- Help the committee enjoy the experience with you! Often the better descriptions give a real feel for the whole experience, so much so that you can find yourself there with the observer, feeling that nerve tingling moment when the dentification clicked into place! You will see some nice examples of this in the submissions on the website – remember that a solid background to the find is important, as it can add context to the rest of the submission and really help with its assessment. Submissions which simply list some field characteristics noted with no explanation giving context of how they were pieced together, are less likely to find favour with any committee.
- Question yourself during the identification process. The very best observers sending in the highest standard submissions, will have clearly described how they cross-examined their own identification on their way to reaching the correct conclusion. The ability to stand back and look at your own work with a critical eye is a useful trait in any situation, but its especially important with rare birds! Did you really see that wing bar in the dappled light of the canopy? Could you be certain that the primary projection didn’t just look long because of a missing tertial? The legs looked dark, but was the bird simply feeding in mud?
- Honesty is the best policy – descriptions which are merely copied out of the field guide can be easily spotted. They have a feel about them which tells the committee that too much information was gleaned from too brief or too poor a sighting. Embellishment of the facts is a common human trait, and we probably all come away from a bird thinking we have seen a little bit more of it than we actually have. Sometimes being honest and admitting that there is a feature which you simply couldn’t see though is as good as actually seeing it – you’ve acknowledged you were aware that it may have been present but that you were unable to get sufficient views to confirm it actually was. It’s worth explaining why you couldn’t confirm a particular feature though, so the committee can understand better why you have omitted it from the description.
- Light and judging images. This is perhaps one of the trickier situations faced by the committee themselves. Judging key features in a single digital photograph is notoriously dangerous. Cameras can lie! Exposure and other artefacts of the photo can make features appear and disappear and give the totally wrong impression of colours at times. Think about this when putting your own submission together and be honest about what you have done with the images. If they’ve been adjusted to the degree that they don’t look natural, they could count against the record rather than in its favour. Comment on any images you include, to give the committee as much information as possible as to how you think they compare with the bird’s appearance in the field. Even without images, you need to assess difficult or key colour tones and shades in different lights, and from as many angles as possible. Perhaps you were able to revisit the bird on different days or at different times? Particularly important with taxa such as Siberian Chiffchaff, Black Brant and ‘Eastern’ Lesser Whitethroat. Be critical about what’s portrayed in your photos – the committee will be!
- NB: If you have photos please submit these as separate files rather than embedding them in the submission form. Original photos that have not been edited are best, straight from the camera. It’s ok to embed a cropped or otherwise edited photo in the description to illustrate a point, but if you do this then please also enclose the original unedited file with your submission. In the sample descriptions reproduced here, photos have been embedded deliberately by us for illustration purposes.
- How does your sighting fit with your own previous experience of the species in question? The form asks for details of ‘previous experience’ but knowing that you have twitched thirteen Temminck’s Stints in the last ten years doesn’t really help much – how did what you learnt from those encounters assist you with your own find? Maybe it didn’t fit at all with your past experience and you found yourself temporarily stumped, before realising all the previous ones you’d seen were in spring and this was a worn late summer adult?
- Think about the actual description and what information you are providing the committee with. Using words like ‘unmistakable’, ‘characteristic’ and ‘diagnostic’ without explaining why those features were so, is not particularly helpful. Pay particular attention to how the confusion species were ruled out. Saying ‘this was definitely not a Willow Warbler’ gives the committee nothing to go on. The bird might have been ‘unmistakable’ to you in the field, but it needs to be so in the description too.
- Think carefully about the details of distance. Most people crudely guestimate the ‘distance from the bird’ and one person’s kilometre is another’s 100 metres, especially on a seawatch! Often, we see submissions which say the bird was 2km away, yet minute detail is described in the description. Which part is correct? Try and be as accurate as possible by using google maps retrospectively to gauge how far away you were, and don’t be surprised if its further than you thought!
- Get a sound recording! With the modern technology available in even the most basic of mobile phones, it should be possible in the majority of circumstances to get even a crude recording of any bird that is calling regularly. The voice recording device on a smart phone will do the job, or simply take a video clip of the habitat with the bird calling in the background. You’ll be surprised at how sensitive the microphones are in modern phones, and the detail they can pick up.
- Get corroboration! People who regularly find rare birds generally have a very low rate of ‘single observer records’. This is because they get others on the scene quickly and let’s face it, in Norfolk you are never far away from another birder, even in the more remote parts of the county! Single observer submissions make up the clear majority of ‘Not Proven’ records and can be notoriously difficult to assess. Try to get a second opinion if you possibly can – it’s not a prerequisite to acceptance, but it does help.
- Don’t let birds ‘get away’ too easily! Often we see brief encounters described where the bird disappeared or flew off before proper notes could be documented. While we appreciate of course that birds are prone to flying away [!], the top rarity finders won’t let birds go easily. Return to the birds favoured feeding area later on, or the next day, as they will often return to a chosen spot. It is often the case that tricky to identify species won’t give all their features up immediately, and experienced observers will keep revisiting the bird until they are fully satisfied that they have gleaned as much key information as they can. Even if the bird is being well ‘twitched’, the record can still be found Not Proven if the detail provided is too light. Go back and see it again yourself – you might see an extra bit of detail or bit of behaviour that could help with your submission.
Ashley Saunders, 12th September 2018
On behalf of the Norfolk Record’s Committee