(Not my photo… would have been a lot easier if it was! See credit below at bottom of page).
Well, my pectoral sandpiper report from Saturday has been mulled over and rejected based on lack of evidence. While you always dream of finding your own rarities, I’ve always also dreaded doing so as you’ve then got the hard work of persuading others you’ve seen what you’ve seen.
This post is no disrespect to anyone involved in the process of assessing the report. Reports have to be assessed fairly and on the evidence given, and hard-lines should be taken when there’s lack of evidence. A bird report is meaningless if you include any old report from any Tom, Dick or Harry without question.
The report I sent in had many problems. Firstly it came from my co-finders and I, unknown birders for the area with no track record in ID skills. Secondly no-one refound the bird at any point further down the coast. No photo was taken. And finally… well I’ll put my hand up and say the report probably wasn’t the best.
The notes we took were hasty. The bird was about to be flushed by some playing children, and we were sharing a scope to view it, so had to take turns to see it in detail. We jotted down a host of features that were pro-pec (such as the chest pattern, bill-shape, leg colour, supercilium, lack of obvious wing bar in flight) but failed to note certain other clinchers (bill colour, back pattern, primary projection). And while we tried hard but failed to turn it into something more common and likely such as wood sand, curlew sand, ruff or dunlin, I fully appreciate we may not be able to fully convey this to the relevant authorities.
We were also very careful in what information we sent in, and that it was what we noted in the field rather than “remembered” after looking in the field guides. For example I’m almost sure the bird had a partially pale bill… but as I didn’t note this at the time, I cannot be certain it’s not my brain filling in the blanks afterwards.
It’s been a slightly disheartening experience, but also one to learn from. If you find a probable rarity I would recommend the following, some stages of which we missed.
- Call over any passing birders and get them on to it immediately to back up your claim.
- Note down everything you can see about the bird, whether you think it’s relevant or not at the time, because it’s quite likely you don’t know all the salient features off by heart.
- Make field sketches of the main features.
- Always presume it’s something common first, even if you suspect it’s a rarity, and work through why it isn’t each confusion species. Make sure you have a good knowledge of the salient features of all common species you’re likely to see. You may be confident in telling common species apart, but how are you at the differences between common species and closely related vagrants?
- Do not look in a field guide until you have written down your notes, so your brain doesn’t fill in any blanks with the illustrations.
- Try and get a photo, however poor.
- Always be honest in your report. If you’re only 90% sure say so. Don’t add in features you didn’t record in the field and have copied from field guides just to make it more plausible.
- If you’re really not sure, you don’t have to report it at all. Put it down as one of those question marks in your note book. You’ll have a lot of these over your years as a birder.
I’ve often realised my note-taking skills aren’t the best, and this encounter has spurred me on to improve them. Hopefully next time I find a rarity I’ll be a bit better equipped!
And finally don’t take rejection to heart. It’s not personal, and you have to appreciate recorders have to be very strongly persuaded, especially from people they do not know, otherwise bird reports are in danger of becoming a collection of spurious claims with no rigorous editing, rendering them useless as sources of information. You still know what you’ve seen, have a cracking bird for your personal list, and just work harder on your notes next time… that’s what I’m going to do!