Helpful Hints For
of Your Significant Bird Observations
When birding and making
observations of birds, one thing is certain--we certainly don't
all see through the same eyes. As birders, most of us have
gotten calls from people, or had acquaintances unfamiliar with
birds ask for help in identifying a bird they had seen. Many of
us were likely amazed by how differently different people see
things. Sometimes they point at pictures of what would be a
very rare, but clearly striking, bird with diagnostic marks,
usually focusing on a single trait, and say: "It looked just
like the picture in the book." We usually recognize the
uncertainty of their assessments.
Thus, reporting of observations for unusual birds from different
individuals leaves much room for speculation as to what was
seen, how well, and how accurately many birds are identified.
We all come with different skills, different experience,
different ways of viewing things, different ways of describing
the same things, and different motivations for birding. For
many of us, birding is just plain fun, but birding also provides
many of us with an opportunity to contribute to the
understanding of bird distributions and phenology.
However, that understanding can be muddled if inaccurate or
uncertain data are used to generate our perspectives. With no
data, we simply donít know. But bad data can be worse than no
data. With bad data, we not only don't know, but can mislead
ourselves into thinking we do know or understand a dimension of
bird distribution which we really don't, and further mislead
our interpretations. Thus, documentation of unusual sightings
which would contribute to altering our awareness and
understanding of bird occurrences, or remove uncertainty (as
from individuals whose skills are unknown to us) becomes useful
Specimens and photographs are one form of documentation, but
when these are not possible, a written documentation can help
alleviate much uncertainty. However, a written documentation
must contain information which demonstrates that the observers
most likely were correct in their identification of an unusual
bird or birds, or described an unusual bird adequately to
identify it with reasonable certainty. These documentations
provide a means by which sight records can gain acceptance as
valuable scientific data. They should be able to stand the test
of time so that someone 100 years from now unfamiliar with an
observer can read the documentation and come to the same
conclusion as a Records Committee evaluation. What is written
becomes very important. Many questions from birders interested
in contributing their observations relate to what is important
What does the OBRC look for in a documentation?
1.) Most important is a description of the bird. The
description should include everything you see, and observers
should attempt to see as much as possible. Key field marks are
important, but other characteristics you observed should be
included. These other characters often determine acceptance.
These details help reviewers assess the how well a bird was
observed, how well key characters were observed, and how
consistent the observed characters were with the potential
attributes of the species at issue (besides being able to assess
[in some cases] sex, age, and race, even if such distinctions
escaped the original observer.
2.) The most commonly overlooked details are size and shape.
Because different observers look through different eyes,
relative terms such as large and small may mean different things
to different observers. We generally can't measure birds in the
field. Thus, comparisons should be made with some standard
(nearest other bird), or some common species.
3.) Descriptions should exclude similar species, especially
where potential confusion is high.
4.) Think about what you say so that it says what you mean, and
is not ambiguous. For example, a comment such as "black-headed
gull" might mean several things: (1) a solid black hood; (2) a
ragged half-hood; (3) some black in the head, among other
interpretations. In some species, the first may imply a
different age-sex class than the second or third, and change the
characters we might expect for the bill, wings and tail.
Remember that someone else can't look through your eyes or gain
a perspective of what you saw unless you can give them some
5.) For the rarity of the bird, your description should reduce
skepticism. Skepticism is higher for the most rare, so extreme
rarity requires more detailed description than, say, a bird a
few days out of date.
6.) Even unusual banded birds should be documented. The OBRC
can already point to some hand-held birds which were
misidentified, and there are some excellent examples out there
from which to draw. For example, a dark shearwater washed up on
a Texas beach was assumed to be the most likely--a Sooty
Shearwater--and discarded only to find out from an interested
amateur's photo that it was the first North American record of a
Problematic are comments
from birders such as: "compared with pictures," "all field
marks observed," or "sounded just like tape," as we can't look
through the observer's eyes and judge the concordance of their
potential interpretations with what we might have interpreted
had we seen the same bird. The solution is to describe what you
actually saw as completely as you can.
Some of these tips help us
become better observers. This can enhance our enjoyment and
reduce our frustration in identifying many birds. And, these
accomplishments translate to more and better identifications
which is part of the immense fun of birding. So to all "good
birding" and "good birding" (latter for birding well).
Joe Grzybowski (Former
Chairman), Oklahoma Bird Records Committee.
Forms for documenting bird observations