BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at the F Word
Psst....hey, pal....over here. Down the alley behind the dumpster. Yeah, you! I heard all about that rare bird you wrote up and how they – uh, whaddaya call 'em – MOURC turned you down. Yeah, the Mean Old Ugly Rejections Committee. I got it right here in a plain brown wrapper, just what you're looking for – the answer sheet for that form! Uh, whaddaya call it – an RQD? Geez, how did they come up with that? Request For Documentation should be RFD. Hey, fuhgettaboutit, your worries are over, pal. With these answers you'll know exactly what to say when they ask for details on your next – Geez, I hear sirens! Gotta go....
So, that's who I ran into the other day. He always calls himself Niko, but I doubt that's his real name. (I think he got it from some character in one of those dumb Steven Seagal movies he likes.) Oddly enough, the contents inside that plain brown wrapper are quite helpful and entirely legal. Despite what Niko apparently thinks (he has this shadowy outlaw image he likes to project), it's hardly cheating or unethical to have the Request for Documentation answer key.
In case you're unfamiliar with it, you can find this form on the MOU website (), and it makes little sense to apply the RQD abbreviation (rather than RFD) to "Request For Documentation". (What's the form requesting: Quaint Documentation....Quirky Details....a Quasi-Description? Is it a Request for Quesadillas for Dinner?) But no matter what you call it, this form is simply intended to guide observers through the process of providing evidence to support their exceptional sightings.
Keep in mind that the form itself is optional and you're free to document rarities in your own way, but it does conveniently include the questions you should ask yourself about what you saw. (And now, thanks to Niko, you have the answers.) While your description of the bird itself is always more important than anything else, some observers forget there are other considerations to ponder in the identification process. The ambient conditions and other circumstances involved with your observation can significantly affect what you think you're seeing. In other words, bird ID is a lot more than just looking at field marks.
It's also important to remember that these are not just issues to consider when documenting something after the fact – they can be involved on some level with every bird while you're looking at it, no matter how easily identified or common it may be. So, take a second look at the RFD form, follow along down the page with the questions it raises, and you'll see it's sort of a fill-in-the-blanks exam. Here's Niko's answer key:
• Reason Observation is Unusual
Near the top of the page it simply asks where and when you saw the bird, and the line in between is for noting what makes your bird unusual. These entries present no real problems here on the form, but they do represent information that some birders don't pay enough attention to – namely, that a common species can become a rarity when appearing at a different time or place. While most birders could accurately identify something like a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher during May in Minneapolis, I suspect that some of them wouldn't think it strange to report one in March or up in Grand Marais. Nor, then, would they see any reason to document this.
So, as Niko would suggest, by all means go ahead and become familiar with the ID of gnatcatchers and other birds, but it's often more useful to learn when these species are out of range or out of season, and when they should be documented. (Not sure if it's the right place or time for your bird? Simply visit the MOU website: and . Also see the Hindsight article .
The section on description – which may include size and shape, songs and call notes, and behavior – is obviously important. And here it's not simply a matter of filling in the blanks: this is more of an essay question. Unless the bird is described as completely as possible, nothing else really matters.
Consider as well that it matters little if you can't write or draw well. A simple field sketch is fine and typically more informative than a written description. Artistic or writing talent isn’t necessary, as long as your sketch or description is of the actual bird you saw in the field, not what it looks like in the book.
The bird's size is an essential part of any observation, field notes, or documentation, but it's surprising how often this is not considered. If possible, it's always best to determine size in direct comparison with something else, like another nearby bird of known identity. In some cases, rarities have been accurately measured and documented by later putting a ruler up to the branch or rock or whatever the bird was sitting on.
Niko would also advise that simply looking at the bird's overall length or height may not be enough. It's often more useful to note smaller features like bill size, wingspan, a folded wing's primary projection, tail length, etc.
Related to size, consider as well the bird's shape overall, or perhaps just something like its bill shape – often an essential but overlooked part of the ID process. Also include in the description any songs or call notes you hear, since there are lots of species more easily told by sound than sight. (See below for a good way to document vocalizations, which are typically difficult to portray in words.)
Finally, keep in mind that bird behavior can often be a useful feature in an ID or RFD, although I'd have to guess it's unlikely that any record would be suspect solely because it lacked correct behavior information. (Still, it may be worth rereading the Hindsight installment on bird behavior (.)
• Similar Species
It's important to realize it may not be enough to just say you saw field marks A and B and C, and so it must have been Species X. In many cases that may be fine, but what if there are other Species Y and Z that also have A, B, and C? Accordingly, then, without noting additional features D and F, you haven't identified anything for sure. Just as those who review RFDs always do, be sure to ask yourself what else it might have been.
One could reasonably argue that this section is the most critical part of the entire form, since here it can amount to nothing less than a Pass-Fail Final Exam. Unless those other similar species are considered and can be eliminated, your ID may fail to be convincing.
Bird identification is no different than any other human skill. Some people are more experienced than others; some can do things well with little effort, while others can't get the hang of it no matter how long or hard they try. Consider that some carpenters or doctors or bridge partners or fishermen (or anyone else you care to name) are better than others. It then follows that the same holds true for birders.
I, for one, will readily admit that my experience and knowledge related to hummingbirds is limited compared to an expert like Steve Howell or Sheri Williamson who have written field guides on the subject. So, if one of them reported, say, a female Costa's seen briefly at a Minnesota feeder, I'd believe it. But if I tried to report the same thing, I wouldn't expect anyone to consider my sighting credible.
If known, therefore, the experience and ability of the observer is taken into account when a rarity is reported. And keep in mind that one's skill level with any similar species is important as well. For example, if I report a female Common Eider here after having seen many on Hudson Bay over the years, my report means less if I've had no experience with female King Eiders or failed to consider them as an ID contender.
