Saturday 19 November 2016

The Records Committee. Part 1. The Request for a Description.

Chances are, if you're a birder, you will on occasion have submitted a list of sightings to your County Recorder. However, it may well be that your efforts to make an altruistic contribution to the local fund of avifaunal data met with a response like this:

Dear Mr Archer,
Many thanks for your 2015 Ambridge records, which are of particular value from such underwatched farmland. I note that on Oct 26 you saw a Lapland Bunting at Brookfield Farm. This species is one of those on the Borsetshire rarities list, for which a written description is required. Therefore I have attached a rarity description form and would be grateful if you could fill it out and return it to me at your earliest convenience.
Thanks again.
Kind regards,
Timothy Decent-Chap (County Recorder)

Ah, the request for a description! The wording so polite, the grateful acknowledgement of your efforts so disarming. Naturally you complied immediately, filled out the description form and sent it in with sentiments only of willing cooperation. Or did you?

It is true to say that to some birders correspondence such as the above would be like the proverbial red rag. In fact they would fail to see the actual words, but only the imaginary subtext:

Dear Mr Stringer,
Lapland Bunting? Ha ha! Yeah, right... Go on, give us a laugh and fill in the description form so we can pass it round the Borsetshire Records Committee and make fun of your rubish speeling. Before REJECTING IT!!
No thanks at all.
Unkind gestures,
Timothy Pedant-Nazi (County Bird Police)

So, which scenario do you identify with? Your answer likely depends at least in part upon your view of the whole records committee institution. You might feel that although imperfect it is a valid, indeed necessary arrangement, and gives a measure of integrity to local and national bird records. On the other hand you might feel that records committees are nothing more than writhing pits of prejudice and favouritism, populated only by oily, sneering buddy-buddies.

And how might you have come to adopt your particular view? Probably through your dealings with such bodies, and the positive or negative experiences gained thereby.

Scattered throughout the land there must be dozens of records committees presiding over their respective fiefdoms and sitting in judgement on our rarity descriptions. There are many questions we might ask. For example:
  • What gives anyone the right to such authority?
  • What motivates a person to assume such a responsibilty?
  • Where do they learn how to fulfil it properly?
  • Why was my record rejected?
These are tricky questions. Except the last one of course. Your record wasn't rejected, it was 'not proven'.

I thought it might be interesting to explore the world of records committees a little bit. And amusing possibly. I am slightly qualified to do so, having submitted several rarity descriptions over the years, both at county and national level. Oh, and I have been on the other side of the fence also. Twice. But I'll save that for Part 2...


  1. Well for me, I lack almost any visual memory at all. I see something and try to remember it and all I see is a fleeting outline, Shut my eyes and it's black. Mucks up the memory in the way that describing a bird is nigh on impossible.
    I can see its a 'whatsit' but not 'why' it is. And that's only if it's in front of me. Once it has gone, it's gone. I also haven't the mind for fine detail. Too much trouble so I don't bother at all with submitting records.
    Nearest I get is finding something and telling someone else. If they see it, I don't care if it's a first for Britain, they can have it.

    1. Ric, I have long realised that to some folk writing a description is a step too far. I think you sum it up with your point about not being able to see "'why' it is", and not being able to call detail to mind after the event. I also think some struggle to articulate what they have seen. When someone like this gamely tries to write a description and it doesn't get accepted, well, they're hardly likely to put themselves through that again in a hurry!
      As the grateful observer of at least two or three of your excellent finds I am totally at ease with your philosophy!

  2. Nice post Gavin. Don't submit myself, have done in the past.

    To be a member of the records committee I feel not only should one be suitably qualified experience wise but also a birder that displays good personal qualities and has conducted themselves in the highest manner so that intregrity doesn't become an issue.

    1. Cheers Josh, I agree with you 100%. I suspect that more than a few records committee members little realise that accepting such a role is going to put them quite so much in the public eye, or that they effectively become ambassadors for both the committee and the body that sponsors it. Quite a responsibility!

