I raise my glass and toast state records committees. For the non birding readers of the blog, bird record committees are the groups in each state that vote on whether or not to accept bird sightings. This is an important (and often times thankless job) with scientific value and meaning. It can be important information if a species is changing its range. They have a tough job and I respect what they do. And sometimes I feel a need to defend them.
Yesterday I got a postcard in the mail from a name I didn't recognize that read:
"How could you tell the three birds in Desha Co., AR were not Tundra Swans? There is a large difference in size, but when the birds are alone ID is difficult. Could you please send me a photo? Trumpeter Swans are increasing their numbers in AR."
After the first perusal I was racking my brain over what this was about. Who would be giving me the business about swans? Have I raised an issue about swans recently in the blog? We're knee deep in the tundra swan migration along the Mississippi in southern Minnesota right now, but I'm not leading any trips this year. What could this be about? Then I remembered: eBird!
I've never been too much of a lister, but I've been trying in the last year and have made a valiant effort (for me) with eBird. I will say one thing about eBird. When the people are double checking to see if you really meant to say that you saw a buff-bellied hummingbird in Arizona contact you, they are very gracious and patient. They do a good job of double checking your sightings without being overbearing.
Recently, someone started double checking the Arkansas sightings and has been asking me about lists from a year ago when I was on the ivory-bill search. I don't keep detailed notes and what notes I did have were turned in to Cornell at the end of the trip. Apparently we saw some birds in the White River Area that just aren't usually seen in that part of Arkansas. One species being some trumpeter swans. While on the search one day I heard some trumpters, looked up and three flew over me looking like they were about to land. I followed them to a nearby lake and took some photos just playing around (since there wasn't a certain woodpecker there at the moment). The person at eBird told me to turn in a report to the records committee, that it was a good sighting for the area. So, I emailed it in, fully understanding that a person they have never heard of is telling them that a year ago three really unusual birds were seen and that I should expect an email back asking to confirm the identification. That leads to the postcard at the beginning of the entry.
It just cracked me up that the postcard didn't start out with "Hi, how are you, I'm with the records committee for Arkansas and I just want to confirm a few things about the swans." No, this postcard went right for the jugular--"How could you tell the three birds in Desha Co. AR were not Tundra Swans." It's hard to read that without hearing the Grinch's voice in your head. I honestly try to read every correspondence I get with a friendly, if not goofy voices a la Snarf from the Thundercats (which makes nasty comments from anonymous fun to read). But this one I wasn't prepared for, mostly because I thought the correspondence would be done via email, not snail mail.
I do have a few not so great photos (see above) and I sent one to them, but for me there is no mistaking a trumpeter's call for a tundra. We get both in Minnesota, as I said earlier we're getting 10,000 tundra swans staging to migrate to Chesapeake Bay along the southern Mississippi right now and trumpeter's are starting to gather to spend the winter in Monticello, MN. See below:
I think people on the committees sometimes get so caught up in making sure the answer is right, they go right for the point of their correspondence without the usual pleasantries that make a reader feel more comfortable. This can lead to people feeling hurt that their sightings are being questioned and for some even refusing to turn in sightings, which could be important to know about. I remember the first time I turned in a record to the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union Records Committee (or MOURC) I got a preprinted postcard that read:
Dear, ________________ Your sighting of a ________________ in ____________________ County in Minnesota was voted as acceptable/unacceptable by the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union Records Committee.
Non Birding Bill put it on the refridgerator. The sighting was accepted, but the idea of someone receiving a postcard labeled "unacceptable" just cracked me up. It reads a little harsh, almost "Not only do we not believe what you say you saw, but it's just plain unacceptable!!!!! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha." They're not trying to make friends, they're just trying to get to the bottom of unusual bird sightings.
So, if you see a member of your state bird record committee, give them a hug or a pat on the back. They've got the tough job of not only figuring out the tough bird identification problems but dealing with people when they turn in sightings. It's not an easy job, but someone has to do it.