unusual birds

To: "'COG List'" <>
Subject: unusual birds
From: "Barbara Allan" <>
Date: Sun, 3 Jan 2010 22:47:19 +1100

There has been a trickle of list comment about the COG unusual birds list, and the operations of the Rarities Panel. For the benefit of newcomers, or those who have forgotten past airings of these issues, may I briefly make a few points.

The COG Rarities Panel was formed in 1984, primarily to vet unusual records for the Atlas. It was decided that records of “unusual” birds would not be published unless endorsed by the Panel. At the time, there were no digital cameras, no chat line, and the field guides still had problems. The list of birds deemed “unusual” and thus warranting endorsement was divided into categories – including the genuinely “rare” (whether residents or visitors) but also including the uncommon species when seen in unusual numbers and/or unusual locations.  The “unusuals” list has been amended several times, most recently in 2008, to take account of the changes in the local avifauna. At one point, readily identifiable species were dropped from the list, but this generated confusion. Other birds such as the (now) Eastern Koel have been dropped from the list as they have become relatively common in summer in the ACT and are now breeding here. At the time of the last revision of the list, the Panel retained on the “unusuals” list only those species having been recorded fewer than ten times in the life of the panel (ie the last 25 years; and counting as a single record those individual birds or groups reported many times from the same or similar location and in a similar period of time). But as there had been a call from some persons to have separate “unusuals” lists for the ACT and for the broader COG area of interest, I attempted a division of the list to show how two separate lists would turn out. In the end, and after a period of consultation with the membership, the Panel opted for a single list, with a comments field to indicate whether the species was more likely to be seen in the ACT or in the broader area of concern. The result, I have to admit, is fairly odd. Waders feature heavily, their occurrence depending largely on water levels in the eastern lakes. Problems such as the Blue-billed Duck remain – the species can be seem any day of the week at the Fyshwick sewage ponds, but virtually nowhere else in either the ACT or the broader COG area of interest. Some folk seem disappointed if their “rarity” is not on the list. And of course the list does not contain those species which might be expected to turn up one day in our area, but which have not as yet done so (or the records thereof have not been endorsed) – but for which unusual bird reports would be required, were the species to present themselves in a fashion enabling the observer to give a complete description.

Is there still a need for a Rarities Panel in 2010? After all, probably 75% of “unusuals” are aired on the chat line and their presence captured photographically or confirmed by several other observers. But not all birds are sufficiently obliging as to hang around. And if the aim of the Panel is to prevent spurious records being published, there is arguably a case for closer scrutiny of general datasheets, given the difficulties some observers have with raptors, for example, or little brown birds. In my view (not necessarily that of the Panel), the Panel still has a role to play. It is particularly important that first records of a species in our area are thoroughly scrutinized. The Panel tends not to endorse many such records, simply because the observer did not get a particularly good look at the bird, or was unable to see crucial identification features. But this does not mean the record is wasted – it is on file, for future consultation. The act of completing an unusual bird report can be an excellent exercise in refining one’s birding skills.  And the Panel is available as a source of non-judgmental help in identification for those who prefer not to use the chatline.

So, next time you see a bird you think is unusual, check out the website to see if it is listed as an unusual and, if it is, download a form and complete an unusual bird report. If it is not listed, check the latest annual bird report to see what more you can find out about the species, how widely it occurs and in what numbers. For the record, the following species which folk claim to have seen recently require unusual bird reports: Plumed Whistling-Duck; Black-tailed Native-hen; Banded Lapwing; Musk Lorikeet; Black-eared Cuckoo; Black Honeyeater; Spangled Drongo. For birds which hang around for weeks, like the native-hen, the first person to observe the bird(s) is the one expected to put in a report.

Good birding!

Barbara Allan, secretary, COG Rarities Panel.


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