It is an essential discipline for every
serious birdwatcher to write down what
they are observing, particularly if they
are not sure what the species is or they
know it to be particularly rare or unusual.
What follows are our standards for acceptance
of unusual records and some guidance on
how best to present this information.
The Northern India Bird Network has resolved
to maintain the highest standards in the
publications of records. We intend that
people outside India, and our successors
in posterity, should be content with our
identifications, even when they don’t
or cannot know the observer themselves.
Our e-mail group and website will publish
what people report, but that does not
automatically mean their records are acceptable.
Anyone can question a record or ask for
detail through the e-mail group. Everyone
is encouraged to be active in this regard.
At the same time the record moderators
(see our Network page) will intervene
if they think a record is so rare or unexpected
that more detail is needed.
These principles apply to everyone, however
venerable or experienced. It is no shame
(rather a compliment) to be asked to provide
a full description. Otherwise we are forced
into the untenable position of selecting
an elite that is unquestionable. Posterity
will not necessarily recognise such self-appointed
Salim Ali was always adamant that anything
rare should be fully described. I personally
saw him write field notes on difficult
species in the early 1980s’ shortly
before he passed away. I believe that
his is the only fair way forward if we
are to maintain a reputation as scientifically
valid contributors to the knowledge of
The most important thing is to write
down what you see as close as possible
to when you see it. That means carrying
a notebook (or paper) and a pencil or
pen (or tape-recorder). Of course you
will often refer to your bird books as
soon as you can to help you with the identification,
but the critical information I will always
be what you saw. You may well see things
the bird books don’t mention and
not all bird books are entirely accurate
on the difficult species. I have found
that for some uncertain observations I
have had to refer to as many as six books
to settle the issue; but without my own
notes taken on the spot I would never
have been certain.
We all use the elimination process to
identify birds. That is we say “oh
if it has this it cannot be that”.
This is fine as part of the exercise but
it is a very personal process. To have
a record accepted this is not sufficient.
Nor is assertion; that is saying “
I am sure this is what I saw”. The
only thing that will convince is reporting
what you saw with the information being
fully adequate to identify the species
There is nothing more depressing for
a keen and honest birdwatcher than to
have their claimed record rejected. Believe
me I know! And I also know that however
many years you have been bird-watching
(in my case nearly 50); you still make
mistakes. Isn’t that part of the
delight of our hobby, that there is always
something to learn?
Please try and put this into perspective.
What the moderators are saying is that
the evidence is insufficient; you may
well have seen the bird you claimed but
you haven’t got enough data on it
and on that basis other confusion species
cannot be excluded. If you read on I believe
you will be much less likely to get your
genuine records rejected.
What do you need to report:
1. Name of bird (or
if you are not sure) group of birds. Observers’
names (each observer must provide an independent
description), dates, place (with a brief
description of habitat), times of observation
and optical aids used (that is type of
binocular or telescope if any). It is
always helpful to include your experience
of the species and any possible confusion
2. A brief description
of what the bird looked like, what it
was doing and which other species were
near to it. How did it compare? What struck
you? Why do you think it is what you say
3. A description of the
bird, start with what it was doing and
how. Then move on to describe what it
looked like overall. Then describe it.
It is probably easiest to start with the
head move to the back, wings and tail,
then the underparts , then the bill and
legs. It is often helpful to use the diagrammatic
illustrations (available at the beginning
of all good field-guides) to ensure you
are describing the right parts of the
plumage. But different species may require
a different order of description. Try
to transcribe any calls heard.
4. Don’t include
what you assumed but didn’t see.
It may be irrelevant anyway.
5. If you have even the
most meagre talent, include a sketch (preferably
drawn while you are looking at the bird).
It really is helpful. And you can use
it to highlight the most important features.
Bill Harvey 10 May 2001