Monday, November 22, 2010

Finding rarities is hard work!

With the unusually bad weather of late, it's not surprising that there have been a high number of rarities reported in the past month.

Rarities are always exciting to see, and even more to find, but they are also hard work! Not just looking for them, but finding them!

In an ideal situation, if you find a rarity, you'll be able to get excellent photographs to confirm the sighting, or other people will see the bird and confirm your identification.

However, it doesn't always work that way. Not everyone has a camera, and, even if you have one, not every bird comes within range or sticks around long enough to have its photo taken, still less for others to arrive and see the bird.

Of course, you might not be bothered whether or not anyone else sees or confirms your sighting. However, if you do intend to share your observation with others, and especially if you wish it to enter the record books for the site, region or country, then you'll need to provide some evidence for others to be able to assess your claim. This is where the hard work comes in.

In spite of the advances of digital photography, digiscoping, videoscoping,'digibinning','phonescoping' and digital sound recording, the staple equipment of the would-be rarity-finder still has to be a notebook (the paper variety!) and pen or pencil, and the key skill to master is taking good field-notes.

In the 'old days' before suitable camera equipment was widely affordable, birders would start off with the basic equipment of a pair of 'bins', a notebook and pencil. Then, when they got serious, they would supplement these with a 'scope' and tripod. At the end of any day's birding, their notebooks would be filled not only with a list of what they'd seen, but also notes on bird calls, behaviour and plumage. This is how I learned about birds.

Nowadays, when people usually buy a camera almost as soon as or even before they get their first pair of bins, the emphasis is more on 'getting a record shot' than taking notes. But this is not a foolproof approach to getting a possible rarity 'in the bag', for the following reasons:

1. Some birds' diagnostic features are not visible on photos (eg call, behaviour, relative size, etc)

2. Photos, even sharp ones taken at an advantageous angle, do not always reveal the distinctive plumage characters or structure of a bird. All too often, evidence from photos alone is inconclusive due to distance, lighting, angle or lack of sharpness.

There are other positive reasons for taking fieldnotes.

1. Taking detailed field notes habitually will sharpen your powers of observation. It's amazing how lazy our mind can be at noticing details. If you don't believe me, try sketching the head pattern of a common garden bird from memory (eg a Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Spotted Dove or Olive-backed Sunbird), without referring to any books. If you get anywhere close to the real thing, you have a better memory than most. Now try sketching the wing pattern of that same species!

2. Taking detailed field notes will also improve your ability to remember what you observe. One of my favourite 'wise sayings' is "Expression improves impression". In other words, if you take in what you notice with your eyes and ears, process it with your mind, and then express it through your fingers in either written or drawn form, it will etch a far deeper impression on your memory than it would if you simply see it and press a shutter button!

So finding a rarity should involve taking field notes. Then later, if you decide that your evidence is 'solid' enough to stand the test of objective assessment, you will want to submit the record formally, which will mean more writing! Hence the title of this post!

If I've convinced you on the matter of taking field notes, I'll write more about the how tos in the next post.


terence said...

At the time when i begin birding I've always been ask for notes, so notes taking is not much of a problem to me but sketch is!!! consider i hate drawing!!!

Do hope you can write something like sketch made easy 101.

Wong Tsu Shi said...

A picture paints a thousand words, Dave. If a bird does not stay long enough for a decent photo, it stays too short for a meaningful description of words.

Just my 2 cents and please excuse me as I started as a photographer first. :D

jytou said...

Good article to share here.... I am one of the lazy ones, as it is quite difficult for me to bring along a notebook with me during my regular birding around the neighborhood, did not have a back pack or pockets to put those in, so the solution is often to rush home immediately, briefly glance for the suspected group in Robson's to see if any of them fit the memory, if none, quickly jot down and sketch the characteristics seen, but if no suspects in mind, notes will be made prior to looking for a suspect.

And if I happened to hear any unfamiliar calls in the field that is not repeated then, I will record my own imitation of the calls, but often is just to record down the sensation of the call rather than the real pitch for a potential comparison with real calls in the future.

I still had some of these mysterious calls that were yet to be solved, including a call that I suspect to be of the Watercock, but no calls of this variation is currently available online for me to verify it.

With the current advancement of phones, I also find that other than carrying a troublesome note book, a smart phone may come in handy, especially one with a touchscreen where I can immediately sketch the bird into the phone if it could not be photographed, I can also immediately do a playback on calls to verify the call I had just heard to confirm the ID before the quality of the call fades from my memory if I think I had a strong suspect.

We had seen technology had helped us to improve our ID skills and had also created a stronger dependency on them, they better not break down any time soon when we were in the field.....

jytou said...

A check on my current checklist, seemingly I had never encountered any species that was graded "2" and below according to the new Peninsular Malaysia checklist, so technically speaking, I had never seen a rare bird before...... that is sad for someone who had been involved in bird watching for more than a decade.... probably because I rare twitch?

Tse Chien said...

Sorry Dave, I think I have to with Wong on this one as I autofocus faster than I can sketch LOL!!!

Now with HD and an external mic, all the sounds can even be captured for later ID confirmation.

Ronnie said...

Totaly agree with all the comments