Documenting Rarities


Since its first annual report in 1989 the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee has accepted an average of about 70% of the records it evaluated – a testament to observers’ care and ability to provide adequate documentation of rarities.

Success in the other 30% of cases was sometimes impossible to achieve for various reasons such as a damaged specimen or a bird that an observer simply could not see well enough to determine all of its field marks. Often, however, the failure resulted from a disappointing lack of necessary details that the observer could have provided but did not.

In more than 160 records that were not accepted during the committee’s 12 years, two problems emerged equally in importance: 1. The description of the bird did not rule out similar species. 2. The report did not provide a sufficiently detailed description for the committee to evaluate at all. The documentation form provided here is not required for submitting a record, but it shows the many kinds of information the committee considers important, as well as allowing for uploads of images, sounds and video.

Foremost — in fact critical — is to describe the bird. Here are tips for documenting three categories of observations.

A “sight record,” whether visual or aural:
* Take notes, take notes, take notes. This advice cannot be overemphasized. If the bird stays in view long enough, take notes while watching it. Include every visible aspect of its size, shape, plumage colors and patterns, bare parts, and any other significant feature that you have time to observe. If the bird departs too quickly, take the notes immediately afterward so its appearance is fresh in your memory. Inexperienced birders, and even a few experienced ones, sometimes spend more time leafing through field guides than absorbing all of a bird’s features.

* Confine your description to what you actually saw, whether you take notes during or after the sighting. Don’t write the description while consulting a field guide, or there is a possibility of “remembering” details that you did not see. After years of reading documentations, records committees everywhere develop a sense of what described characters could or could not be seen on a bird at a certain distance and in certain lighting conditions. The committee does not necessarily believe that an observer intentionally misrepresented details, but rather that the observer genuinely recalled seeing all of the details which a field guide says the bird should show under ideal conditions. Perfect details may harm rather than help the acceptability of a report.

* Take care to distinguish the bird from other species. If you do not record sufficient details at the time of observation, this may be or impossible to do later for a species that is extremely similar to others. Gulls and shorebirds are frequent examples, and there are many others such as the notorious Empidonax and Myiarchus flycatchers. In any case, even for species that may be seem obvious, it is worthwhile to make distinctions between genera such as Myiarchus flycatchers and Tyrannus kingbirds. Every species presents a unique set of requirements.

* Avoid vague generalizations. For example calling a gull “black-headed” might mean it had a solid black hood, a half-hood, or some black in the head. The committee has no way of knowing. Calling a bird’s median crown stripe “pale” may ignore a necessary distinction between LeConte’s and Grasshopper Sparrow. Calling a bird’s breast streaked may miss an important difference between heavy or fine streaking in two species such as the sharp-tailed sparrows.

* Be carefully accurate. Study, study, study field guides’ schematic drawings of birds’ “topography” at rest and in flight until they are burned into your memory. As examples, observers often use “eye stripe” indiscriminately for what is either a line through the eye or a superciliary line above the eye; confuse the chin with the throat, or fail to separate the two; use the term “back” for what is actually a combination of the back, upperwings, rump and perhaps even upper tail coverts; confuse the breast, belly, and flanks. There are many other examples.

* Consider using one kind of generalization that may indeed be appropriate: the bird’s “jizz” – an impression given by a combination of shape, proportions, size, flight style, stance, and perhaps behavior. This is not likely to be a fundamental aspect of your description, but in some cases can support an identification strongly.

* Avoid vague comments such as “all field marks observed” or “looked just like the field guide.” They do not describe the bird itself. What is needed is a description of what field marks were actually observed. Because of distance, lighting, and individual variation, a bird rarely looks “just like” an idealized field guide illustration.

* Study field guides thoroughly in advance to learn what to look for quickly in case a bird does not stay long in view. Examples are the color of upperparts, appearance of breast band, and shape of bill for Snowy, Piping, and Wilson’s Plovers; facial features that do (and do not necessarily) separate White-faced from Glossy Ibis; subtle features of color and proportions that separate an Arctic from a Common Tern; and a case that may be an exciting opportunity for you, the very subtle differences between a Cliff and a Cave Swallow, the latter yet to be documented adequately for a first state record.

