Monday, December 06, 2010

Fieldnotes - to submit or not to submit a record?

As promised, this last post on fieldnotes will deal with whether to submit a record for formal assessment or not.

First, a short recap.

1. You have found a rare or scarce bird.
2. You have made some fieldnotes on what the bird looked like, how it behaved, what it sounded like, etc. You may also have got some photos, videos or sound recordings
3. Let's assume, for this example, that the bird did not hang around, and was not seen by many other birders.

You now have a to make a decision about whether to 'submit' your sighting for formal verification for it to enter the 'record books' of the species which occur in the area/country.

As I see it, you have three options at this stage:

1. You decide to 'claim' this as a definite record, in which case, you should make available the evidence to back up your claim for others to verify. SUBMIT THE RECORD

2. You decide that you are happy that you correctly identified the bird, but you don't wish to have the record independently verified. In this case, you really should not make any 'claim' to have seen it in any public forum or database. DON'T SUBMIT THE RECORD

3. You may or may not be certain about the identification, but you realize that your evidence (notes, photos etc) is not sufficiently comprehensive to pass the test of independent verification. In this case, you can claim a 'possible/probable' sighting. You might want to alert other birders to look out for the bird, but make clear that it is not a definite sighting. Or you can just 'put it down to experience' as ' the one that got away'! Birders have coined the phrase 'UTVs' (untickable views) for such possible/probable sightings. DON'T SUBMIT THE RECORD

The job of a records committee or validation team

What any records committee tries to do is to decide whether there is sufficient objective evidence for a claimed sighting. This is different from deciding whether you saw what you said you saw!

In many, even most cases, in my experience assessing records, I am pretty sure that the person claiming a particular record did correctly identify the bird in question. But the problem is that, from the evidence presented, I cannot be COMPLETELY SURE. The commonest reason that a record is rejected is insufficient or inadequate evidence.

In a small minority of cases, it is usually quite clear that the person wrongly identified a commoner species as a rare one. And, in an even smaller minority, there is a suspicion that the description has been 'embellished' after reference to field guides, etc.

In assessing records, a records committee will seek to answer the following questions, more or less:

1. Was the view adequate (in terms of time, distance, etc) to note a diagnostic combination of salient details?
2. Was there anything that could have prevented the observer getting a sufficiently clear view (eg weather, light, range, optics, etc)?
3. Were a diagnostic combination of salient identification features noted?
4. Were potential confusion species satisfactorily eliminated?
5. Was the observer convinced about the identification of the bird?
6. Does the observer have adequate experience of the species and its congeners?
7. Are there any other reasons to doubt the veracity of the description (eg inconsistencies in the description, observer known to have made erroneous reports in the past, etc.)?
8. Are there any reasons to suspect the possibility of origin from captivity or human assistance (eg bird unknown from the wider region, non-migratory, extinct, known trade in the species, etc)?

So you can see that, both for the person submitting a record and for those assessing it, quite a lot of time and effort is needed (hence the title of the first post in this series)!

To help observers to provide all the details needed for assessment, most records committees make a Record Submission Form available. The one for Malaysia, as well as guidelines for completing it, is here.

How much evidence is enough?

Before you submit a record, it is good to "self-assess" your own evidence. If someone else had provided your description, would it convince you? If not, it's probably not worth claiming and submitting your record. Generally, the rarer the record, the more comprehensive the evidence needed.

1. A scarce bird record may only need a short paragraph in which the main diagnostic features are noted and the commoner species eliminated.

2. A national rarity will generally require a full plumage description (plus any other diagnostic behaviour or vocalizations).

3. A first record for a country will have a greater chance of acceptance if there are photographs and/or multiple observers (in addition to the requirements for a national rarity).

4. A new species for science generally requires DNA evidence!!

The amount of evidence needed is also partly dependent on how distinctive the bird is (a Hoopoe may require less detail than a Blyth's Pipit, for example!)

Some examples

I saw this Jaeger on 29th March 2008. I watched it with two other observers as it sat on the sea and flew past us, and we were all certain that it was a Pomarine Jaeger. The problem was that, for a 'difficult' group like jaegers, neither the photo nor the description I wrote provided sufficient evidence for the record to be accepted, given the rarity of the species in Malaysia. In the end, it was accepted as a Jaeger sp.

I've been seeing martins in Penang since about 2007, which I am pretty sure are Pale Martins, a species which has not yet been recorded in Malaysia. Trouble is, Pale Martins are extremely similar to Sand Martins (which have been recorded), and on current published knowledge, can only be reliably differentiated in the hand by measurements. So, even though I have extensive field notes and MANY photos of these birds, I have not yet made any definite claims, and they are referred to in public databases as Pale/Sand Martins, to avoid giving the impression that they have been conclusively identified. At the moment, they are in limbo, pending further research.

Hopefully the last few posts have given you a better idea of all that is involved in finding a rarity, and what to do in the happy event that you do. If there are aspects I've not covered which you'd like me to, please let me know!

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