Wednesday, February 1, 2012

VOE and reports of unusual birds

"May I see your license, registration, and proof of insurance, please?"

What does this officer want? Verifiable Objective Evidence. Business records verifying compliance to environmental regulations, tax statements for the last 7 years, proof of residence after moving to get your driver's license updated. All these are familiar situations that require VOE, some form of documentation that gives evidence of something.

Birding is the ultimate form of trust. I trust that you actually saw the bird you told me you saw. You trust that I didn't just make up a rare bird to get attention. In England (Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book), the term "stringer" is used to describe a birder who claims rare birds that no one else believes--untrustworthy, whether a deserved reputation or not.

Birding email lists are popular, with people of varying skill levels reporting common birds at their feeder or experts reporting the results of their latest rarity chase. When planning my precious birding time, I may want to look for rare birds that someone else found recently--perhaps a bird I've never seen before. If someone reports a "good" bird far away, I want to at least believe that the bird was identified correctly before I invest my time and fuel to go look for it.

So what do I make of a birding report from a birder I've never heard of, at a place rather distant, with 4 or 5 rare birds on it? An expert birder who just moved into the area? Or a beginner with more enthusiasm than accuracy?

It doesn't take much VOE to help me make up my mind. With the advent of excellent digital cameras, it'd be great to have a photo. But a simple description of the bird, written soon after the observation, would be nice. Don't tell me that you are very familiar with the species from somewhere else. Don't tell me you're positive of the identification. Tell me what you saw--not what you concluded. You don't have to write a Bird Records Committee-worthy description. Just tell me enough of what shape, color, field marks, calls, and behaviors you observed and let me draw a conclusion as to what the bird was.

The importance of writing descriptions of rare birds for my own personal records was brought to my attention recently. My next post (VOE and taking notes) will articulate.