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Writing Descriptions of Birds you have seen


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 elites!

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 Indian birds.

Overall guidance

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 you claim.


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 species.

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 it is?

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


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