As co-chair of the Vermont Bird Records Committee, I'd like to explain the
process and thinking/philosophy behind the rare species reporting process.
Recent postings about possible White--tailed Kites have brought up the
issue of record acceptance, and it seems to be a good opportunity to make
some clarifications. I wrote this with the help of several committee
members, so hopefully I'm representing the thoughts of the committee
For those of you who aren't familiar with the process: in order for a rare
sighting to become an official state record, we ask the observer to fill
out a rare species form that asks for all sorts of details about the bird
they saw. These records are put through a rather rigorous review, and we
have specific voting protocols. In some cases documentation such as photos
or a second observer are necessary in order for the record to be accepted.
Many states now have such committees.
The committee is charged with ensuring that the observer has taken the
proper care to eliminate similar species from contention. In some cases
this may be obvious (such as adult male Northern Harrier for White-tailed
Kite), but others may be less obvious such as Mississippi Kite rather than
White-tailed Kite, or winter records of orioles, grosbeaks, and
hummingbirds where the more common (summering) species is assumed to be the
correct identity. We want people in 10, 50, or 100 years to feel confident
that all accepted records have been through a rigorous review process. It's
actually quite similar to the peer-review process in the scientific
arena...you have to be held accountable by your peers and prove what you
say to be true before it goes into print.
Even expert birders have sightings rejected, so it should not be taken
personally, but rather a challenge to document adequately what you have
observed. It's safe to say, in fact, that virtually every
expert birder in the state at some point has a record rejected by the
committee. Many observations have some degree of uncertainty associated
with them - a glimpse of a small black and white woodpecker in VT is
assumed to be a Downy. Could it have been a Red-cockaded? Probability
suggests no; given assumptions about range and likelihood of vagrancy, we
are relatively certain we saw a Downy. The goal of the documentation
should be to remove as much uncertainty as possible in an honest manner.
Our process therefore has nothing to do with whether we "believe" the
birder, but whether the documentation submitted contains sufficient detail
about the bird's appearance and behavior, and the reasons why the bird
couldn't have been any other species.
This means that there are almost certainly bonafide sightings that don't
make it into the state records. However, we prefer to err on the
conservative side, accepting only sightings that we are sure of, rather
than accept sightings that are possibly or even probably accurate.
Filling out a rare species form for the committee takes time, and we don't
wish our strict procedures to dissuade people from continuing to make the
effort to send them in. Rather, we encourage birders to use the reports as
an opportunity to further hone their skills and so to become better and
more careful observers. I have personally found it challenging to describe
why a species I saw could in no way be any other species, and it has forced
me to take better note of details. With a little patience, hopefully others
will find that it can be a learning experience.
For more information about the committee, species that require reports, and
to download report forms, visit our web site: http://www.vinsweb.org/vbrc/
Regards to all,
Rosalind Renfrew, PhD
Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas
Department of Conservation Biology
Vermont Institute of Natural Science
2723 Church Hill Road
Woodstock, VT 05091
802-457-1053 X 127
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