A popular trend in bird alerts is the e-mail group. These are groups you can join for free and any member of the group can post messages that all other members of the group can access on the Internet. Aside from rare sightings, the postings are great for general discussions of bird related topics, including identification tips, local areas to bird, contacts and things of this nature. Here are seven sites to visit if you want to join one of the regional groups …
- Lower Mainland of BC
groups.yahoo.com/group/bcvanbirds (no “www”)
- Central and Eastern Fraser Valley Area of Southwest BC
- Vancouver Island
- Thompson/Okanagan Region of BC
- West Kootenay Region of BC
- East Kootenay Region of BC
- All of British Columbia
- All of British Columbia (Advanced Discussion Group)
- Washington State & BC (Tweeters)
Due to the fact that communicating via e-mail is gaining popularity, and it is relatively easy to establish an e-mail discussion group, there is likely to be a proliferation of regional discussion groups relating to birding.
What to do if you think you may have spotted an unusual bird.
A phenomenon I have sometimes noticed when someone takes up birding as a hobby, is that they start to develop heightened awareness of the natural world around them. They begin to see birds that appear to be rare or unusual, but, in fact, were here all the time. They just never noticed them before. Imagine someone who has hitherto only been familiar with the commoner urban and suburban species, such as the crow, the starling, the pigeon and the sparrow. Now imagine this person taking a stroll through the woods in early May, and, on a branch only a few feet away, out into the open pops a male Western Tanager in fresh breeding plumage. The effect is what I call the visual sledgehammer. A neon bolt straight to the retina. Although the plumage tends to lose a lot of its lustre later in the season, when the birds first arrive in the spring the plumage is so dazzling, the bird looks like it could well be from Colombia, South America and not British Columbia. But, no, it is a British Columbia native, and a common one at that (during the summer that is). It just sticks to the dense forest canopies, so it’s very easy to miss, especially if you’re a non-birder.
Sometimes it may be hard for a novice birder to gauge what is considered unusual for a particular area. This is where publications such as the Vancouver Natural History Society’s “Seasonal Status of Birds” comes in very handy. This booklet, available through the VNHS or Wild Birds Unlimited store, uses bar graphs to indicate what you can expect to see, what time of year you can expect to see it, and the relative abundance of the species when it is present.
There is a very good website entitled “North American Bird Information Web Site” (www.birdinfo.com) that, under its “British Columbia Bird Notes” section, chronicles bird sightings in the province. Providing species accounts and distribution maps for sightings of note, this is a great place to familiarize yourself with the status of rare, unusual or uncommon species in B.C. Another similar site at birdnotes.net (no “www”) covers sightings and distribution for Oregon, Washington State, Idaho and British Columbia.
If you think you have spotted a rare species, the first thing to do of course is to make as sure as you can possibly be of the identification using your field guide. It’s a fact of life that the less experienced the birder, the greater the potential for mis-identification. I think back to my early birding days in Ontario, when a couple of friends drove 1,000 km to see a reported Clark’s Nutcracker (extremely rare in Ontario at the time) that turned out to be, upon sighting, a Northern Mockingbird (not so rare in Ontario at the time). That was 1,000 km one way. They still had to come back.
Usually, the next step would be to get another birder to verify the sighting. If you’re not sure who to call, check with the local naturalist group, or Wild Birds Unlimited store (there are several locations around the Lower Mainland). As you can imagine, these stores do field a lot of queries from the general public about wild birds, and the staff usually have some contacts with local birders. It is also possible to leave a message with the Vancouver Bird Alert Line after the recorded message.
Whether or not the sighting is verified by another birder, it’s a good idea to make field notes. Proper field notes should include details such as size, shape, colouration, distinguishing marks and habits of the bird; description of any vocalization; habitat in which the bird was seen; date, time, distance and duration of sighting; weather; precise location; type of optics used; name and address of others present who saw the bird; perhaps a sketch ‘ things like this. If you’ve seen something you can’t identify, notes such as these will be an immense help later on when you’re checking through your field guides at home or asking another birder what the species might be. The other big benefit to composing field notes is that it is one of the very best ways to hone your powers of observation. The importance of developing the ability to note obvious, subtle and even minute details, quickly and precisely in the field, cannot be overstated if you want to become a good birder.
If the species does indeed turn out to be particularly rare or unusual for the area, these type of notes are essential. Rare sightings form part of the overall body of scientific data of British Columbia’s avifauna, and, as you might expect, something that is going to form part of a scientific record, must be verified scientifically, before it can become part of that record. This is why each province has an official “Bird Records Committee”. This committee is typically comprised of the most senior and respected ornithologists in the province, and it’s their task to meet a few times a year to consider the veracity of any extremely unusual sightings. The committee requires a report to be submitted, and, in many cases, the aforementioned field notes form the basis of the report.
The Vancouver Natural History Society has a question and answer format for their standard report form, and the detail and extent of the questions might surprise you. Think of the report as documentary evidence, and just like in a court case, that evidence must remove any reasonable doubt as to the identity of the species in order for the sighting to be “accepted” into the scientific record. The strongest evidence that can accompany a report, would be a dead bird in the hand or photographs, or several observers (corroboration). In many cases the identity of rare species is not in question, but the origin of the bird is. If there is any possibility that a particularly unusual bird may have arrived at the location of the sighting by unnatural means, the committee is likely to reject it. Sometimes, exotic species escape from captivity or a wild bird may have crossed a large body of water resting aboard a ship.
Questions of origination are often the most problematic for committee members, but they have to be addressed thoroughly when stuff like a Brown Shrike shows up in Halifax or a Blue Rock Thrush pops up in the Fraser Canyon. Origination uncertainty caused the British Columbia Bird Records Committee, in a move that surprised many birders, to reject one of the more spectacular Canadian sightings … the Xantus’s Hummingbird that lingered at Gibsons during the winter of 1997.
Some birders may lament the fact that with the rising popularity of this and other outdoor pursuits, many of the once secluded woodland trails and dykes may now, on a Sunday afternoon, resemble a freeway, but there is a big benefit. A lot more people out there watching means a lot more stuff is being seen. Some of the rarest sightings have been by relative newcomers to the sport. The Xantus’s Hummingbird was first reported by a couple, who were familiar with backyard birds, but couldn’t identify the strange hummingbird that showed up at their window box one day in December. British Columbia’s third ever Costa’s Hummingbird was reported by a couple who didn’t own a pair of binoculars or a field guide, and had watched the thing for a month before calling the local Wild Birds Unlimited shop to ask about the hummingbird that looked different from all others coming to their feeder.
Canada’s first Acorn Woodpecker was initially sighted and reported by a couple that had only started birding a few months before. It was a novice birder who stunned the Ontario birding community by stumbling across the country’s first ever Variegated Flycatcher on Toronto Island. This species is normally found in northern South America! Recently a homeowner in Maple Ridge picked up a small dead bird underneath her picture window. She called in her birding friend. That bird turned out to be the second official record in Canada of a Siberian Accentor.
These types of occurrences are very rare, but it just goes to show ‘ you never know. It never hurts to get something checked out.