Monday 21 November 2016

The Records Committee. Part 3. The Process - Devon Today

As in London, bird recording in Devon is steeped in history. The county bird club has existed since 1928 and published a Bird Report more or less from its inception. My membership began around 2004, coinciding with revitalised birding urges induced by our move to Seaton. A few years later I was on the Devon Birds Records Committee, once again throwing my weight around in a judgemental sort of way...

How on earth did that happen?

Well, when it comes to recruiting new members onto its records committee, Devon Birds (or the Devon Birdwatching and Preservation Society as it was until very recently) has an actual, proper procedure, the nuts and bolts of which are even published right here on their website for the whole world to see. Talk about transparent.

Following a period of shrewd networking and intensive lobbying I was formally invited by the County Recorder to apply for a position on the Devon Birds Records Committee. To apply! With a CV, no less. Blimey, if there was more than one applicant there would even have to be a vote, which I might lose! What on earth motivated me to go through this potentially humiliating process? Naturally it was a self-sacrificing desire to serve my fellow Devon birders in whatever humble role they deemed me worthy. No ego involved at all. And so it was that my devoted followers elected me to membership of the DBRC.

My tenure coincided with the move from postal circulation to digital. With the former you would receive a fat envelope of descriptions, review each one, then write your decision and any comments on a separate sheet. The idea was that you shouldn't look at the decisions and comments of those committee members who had received the package before you, but of course you could do exactly that if so inclined. Digital circulation did away with such naughtiness! Periodically - maybe two or three times a year, and certainly not monthly as in London - the County Recorder would call a meeting. The descriptions discussed at the meeting would almost invariably be only those upon which there had not been unanimous agreement, and you were notified in advance which they were. Plenty of time to review those descriptions and do some research if needed. At the meeting would be just the five committee members and the County Recorder, who had no vote and acted only as chair.

I thought the system worked superbly. A real effort was made to recruit committee members who were experienced, were respected by their peers, and ideally from different parts of Devon. This resulted in a broad base of understanding of both the county's birds and its birders, and gave the committee a good level of maturity and integrity I think. And by limiting each member to five years it meant that fresh blood was introduced every 12 months; there was absolutely no room for some cliquey little gang of buddies to go on a power trip...

The job even came with a contract of sorts, unambiguously explaining what was expected of you. If you didn't measure up, were out.

This is the last county rarity description I sent to the DBRC - a gorgeous Caspian Gull on the Axe estuary, 9 April 2013. Hardly a text-book description, but at the time of submission (early 2014) I had been off the committee for more than a year and was going through a bit of a birding trough. I couldn't be bothered to write a proper description and simply used this annotated photo which had appeared on NQS MkII. I emailed it to the County Recorder along with a couple of other pics. I assume it didn't give cause for much debate. Oh, but if only all records were so easy...

Record assessment is a subjective affair and therefore inherently imperfect. However, if you insist upon keeping a county or national database of birds, bees, butterflies - of anything - it is obviously going to need long-term credibility. Some kind of vetting process is a logical necessity in my view. But a truly successful vetting process needs to do more than just ensure that the database contains trustworthy, dependable records; it also needs to encourage a maximum number of submissions. To achieve these dual aims that vetting process must have two vital things:
  • An efficient system of record assessment (obviously)
  • As trusted and respected a records committee as is humanly possible
To be frank I would be surprised to learn of a county that does it better than Devon. Though of course, you may know different...

I enjoyed my time on the DBRC. Particularly the bit following the meetings, when we would all go down the pub for a bevvy and a have good laugh about the field sketch of a so-called Hoopoe that was clearly a parrot.

No, I'm kidding again. As in London, we never laughed.

Next up: Part 4. The Decision.


  1. Easy really Gav, just casually mention median, greater and under-tail coverts and you're nearly there.
    In the case of that Caspian Gull. I imagine the committee putting that description to one side as 'the' definitive example for future reference.
    Useful should you find another one.
    Your record submission would simply be, 'Caspo 1stW', or something like that.

    1. If only all Caspian Gulls were as distinctive as that one! As has been mentioned in the comments on a previous post, digital cameras have made life so much easier for everyone...