator in certain situations.  
 
Additional details to record include: the date and time of day, how far from the bird you were, what type and power of optics you were using, lighting and sun position in relation to both you and the bird, who was with you and did they agree with your identification, and if anyone got pictures of the bird. Many people are now combining digital cameras and spotting scopes to get fantastic long-distance photos to document rare birds. Other people use light-weight video cameras to record an unusual bird, which allows you to record its behavior as well as its appearance.  
 
Now you've seen that rare Monkey-eating Eagle in University Park and taken excellent field notes, what next? You had first better call us (just kidding) and then you need to acquire or formulate your own documentation form. Referring back to your field notes, fill in as much of the documentation form as you can, without the aid of other references that could influence your writing. Once this is done, you can dig into your reference library and compare the bird that you saw with other similar species. Explain, as fully as possible, why the bird that you saw cannot be any of these. This is where all of the detailed notes that you took will be invaluable. List the materials consulted to eliminate similar species.  
 
So you say "Great, now I know how to do it, but do I document everything, or should I be more selective?" For your own purposes, that is a personal decision to make. Many people document fully every species that they see for the first time. For your records, it is valuable to document your life birds regardless of whether the species is unusual in an area. 
 
The Indiana Bird Records Committee is interested in reviewing documentation of species that are rare in the state, and has published a review list of species for that purpose. Many of these species have been recorded rarely in the state, or present difficult identification challenges. The entire list of species that have been recorded in Indiana can be viewed at the the Indiana Audubon website.
 
So far everything is going as planned. You've located a bird that is rarely observed in Indiana. You took good notes and filled out the appropriate documentation. Now where do you send it? If you are doing a spring, summer, or Christmas count, you should give a copy to the count compiler that you report to. Otherwise forms should be sent to the appropriate field notes editor for the Indiana Audubon Quarterly, the state compiler for North American Birds, and the Indiana Bird Records Committee. 
 
One other issue must be addressed. Some people work hard to document their sightings, only to have compilers, regional editors, or the Indiana Bird Records Committee reject their observations. “Why go to all the trouble if the record is just going to be doubted?” This is admittedly a frustrating part of the process. There are several parts to the answer. First, remember that there are personal benefits that you gain from the documentation process. The gains in knowledge and birding skill and the better personal records that you gain are yours to keep, regardless of any other use of the record.
 
It is true that some documented birds are readily accepted by compilers and rare-bird committees, while others are not. Why is that true? First, some species are just easier to identify than others. White Ibis and Wood Stork are on the Indiana review list, because they have been rarely found in our state. When one of these birds shows up, any birder with good note-taking skills can write a convincing documentation. Other species, such as the three jaegers or many rare shorebirds, are much more difficult to document convincingly with a written description. For these species, a picture can truly be worth a thousand words.
 
A second point is that many birds, while rare in Indiana, have established patterns as to their typical habitat, their migration timing and their tendency to wander out of range. Some species are also much more commonly held in captivity (and are therefore likely to show up out-of-range by escaping). A documented record is much more likely to be accepted if the observation fits a species’ known pattern of habitat and season of occurrence, even if the documentation is less than ideal. For instance, a Snowy Owl report in the summer is unlikely to be accepted without physical evidence or very detailed documentation, while the same observation in early winter better fits the known pattern for this species. Snowy Owl numbers also vary from year to year. A documentation that is short on detail is more likely to be accepted during an invasion year when many Snowy Owls are known to be present. In other years, more details may be needed.  
 
Finally, most compilers and rare-bird committees are most stringent when it comes to records that involve first state records. For these rarest-of-the-rare, there is no background pattern of records with which to assess the likelihood of an observation. Each record must stand on its own.  Ideally, to document a first state record, you should get physical evidence such as photographs, videos, or recordings. If that is impossible, multiple written documentations submitted by different observers are preferred by most committee members. Even then, some cases will get rejected. In 2002, a potential first state record of Great Cormorant was rejected by the Indiana Rare Bird Committee, even though many of the documentations submitted were written by members of the committee itself! Some members voted against their own documentations in this case, because research with the published literature on cormorants had shown that it was too difficult to eliminate the more-expected Double-crested Cormorant with the evidence that had been assembled. Still, it was a valuable learning experience for all involved.
 
Now you know the importance of documentation! You've been given a rough outline of how to do them, and you know where to send them. Why not give it a try! Just going through the process can teach you a lot about birds that you might otherwise miss. Making comparisons to similar species can help to ingrain fine details of plumages that normally can be difficult to remember and you can personally make a contribution to Indiana's ornithological record.