Documenting Rare Birds

Any scientific report of an unusual phenomenon must be supported by documentation: that is, verifiable evidence reported and vouched for by a first-hand observer, submitted for peer review before acceptance and publication. In general, the rarer and more interesting the occurrence, the more important is documentation to verify it for the record.

Methods of Documentation

In bygone days, adequate documentation of an important occurrence of a bird began with a specimen—usually its skin, procured with a shotgun and prepared with a scalpel and chemical preservatives. Many of these specimens, some of them hundreds of years old, still reside in museums and constitute type, voucher, and study specimens that add immeasurably to our knowledge. Today, nearly all bird species and subspecies have been accounted for by specimens, most of them many times. The collection of bird specimens happens comparatively rarely now, and specimens are no longer required for most purposes, including the verification of state records. All the same, remains of rare birds found or collected for other reasons have formed the basis of a number of OBRC decisions, and are always welcome. They should be handled by licensed salvagers or collectors and deposited with qualified museums.

Photographs, especially with convenient modern methods yielding images far more informative than before, have emerged as one of the best ways of documenting the occurrence of wild birds. Nowadays, a birder can carry in a shirt pocket a film or digital camera that in combination with standard field optics can result in photographs that, even if they aren’t works of art, can contribute greatly to the verification of a rare species. Video recordings, too, can sometimes be extraordinarily helpful. The OBRC recommends that serious birders always carry some handy method of procuring photographic evidence of a rarity.

Field drawings, even rudimentary ones, can often be vital in evaluating a record. It is worth learning even the basics of sketching a bird for this purpose, but even a caveman- style attempt at illustrating important features can make a difference.

Audio tape recordings can be vital to confirming species, especially those whose calls and songs differ significantly, but which look alike. Observers should always try to procure a tape recording of vocalizing birds when identification by sight alone is problematic.

Write out details in full. Even with superb photos, sharp drawings, and audio tapes, written details are essential. Written details will always include the essential data of date, time, weather and light conditions, equipment relied upon, other observers, etc., but they can also convey important information that cannot be expressed in any other way—impressions of shape, behavior, etc., or subtleties of color, tone, and so on that would be missed by photos, audio tapes, and other mechanical methods.

Every time we use a birding reference—a field guide, a range map, a checklist, a journal article, even a hot-line report of a rare species, we are benefiting from the work of others who have worked to record carefully their field observations for the rest of us. We owe them a great debt, and if we are fortunate we sometimes get chances to repay it. You can visit Report a Rare Bird Sighting link and complete the OOS online form or print and send the Rare Bird Documentation form. 


Sharing Unusual and Rare Sightings

We may get lucky, and find something unusual—a truly unexpected bird, a record that must be shared. Undocumented, our sighting is a mere rumor, and will never enter published records for others to use in the future. Suppose a species is split into two others in the future: will the documentation on file help everyone to know which of the new species has occurred in Ohio?
Good details in archives will help verify the status of certain birds, such as the Eurasian collared-dove, in a state of rapid change in range. Other less obvious consequences result from documentation. Take for example the piping plover. If too many unexamined reports—undocumented, anecdotal, and perhaps erroneous—of this species accumulate, it may seem less endangered than it really is, and efforts to protect it may be relaxed.

Further, accurate details reported on each observed individual of any scarce species—its age, sex, state of molt, any bands or dyeing, even peculiarities in behavior or plumage—help in assessing its local numbers and distribution, or its origin. The presence of two emerging white tail feathers—noticed and documented by several observers—in the tail of a first-winter mew gull found in early 1998 at Fairport Harbor, for example, helped to confirm that only a single individual was present.

Part of the excitement of birding comes when we find something unusual, something rare or unexpected we can relish and share with others. Reports of rarities, when they can be authenticated and published, help to fill out the total picture of our local avifauna, and are still more important than the thrill of pointing a bird out to others. As records, they can help us all to recognize habitats, regions, or seasons in which scarce species are most likely to be found.


Documenting Helps You Become a Better Birder

Even if all this weren’t enough, documenting our observations is a satisfying exercise that can help us to become better birders. Even the most expert among us can learn more about birds by practicing the discipline of paying careful attention to detail and describing fully and accurately what we see and hear. Birders are renowned for taking pleasure in sharing their discoveries with others, and careful documentation of a sighting is a unique way of doing so that can be especially meaningful, as it can be shared with others a hundred years from now.

Documenting our observations can sometimes seem like a chore, but remember that it may be impossible to judge the significance of reports until a lot of information is collected and analyzed. We may have something important to contribute without realizing it at the time. Inevitably, we will make mistakes, but we can profit from the comments of others, and if we miss something we’ll know more about how to look for certain details in the future. It sometimes happens that documentation that could not be accepted at one time is later accepted when new evidence comes to light; once in a while two sets of documentation that by themselves are not sufficient to verify a species are, when combined, acceptable verification. For example, a 1998 fourth state record of a Townsend’s solitaire at Killdeer Plains was made possible only by considering two different documentations, neither of which could be accepted independently.

Some feel reluctant to send in documentation of a sighting because they feel an analysis of the material might involve an excessively critical view of their birding skills. One’s reputation, however, can only be enhanced by one’s willingness to help. While knowing that reporters are acknowledged experts can add weight to their reports (and experts have the heaviest responsibility to document rarities well, since they are skilled in describing what they observe), being relatively unknown will never by itself detract from anyone else’s report.

Even when reviewers do not accept a documented report of a rare species, it’s important to remember it is one’s documentation, not one’s actual experience of the bird in question, that falls short in one way or another of unequivocally verifying the species. The comments of reviewers should help us to observe, and record our impressions, more carefully next time. Lots of rare birds have been seen whose documentations records committees have simply been unable to accept. This is regrettable, but in most cases it can be avoided if you learn how to gather evidence for a scientifically verifiable sighting.

Rare Bird Sighting?

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