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Helpful Hints For Writing Documentations
of Your  Significant Bird Observations

Forms for documenting 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 don’t 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 and important.

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 in documentations.

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 window.

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 Wedge-tailed Shearwater. 

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, Oklahoma Bird Records Committee.

Forms for documenting bird observations

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