Monday, February 6, 2012

VOE and taking notes

San Diego Co., California, 4 November 2008 by Greg Gillson.


"Gray back. Yellow-green breast. Light under tail and belly. Throat and side of head yellow. Head olive with yellow eyebrow and central crown stripe. Pink legs. Short tail. Bill straw with dark-ridged upper mandible. Dark eye."

Does the description above sound like it fits the bird in the photo? The California Bird Records Committee thought it did. Unfortunately, I wasn't submitting a report of the bird in the photograph. My report of a rare bird was rejected. Fortunately, I had VOE (verifiable objective evidence) in the form of a rough sketch made soon after seeing the bird that allowed the record to be accepted upon resubmission. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In my previous post (VOE and reports of rare birds) I discussed including a brief description when reporting a rare bird to your online email list.

But there is good reason to make such notes in your birding notebook each time you see a rare bird. I know, few birders keep a field notebook of bird sightings. And most are nothing more than a list of birds seen during the day. My note taking took on added meaning after reading Van Remsen's article ("On taking field notes" American Birds, 1977). But my dedication to note taking and the amount of effort I put into it varied greatly over the years.

Lately I've been copying my historical bird records into eBird. I have entered checklists from 1972-1982 now. That was some time ago. And my enthusiasm sometimes exceeded my expertise. So, when I came across my own notebook report of a rare species, I wanted to have VOE (Verifiable Objective Evidence)--a description whereby I could judge the accuracy of my own sightings over 30 years ago. What did I have? Well, in accord with Van Remsen's suggestions, I had underlined unusual birds in my notebook. Rare birds? They were double-underlined. Descriptive notes? Rarely. And usually incomplete.

Sometimes my notes confirmed the bird I claimed. Other times my descriptions indicated I had seen a different bird than I had claimed. Most times, though, I had no description. Was I correct or not? Who knows? Those records don't go into eBird.

So what about the bird and description above? Well the bird in the photo is a female Red Bishop, a native of Africa that escaped their cages and established populations in southern California. That's what the Records Committee thought my bird might be. If I had included a copy of my notes for that day in October 1983 that included the head sketch I made, it would have been accepted right away.



My field notes do accurately describe a Worm-eating Warbler, but NOT ONLY a Worm-eating Warbler. As you can see, my notes could also describe a female Red Bishop! My description didn't have anything about shape of the bill that would have cleared up the ambiguity. Rare bird descriptions always first need to answer the question "why was it a warbler?" before going to the eyebrow and central crown stripe that would separate one warbler from another. This is true whether one is submitting a report to the Rare Bird Records Committee or writing your own notes that you might question 30 years later.