* Describe as best you can the bird’s vocalization, if any was heard. “As best you can” is an important qualifier because different people hear a bird differently depending on the frequency range of their hearing. People also transliterate a song or call in very different ways, and in some extreme cases no two people would describe a vocalization in the same way. Consider the Bewick’s Wren song described in admirable detail by David Sibley in The Sibley Guide to Birds as: zrink zrink oozeeee delzeedle-eedle-ooh tsetetetetetete. People familiar with the species may recognize this as quite well done — but try copying the sound adequately on paper while you are listening to the bird! Nevertheless, it is always worth an effort to capture at least the essence of a song.

* Submit multiple independent reports if more than one observer made the sighting. These should be written without consultation among the observers to be truly independent. All such independent multiple-observer records are placed in a “higher” class than a single-observer report. (Note: If several observers are listed on a single report, it is placed in the single-observer class.)

* Lastly, submit the documentation! Don’t assume that someone else will do it. An unfortunate Pennsylvania example was a Reddish Egret at Presque Isle, Erie County, in 1953. As many as 50 people saw the bird, and some may have photographed it. Yet no one submitted field notes and no photographs have been found, so this species still has not made it to the state list. Many reports of rarities before the era of records committees exist in limbo in every state because no details were recorded.

A photograph, videotape, or audio recording:
* In every case without exception, take notes just as with a sight-only observation and submit a complete description with the physical evidence. Important characters that were obvious to the observer may not be evident in the photographs. Vocalizations heard clearly by the observer may reproduce too faintly in the audio recording.

* Try to take photographs from every possible angle and in varying conditions of light and shadow. Convincing separation from similar species in gulls, flycatchers, and other species groups may not be possible without views of several areas of the plumage and top, bottom and side views of the bill.

* Recognize the cases when recordings may be the only way to identify species seldom seen, such as Black Rail and Chuck-will’s-widow. In addition, some species are so difficult to distinguish visually, such as Western and Eastern Meadowlark, that they usually can be identified acceptably only by voice.

* Don’t worry if you cannot submit cover-quality photographs or studio-quality recordings. A fuzzy photograph or a buzzy recording may contain just enough information to identify the bird. Be sure to label them with the location, date, and photographer’s/recorder’s name and address. And to emphasize the necessity one more time: Don’t fail to include a full written description of the bird and other data listed on the documentation form.

A specimen:
*Birders do not often encounter Review List rarities as dead birds, except when checking the bases of tall towers and buildings in migration season or looking around lake shores for seabirds after passage of a hurricane. In the event a rare find does occur, here are a few guidelines:

* Try first to reach a game officer, ornithologist, or museum representative with a collection permit so the specimen can be accurately measured, studied expertly, and preserved. Identification may be considered only tentative by the records committee in cases like the incomplete remains of apparent Hammond’s Flycatcher and Dusky Flycatcher from eastern Pennsylvania in the 1960s. But without those specimens, no assignment to species could be seriously attempted at all.

* If collection is not possible, take photographs of the carcass from various angles showing all plumage areas, the tail shape, and bare parts. Spread a wing if possible, even if it must be forced flat, to depict the wing shape, which may be essential for some identifications. It is almost always valuable to place next to the bird in every photograph an item that can be measured later to show the bird’s exact size.

* Finally, as with sight records and photographs, take notes on every aspect of shape and color that may remain – even if not much is left of a long-dead bird. The identity of a specimen might not be as obvious as it may seem. Museum curators have reevaluated countless old specimens and found that they were not correctly identified. An interesting case in Pennsylvania was a sparrow collected at Powdermill Nature Reserve in 1972. It was identified as a subspecies of what is now known as Nelson’s Sharp-tailed until Dr. Kenneth Parkes at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh reexamined the specimen and discovered that it was a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed.

Further advice on documentation is available in several articles:

Dittmann, D. L. and G. W. Lasley. 1992. How to document rare birdsBirding 24: 145-159.

Kwater, E. 1994. Documenting rare birds in Pennsylvania: What the records committee looks forPennsylvania Birds 8:63-65. Read the pdf.

Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee. 2000. Documenting rare birds: What the records committee needsPennsylvania Birds 14:98-99. Read the pdf.