ABRC Evaluation Process
Greg D. Jackson
The processing of bird records has undergone a metamorphosis in recent years in Alabama and across the continent. Formal systems of evaluation have become standard in most states, with various levels of record compilers and committees. The trend began in Europe, notably Great Britain, and then spread to North America. Gone are the days in most areas when a sighting of a rarity is accepted without details, based solely on an observer's experience.
The reason for this change centers on the need for bird records to stand the test of time. When taking specimens was routine, proof of the occurrence of a bird could be tangibly confirmed. With collecting out of favor in most places, much more reliance is placed on sight records; photographs help tremendously, but are available in only a minority of cases. Unless there is adequate documentation of the observed characters and how the bird was identified, future researchers may view the occurrence with skepticism. An observer's reputation is important in the present, but may not be known to bird students decades from now. Good science depends on accurate documentation, and we are striving to make Alabama's bird records as credible as possible.
The system we have developed involves two processing steps, by the Alabama compiler and the Alabama Bird Records Committee (ABRC). As state compiler, I receive most reports directly from the observers. Occasionally, sightings from several observers are assembled by an individual, such as a count compiler, and then submitted. I evaluate each report, looking first at the potential significance. Birds that are unusual, in terms of season and/or locality, require details of the sighting. The extent of necessary documentation increases with the degree of rarity and the difficulty of identification. On the Alabama field card, available through AOS, I mark several species which usually need only brief details; others are noted as requiring full documentation. This is a rough guide, and does not cover every situation; for example, Royal Tern is expected at the coast, but one in Birmingham would demand details.
For a rarity, I try to verify that the case has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Time limitations often restrict the ability to ask for further documentation; the usual scenario when more details are requested is when an unusual observation is submitted that lacks any documentation. If the details are acceptable, then significant records may be published in a sightings column; the most unusual of these reports may appear in the Central Southern Region column of Field Notes.
The final hurdle in the review system is the ABRC, a branch of AOS. All reports of certain rare species require evaluation by the ABRC before admission into the state records. A Review List is kept by the Committee, and whenever I receive a report of a bird on this list, it is passed to the ABRC Secretary. This occurs whatever my thoughts on the validity of the record. The Secretary then circulates the record through the Committee by mail, with no consultation allowed initially between ABRC members. Each member evaluates the report carefully, often spending considerable time researching the literature. Occasionally, outside consultation is made for a particularly unusual or difficult species.
If four members out of seven feel the report is unacceptable, then in most cases the matter is settled. When only one person votes against the record, then usually it is considered accepted. A count of two or three negative votes results in recirculation of the report, this time including the comments of each member. If there is still no resolution after two circulations, the matter is decided at the annual meeting of the Committee.
This procedure is used whoever submits the record. The focus of the evaluation is the report, not the observer. Non-acceptance of an observation should not be construed as a personal insult; many ABRC members have had their own records not accepted. Sightings are questioned if the submitted details are not convincing; usually key identification factors either were not seen or not described sufficiently. This may not be the fault of the observer, as birds don't always cooperate with our attempts to see certain features.
The only personal assessments made by the reviewers are the general level of experience and past reliability of the observer. Novice birders certainly find rare birds, and their reports are important. Some judgements may be difficult for a beginner, though, as comparative experience is required. If someone who has birded for only three months claims a rare Empidonax flycatcher, with detailed descriptions of relative body proportions and statements on "jizz," it may raise an eyebrow or two. Everyone begins sometime, and experienced hands know the difficulty in learning bird identification. Therefore, some thought as to the experience level of the person is appropriate in the evaluation. Fortunately, the reliability issue is infrequently addressed. Only the rare birder develops a poor reputation based on frequent outlandish claims that are shown to be wrong or cannot be substantiated.
The Committee takes a conservative slant in assessing reports. This means that sometimes valid sightings are rejected, because the documentation of the observation did not "prove" the case. The alternative, to allow questionable sightings into the state records, is not a good choice on scientific grounds. Even when not accepted, reports are stored in the permanent Alabama files, in case there is a reason for reevaluation in the future.
Members of AOS and other active birders supply Alabama with a wealth of bird records. Our system is an attempt at impartial evaluation to maximize credibility and scientific value. The cooperation and understanding of the birding community is appreciated by everyone involved in the process. [The above text is a modification of an article by the author in the AOS newsletter.]