birding-aus Records Appraisal

Subject: birding-aus Records Appraisal
From: "P.J. Milburn" <>
Date: Wed, 21 Jul 1999 19:29:18 +1000
I am afraid I have to wade into this mire.  Even though it is probably a
subject best avoided because people often have very strong feelings in this

I  don't see why anyone should be compelled to submit Rare Bird reports
unless they really want to.  In exactly the same way people should not be
compelled to report bird sightings on Birding_Aus unless they want to.  The
latter method of reporting seems to be much more popular than the former.
One might ask why?

Firstly, Birding_Aus provides its subscribers with a simple and quick way
of keeping up to date with events.  Posting observations of sea watches may
be dodgy information in some circles but to others it is exciting enough to
dash out of work with telescope in hand.  Perhaps the difference between
seeing a new species or finding out about it when it is too late.  Hence
there is a reciprocal ultruism that develops rapidly.   If the results of
the seabird trip at the end of June from Wollongong had not been publicised
then dozens of people would have missed out on the fun of going to sea in
recent weeks.  The same applies to the reports of sightings from Sydney's
Headlands.  Similar examples are numerous.  For the most part this type of
reporting satisfies the immediate needs of people who enjoy going birding.

Secondly, posting to Birding-Aus is relatively quick and painless where as
writing detailed descriptions of a bird sighting is time-consuming and
boring by comparison.  For the most part people who do not believe postings
to Birding_Aus are polite enough not to publicly denegrate the reporter
(perhaps in private but thats OK) where as public rejection of formal
records may be embarassing.

I have been a county recorder in the USA and assiduously submitted record
for years but now I am completely cynical about the whole process.

The cycnicism arises from statements such as this:

"if we are happy to broadcast our observation, then we should also take the
trouble to provide a written description for others to determine if that is
what was seen! "

Small wonder people don't place submitting records at the top of their list
of things to do today!  To me this implies that there are those whose
remote but infinite wisdom supercedes the credibility of those who actually
made the observation of the bird.  Surely the philosohpy should be only to
determine how reliable the record is.  To compund matters one all to
frequently receives a letter informing one that the identity of the bird in
question was not established, i.e. that the observer is a hopless joke who
should find another pastime.

It would be very easy to write a perfect description and even supply photos
in order to have a record accepted by an appraisal process.  This does not
establish the record beyond doubt.  Also, in my experience one has to
reject records that are real because the report is inadequate and one has
to maintain standards.  Therefore, how does this whole time-consuming
process purport to establish any sort of reliable data base?  It simply
doesn't, it is really just a sub-discipline of the hobby of birdwatching
for those with a taste for it.

My feeling in this area is that all records should be accepted gracfully
such that the contributor feels that the efforts of submitting the record
have been of value AND encouraged to do so again.  The record itself is
then appended with a reliabilty score (determined by assesment committee)
in a data base for research purposes.  The reliability score would be open
to review subject to subsequent patterns of occurence etc.  The contibutor
does not then have to face rejection of a report which should have been
accepted in their view.  After this happens a few times most people don't
bother any more!!!!  The result is that the overall utility of the whole
process decreases enormously because most people don't bother to report
things any more.

Why have there been no submissions of Bulwer's Petrel reports from NSW
waters?  I think the answer is rather obvious.  In the absence of excellent
photographs there is no chance that these records would be accepted under
the current regime.  I actually have taken excellent photographs of
Bulwer's Petrel but not of the particular bird that I observed off
Wollongong.  Absolutely nobody believed that record at the time, with the
exception of Carl Loves who also saw the bird (Record reliability score =
ABSOLUTE ZERO- observer should be locked up).  Indeed, there were some
rather uncharitable comments made...... (I probably deserve them but not in
this specific case).  Subsequently, however, Bulwer's Petrel were reported
from both Sydney and Portland (individual Record Reliability Score 0.2,
review reliability of previous record) and, indeed, brief views of
additional individuals were made from Wollongong but these were not
reported on Birding-Aus because they were not 100% certain (review
reliability of series of records form different observers).  One or two
people actually came around to thinking that perhaps there was an unusual
passage of Bulwer's Petrel down the East Coast of Australia that spring!!!!
This will never be "officially recorded" if the system cannot be made to be
more flexible.  Until this happens I don't see the point of wasting both my
time and that of a committee of busy people!  Presumably the individuals
who made the observations from Sydney were of the same opinion.

Some species are only considered to be major rarities in NSW simply because
the system never accepts any records of them, e.g. Kerguelen Petrel!!!!!!

Beyond all this I don't really see that it matters how many times a
species, e.g. Blue Petrel, has been recorded in New South Wales.  New South
Wales is just a political concept after all and hardly relates to  Blue
Petrel biology.  It seems to me that every so often a few turn up and it is
a bit of fun to go out and see them so actually arguing over which ones are
"countable" is irrelevant. Did anyone seriously disbelieve that there are
numbers of Blue Petrels in NSW waters this year until one had the
misfortune to wash ashore?

Surely it is far more important to spend our time studying and documenting
birds which actually occur in NSW under normal circumstances rather than
indulging in the intellectual charade of trying to have reports of rare
birds accepted.  I would love to have the time to write up reports for
every "rare" bird sighting that I make but instead I fill out atlas sheets
or enter transect surveys into a data base or complete banding data
requirements for ABBBS.  I would have to submit over 30 NSW rarities
reports of seabirds since the end of June alone!!!!!

AND YES I probably could have written at least one in the time it took me
write this!

I don't mean to offend anyone, it is just my point view at the moment which
may swing back to enthusiastic Rare Bird Report submission in the future.
I feel that rarities are just a bit of fun amidst far more important
recording activities such as the Regent Honeyeater, Swift Parrot and Atlas


Dr.Peter Milburn
Biomolecular Resource Facility
The Australian National University
GPO Box 334 Canberra ACT 0200  AUSTRALIA
Phone No.  <61> <2> 6249 4326
Fax No.    <61> <2> 6249 4326
E-mail Address  

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