  3. I will always champion the Records Committee and their work after my experiences. Out of all the anti-Records Committee folk I've come across during the years, no one has ever offered a better alternative. The most laughable was "just accept everything!".

    Sure it's never perfect, and I know some brilliant birders who just aren't good at descriptions. A good Records Committee though will understand and appreciate this, and thankfully the increase in cameras makes it all a bit easier now. I also think is it so important that within a committee, although all members must have a certain knowledge of birds and birding, a dynamic mix of different personalities, attitudes and strengths is vital - if all five were the same you may has well have a one man band. So I'm not quite agreeing with Josh, sometimes it is good to have a bit of a 'wild one' in there.

    Oh, and I have had one or two records Not Proven over the years. You just have to accept it and get on with it in my opinion. At the end of the day if you don't send in descriptions, your records will be lost forever.

    1. Steve, many thanks for your comments on this one. Regarding your first sentence: me too. You and I were fortunate to have been part of what, to me, was an exemplary records committee. Certainly in my time there was also that dynamic mix of personalities that you mention. Even so - in line with Josh's point - even a 'wild one' would need to have a reputation for integrity among his peers, surely? By the way, I'm trying to think who would quite have fitted that description! :-)

      Why are some birders simply 'anti-records committees'? A few reasons come to mind (and I plan to explore this topic in a later post) but my thoughts on this are a bit speculative really...

      Of course, your pragmatic approach to the dreaded 'not proven' is commendable. It does take a measure of humility to accept that others have adversely judged an identification you felt was sound.

      Finally, re the point about records being lost forever. My feelings on how important this is have changed over the years. Currently I don't think it's such a big deal. So if someone has decided they will never send in a description again - which is of course their prerogative - it's a drop in the ocean that I don't think really matters.

    2. Well that surely depends on the species. A few lost Long-tailed Skua records as you say makes no odds, but a crippling mega not submitted would be a massive loss. Also though, I look at it from a personal point of view and not just 'the big picture'. It's a nice reward finding a goodie after hours and hours spent in the field, and I like to see that record in print aswell, meaning it's always in the history books. I guess some people just don't care...

  4. Clearly digital photography will have cancelled out the need for a good number of those requests now. However, I do wonder, where a request for a description is necessary, if they send them out to everybody, including a person well known as one of a county's top birders.
    Also, what is a good description.If for instance you are a decent and fairly experienced birder and the bird that saw was unmistakeably what it was but you didn't write down field notes at the time because there was nothing that it could be confused with, what do you do, probably throw away the request and say sod 'em.
    If you are a dodgy birdwatcher but determined to get yourself a bit of birdwatching fame, do you simply get out a few bird books, write down a lot of relative ID points and send that back. I wonder how many of that kind of thing Record Committees get and how many records they pass as a result.

    1. Without doubt, Derek, digital photography has made life easier for both observers and records committees.

      So much of your comment alludes to the seamier side of human nature: partiality, pride, fraud! Hopefully it rarely if ever comes to any of that! In my opinion good description is simply an honest one. Say what you saw, or what you remember seeing. Again, in my opinion it helps in some cases to explain why you felt the bird was species X as opposed to [possibly confusion] species Y - this gives the committee some insight into your thought process.

      In my experience a good description needn't cover every ID feature in order to be convincing - it just has a ring of truth about it. I know that's a very subjective statement, but that is the very nature of record assessment in the absence of good photos, unfortunately.

  5. Gavin - what a hornet's nest to have stepped upon! Record's committees are about as useful as chocolate fire guards! Your sighting wasn't rejected - it was not proven! YOU'RE A LIAR! There is no middle ground, what other possible explanation can there be? WE BELIEVE YOU - WE DON'T BELIEVE YOU. I quit this gig many years ago - records are nothing short of a joke, what's so important about a rare bird sighting when habitat loss and climate change have so many other impacts on common bird sightings - how long before a description is required for Tree Sparrow in Kent? You either join in, or you don't - it's not mandatory. In my own experience, the biggest problem is with those ego's on the committee, not the written description in front of them. With humanity destined for a complete implosion - how is this data of any importance? Always look on the bright side - eh?

