Friday, January 29, 2016

A new standard for reviewing rare bird reports

A recent discussion on "good" vs. "bad" rare bird reports got me thinking..... The discussion involved producing a new "how to document rare birds" note or article, but we came to a stark conclusion --- that not many people really give a damn darn. So no matter how many times we re-hash the "please provide details on the bare parts colouration" - we are still going to get short reports...

On the flip side, we end up with people (myself included) who know exactly how to write a rare bird report, making it difficult to truly appreciate the circumstances surrounding the observation. For example, I've seen two Dovekie's in Ontario... One was total BS - distant and bad looks - and potentially a Long-billed Murrelet for all I know. The second was relatively close and in good light, leaving no doubt about the ID. BUT - in the eyes of the annual OBRC report, two equal Dovekie sightings occurred.

On the flip flip side, I also end up voting "no" to several records each year that were probably excellent circumstances by skilled observers  - who just aren't familiar with documenting birds in general.

On the flip flip flip side, you get birders who know what they're seeing - but don't care enough to write a proper report. Then you're really stuck, as you end up voting "no" to a bird you're totally confident was properly identified.

On the flip flip flip flip side, you get skilled birders who write an excellent report - that is nearly impossible to vote no to - but you get the very strong impression they have actually miss-identified the bird they saw in the field. (eg,/ I saw a Mountain Plover, and here's why it wasn't anything else without doubt --- when I suspect it's actually a 1st basic/alternate American Golden Plover).

On the flip flip flip flip flip side, you get birds - like Fish Crows - that you couldn't properly document with words no matter how hard you tried. I've reviewed no less than 50 reports saying "It was a crow that went nuh, uh, nu, uh, neh, nah, nu-nu, nuh-neh, nah-nah, uh-uh...

On the flip flip flip flip flip flip side. Actually that's enough flips.

I couldn't help but think that a new "standard" for review might help ease some of these problems.

Three levels of review:

1) - Media review

2) - Well supported observations

3) - Single party/observer observations or generally short observations

Media Review would involve, well, media. If you have a specimen, a photo, a recording, DNA etc - the review falls under this category. We would ask for circumstances of the observation and details about the day/weather etc - but overall you can forget 90% of the description and separation of similar species - cause the media takes care of it. Overall, the "easiest" or most lenient form of review.

Well Supported Observations would involve non-diagnostic media, or birds that have been seen well by several observers. A good example of this would be a hypothetical Cory's Shearwater at Van Wagner's Beach... Yes - no one got a photo of it, but it was seen by 38 observers flying around during a Hurricane. The accumulation of accounts and documentation helps ease concern that any mistakes are made - however this review is more strict than "Media review" and expects detailed notes on plumage and separation of similar species...

Single Observer (or single party) review would be more strict than the current review. I keep getting the impression that a high percentage of these reports are either misidentified, or misrepresented accounts of what actually happened. Not only would a reviewer expected detailed notes on the appearance of the bird, but would also consider WHO is writing the report, their skill level/experience, and expect an honest account of what was actually observed (based on circumstances). Observers should know, before writing this style of report/documentation - that it is difficult to get acceptance through this level of review for brief sightings.

So how would this shake down? Well occasionally "media" would be dubbed "non-diagnostic" and fall into one of the other two categories. Otherwise photos/media will solve the issue. I would also hope that this helps straight-arm people into trying to record the birds they see. (I'm specifically thinking about recording Fish Crow calls with your cell phone!)...

Well supported observations would also pass with relative ease, as long as they qualify for this level of review. There is onus on the observers to write a decent/standard OBRC report, but the reviewers will know in advance that they should write a decent report to help the cause!

Single observer (or party) observations will become a bit more challenging, and some good records will fall through the cracks, but that already happens. In 2013 a casual birder found a Roseate Spoonbill in Prince Edward County - and wrote a brief yet acceptable account - and it was ultimately rejected. Understanding the observer who wrote the report and the circumstances would have made it perfectly clear that it was an acceptable record. Likewise, rarity obsessed/hunting birders will know in advance that their single-observer records are going to be scrutinized in abnormal ways - like "How did they produce such incredibly detailed notes from a bird they saw from a Helicopter?"

I'm sure this plan would cause problems unto itself, but we haven't actually tested it yet - so it's hard to get worried about it at this point in time! What do you think? Would it work?


  1. That's one interesting swift! Is it normal for Black Swift to show such an obvious notch in the tail? I'd love to see a few more pics of that one.




      Howell had some thoughts of it being the Caribbean subspecies/species.


    2. Thanks Brandon. I enjoyed looking at the image set. Unfortunately the discussion link takes you straight through to the current IDF page. Presumably your Dad's photos were take in post hurricane conditions for Howell to suggest Caribbean subspecies?

    3. Clear skies and North wind in May. Had to do with structure differences compared to his experience with western NA birds. Will sit on it until we know more.

  2. Would the new standard be applied to previous records as well?

    1. I don't think so. Would have to be a "moving forwards" thing.


    2. Makes sense. I know that records are revisited but I think it is when rejected ones have more evidence in their favor.