|Writing a Rare Bird Report
by Steve Summers
Part of the fun of birding is finding rare birds. One of the few things not fun about birding (for most birders) is writing up a rare bird report to send to a state records committee. This takes some work if done well. If not done well, then another part of birding thatís not fun comes into play Ė not getting your report accepted. Often times, though, even well written reports are rejected and sometimes poorly written reports are accepted. So what does it take to get a rare bird report accepted?
Most people can get the bird name, date, location, lighting conditions, optical equipment used and all other pertinent information about the details of the sighting documented okay. Probably the number one fault with most rejected reports is brevity of the actual description of the bird. All too often it seems the observer assumes that all the reviewing committee needs is some basic description of field guide field marks. One of the worst descriptions that is often used in rare bird reports is "it looked just like the drawing on page xx of the field guide". This is a sure sign to most committee members throughout the country that the observer may not have observed this bird in great enough detail and is relying on memory and influencing field guide drawings to come to a conclusion. This leads to committee members not being sure whether the observer is actually describing the bird they saw or describing the field guide drawing..
The best and most believable descriptions are usually taken during or right after the sighting before looking at a field guide. If you must look at a field guide to help in your identification at the time of the sighting be sure to note what you are seeing on the bird and not in the field guide. Birds are individuals and often donít look exactly like the picture. Describe everything you can, even if it isnít an apparent field mark. Field guides arenít always up to date and new ways of identifying birds are being found all the time, so a field mark that you may think is not important now may be later. Likewise, be sure to note what you didnít see, especially if it is an important identifying mark for that species.
Sometimes behavior can be an important detail that can help a committee come to a conclusion. Many birds that appear similar in the field exhibit different behaviors (walking, hopping, flight styles, posture, etc.). Even though it may not be mentioned or emphasized in the books, it can be another helpful tool in trying to decide what was seen.
Another often poorly written section, but a very important one, is the elimination of similar species. The number one thing this does is let the reviewers know that the observer was aware of similar more expected species and how they came to the conclusion that what they saw wasnít something more common. Compare your bird to everything else that you can think of that it could possibly be. It is sometimes necessary to compare your bird to another bird that would be even more rare than the species you saw. There have been several records, especially with seabirds along the coast, that have been rejected because another even rarer species was not considered or adequately compared, so it could not be eliminated.
Another most basic thing you can do to submit a good rare bird report is to be thorough and knowledgeable in your research about what you are reporting. Know how rare your bird is, not just in your state but in your region and in the country. Many rare birds are predictable in their season of occurrence. As an example, letís say nearly every fall between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15 species X is reported, and all the records are from isolated vagrant traps or oasisí. So when a record is submitted that has a basic, but maybe not complete, description of species X from Lytle Ranch on Sept. 29, itís not hard for the committee to accept this record. But when a record of species X is submitted with a July 2 observation date in a coniferous forest in the high Uintaís, it gets much more scrutiny and will benefit from a much better write up. One of the questions that committee members often asks themselves is "if this record is accepted and it really isnít true, is this going to falsely change our knowledge about the timing and distribution of this species in the state?" If the answer is "yes", you can bet the record will undergo more scrutiny to be accepted.
One more note: The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" was never so true when it comes to rare bird reports. Even a poor photo can help immensely. In this age of computers and digital photography it is quite easy to get an identifiable photo of many, if not most, rare birds. Digital cameras are now relatively inexpensive and many have powerful enough zooms, when combined with the extra digital zooms provided in most cameras, to capture identifiable photos. In conjunction with a scope, it is amazing what photos can be taken now that until this combination, required very long, expensive lens. Many of these cameras are pocket-sized, or nearly so, and very easy to carry along without being heavy or cumbersome.
In summary, the basic necessities to a good rare bird report are extensive descriptions, and comparisons with similar species. And by all means, take photos! When all is said and done, donít be discouraged if your report is not accepted. After all, you may be right and the committee may be wrong. Weíre all human beings and subject to error. Everybody, including all committee members throughout the country, have had reports rejected.