    1. Hi Dylan, thanks very much for your input. Clearly you're aware that I don't agree with all your sentiments there, but then my experiences with records committees have basically been pretty good. Where I do agree is in the matter of the relative importance of rarity records vs the big stuff.

      In the blog post my comment about 'rejected'/'not proven' was tongue-in-cheek of course. I realise it's all just semantics, and that the meaning is the same whichever term you use. However, in Steve's comment above he refers to one or two 'not provens' that he's received. I doubt he interpreted those decisions as 'you're a liar', or he probably wouldn't still be sending descriptions in. So, personally I think there is another way to view 'not proven' - again, something for a later post (probably Part 3).

      Dylan, as I was writing the post yesterday it did occur to me that this was a potentially hot topic. Yes, a hornet's nest even. So I'm pleased you commented - it would have been a bit sterile to only have had similar views. Thanks again.

      PS. I am kind of hoping not to get stung...

    2. Gavin - I have absolutely no issue with our difference of opinions. The point I was trying to make is that of relevant importance? Ever since the advent of "pan-listing" it appears that there are experts, sitting in judgement, for all our sightings. Nothing could be further from reality - the natural world doesn't require judges and juries - it is there to be experienced, enjoyed and embraced. My personal encounters with the "great and good" - the establishment/records committees - haven't gone too well. I have no reason to believe that there was anything personal involved - I still find it difficult to accept that someone, unknown and un-elected, is empowered to make decisions about my ability to identify a bird/moth/insect etc...

    3. Dyl, I agree - the natural world is there to be experienced, enjoyed and embraced. I do not know exactly how or when wildlife recording began, nor how the collection of such records led to bird reports, county lists, national lists etc. But as soon as our forebears (many decades ago) began going down that road they would have seen the need for some kind of adjudication system to give such lists a bit of integrity. To me that's perfectly logical. Again, we're talking a long time ago, when birdwatching was mostly the pursuit of 'gentlemen' and professional types. I imagine they would have seen no problem in appointing from among themselves a panel of 'experts' to referee such records. I guess the records committees we have today are merely what such bodies have evolved into. The world has very much changed since those times, as has the demographic of the birding fraternity. The best records committees will wisely have adapted to these changes, but I can well imagine that some have been slower to do so...

      As you say, Dyl, there is absolutely no obligation on any of us to play the game. That's going to be down to our personal take on the whole thing. Clearly many birders see great value in both keeping records and submitting them to their county bird club or whatever. Some keep records but don't submit, some don't even keep records. Some (yours truly) have done all of the above, depending on their mood. Vive la différence.

  6. Lets face it. Descriptions can be awkward if not totally familiar with bird topography. My proudest moment in that sense occurred in New Zealand when I separated Grey from Wandering Tattler with regards to primary projection.
    Martin Garner, eat your heart out!

    1. An understanding of bird topography helps enormously. Also - as you perfectly demonstrate in your example - a knowledge of the field marks that separate one species from another. It's a learning curve, and we're all somewhere along it...

    2. Richie - who were you trying to convince? You know Grey from Wandering Tattler, whoopee doo! Why does it matter that a third party is required before it becomes "official" ?

  7. Gav, I didn't have a clue what the bird was at all beyond it being some dull wader poking about in the sand. I just got out my bird topography diagram and made notes. Checked the field guide later and found out what it was. Seemed an easy system for unknown birds.
    I did once memorise the diagram (s), but have largely forgotten them.

    Dyl, Yes, I agree, it's the third party which some people seem to insist must be convinced before your sighting becomes 'official', which seems to rankle.
    I imagine them all sitting around wearing Blazers.
    Then one of the committee offers a record of their own to which there is a discussion as to whether or not to accept it.
    Re:(Film Chariots of Fire), "But gentleman, that decision is a matter for the committee!". 'We are the committee!'. "Oh yes, of course, accepted then".