• Other Observers
The more the merrier, as the saying goes, and so much the better if others see and document the rarity, especially if they happen to be more experienced. It's perhaps surprising but important to realize, though, that the presence of multiple observers does not necessarily guarantee an accurate ID. It's human nature to simply see what we expect or want to see.
There have been several sightings over the years of apparent rarities seen by many that never really were. Birders on subsequent days would then see it and repeat the same mistake, thinking the original observer's ID must have been accurate. Or they would think they're finding the same species elsewhere, mistakenly assuming there would be more of them around. Or multiple observers of a bird can end up with a collective and simultaneous misidentification if a few start off on the wrong ID track and the others present listen to them rather than look at the bird.
• Aware the Record Was Unusual
Niko considers the first line in Section IV a trick question, so be careful. Some might assume the best response is: "No, I didn't know it was unusual – if I did, you might think I was trying to impress you by claiming to find a rarity." But that scenario is not nearly as likely as this: birders not knowing that something would be unusual are less likely to carefully study and identify it. Nor would they have any reason to take notes and document it.
The "correct" answer (i.e., the response that lends credence to the report) is to check that the observer did know at the time it was unusual. There’s always a better chance of a cautious and thorough ID, along with some notes and documentation, when the observer is aware of the importance of the find.
• Field Notes
Obviously, physical evidence will always be an asset when supporting any sighting, whether it's in the form of photos, sound recordings, field notes, or sketches. Remember that the best notes and sketches are made during the observation or shortly thereafter, not days or weeks later. And don't forget to include them with your RFD: sometimes an observer will indicate that one of these or a photo exists, but nothing is ever submitted.
It's easy to submit notes and sketches, by the way – simply take digital photos of them and upload the images on the form in the same way as a bird photo. It's also easier than you think to document bird vocalizations, and you don't need an expensive and unwieldy microphone and recorder. Even inexpensive digital cameras take sound movies, and, while your movie may not show much, the camera's microphone can pick up recognizable songs and call notes.
• Field Guides
Niko may be getting paranoid. Now he's seeing other trick questions in Section IV where it asks if and when you used a field guide. While it may seem that using a lot of references would enhance ID accuracy, the opposite actually tends to be true. Instead, checking the "Field guides neither used or needed" line indicates experience: you knew what it was before looking it up.
Of course, most birders rely on field guides to identify birds, but some spend too much time looking in the book and not enough studying the bird or making notes and sketches. There’s a natural tendency for the guides to unduly influence what was really seen. Especially after the passage of time, even if it’s only a minute or two, you tend to remember the field guide illustration more than the bird itself. Saying that “it looked just like the picture in the book” will often raise the eyebrows of the reviewer rather than the credibility of the sighting.
• Light Conditions
• Length of Observation
There's nothing tricky about the questions or answers in the RFD's fifth and final section, which merely indicate how well the bird was seen.
Starting with light conditions, note that time of day is seldom relevant; more useful is an indication of where the bird was relative to you and the sun. One thing to keep in mind is that sunshine at dawn or dusk could make your bird's plumage appear unnaturally bright or more yellow, or orange, or red than it really is. Conceivably, this could lead to something like an Eastern Phoebe being mistaken for a Say's, or perhaps a Least Flycatcher mistaken for a Yellow-bellied.
As for the duration of your observation, it's easy to overestimate how long you watch a bird – usually it's just several seconds or a minute or two, rather than several minutes. More importantly and related to this, it's difficult to adequately view a bird while you're driving. You're not focused on it, you're not using binoculars, and it can't be viewed for more than second or two if you're also watching the road. Many times I thought I saw something at highway speeds that turned out to look quite different after I turned around and stopped for a second and longer look.
While birders typically overestimate how long they observe a bird, at the same time they tend to underestimate how close it is to them. I've read many RFDs which claimed a feeder bird was a mere five feet or so away, or a raptor was perched only 20 feet away, when they likely were two or three times or more farther off.
Related to distance but not considered as often as it should be, the angle of the bird relative to you can be important. Unless a bird is perpendicular to your position, it will look shorter overall than it actually is, some parts of its plumage will appear darker than normal (e.g., mantle color on gulls), and the visibility of field marks can be obscured.
The quality of optics is hardly ever an issue, as long as the power of your binoculars and scope can handle the distance involved. So, 2x opera glasses won't do in most situations, nor will not using any optics – unless somehow that bird really is only 5 to 20 feet away.
Habitat considerations don't really fit in this section, and it's not often they affect the credibility of a reported rarity. Still, most species are partial or restricted to certain habitats, so they are worth noting. (For more on this, see .)
Finally, there's something missing from the form that's worth considering for extra credit. When faced with a potential rarity, always ask yourself if the species is especially challenging to identify, if it's exceptionally unusual in Minnesota, or if the bird has a history or pattern of being misidentified. If the answer is yes to any of these, be sure to use special care in its identification and documentation. Birds of this calibre will deserve extra attention, more so than something relatively easy to identify and document like a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher or male Painted Bunting. (Note, however, even these have been reported and had their documentations turned down.)
* * *
So, the next time you see Niko, be sure to tell him thanks for the answer key, that it helps not just with documentation forms but also with how to look at birds in the first place, and that he's right about RQD being the wrong initials. But don't let on it was OK all along to have the answers – again, he has this image to uphold.
You might suggest, though, that he change his taste in movies. After all, Steven Seagal movies really are dumb and have nothing to do with seagulls. But Niko must somehow think he'll learn something about gull ID from them and enhance his plain-brown-wrapper-behind-the-dumpster business.