1. Why submit a record to BARC?
This is a question that is often asked and the answer is fairly simple; records of rarities are of real interest to the ornithological community. They have done a lot to improve understanding of distribution limits, migration routes and field identification of many species of bird. Unfortunately, not every claim of a rare bird is what it appears to be, and this can make a mess of the literature. The first thing needed by an author preparing a checklist, field guides or handbook to the birds of Australia is an authoritative list of what occurs here. Do they accept some of the more extraordinary claims that have been made, such as those of Mosque Swallows, Bristle-thighed Curlews, Elegant Imperial Pigeon? Some of these records are good (such as the afore-mentioned Elegant Imperial Pigeon) and have been documented well. At the other end of the scale, some out-and-out misidentifications have occurred. The Birds Australia Rarities Committee (BARC) votes on what records are accurate and adequately documented, and which ones are not. In addition, we act as an archive, a permanent archive not only for accepted records but for all cases put before the committee.
Beyond its ornithological importance, there is a less worthy reason to document a record properly. Quite simply, it can be remarkably satisfying to not only find a rarity, but to document it well enough to clinch its identification and to convince the ornithological community that you have done so. In general this requires a certain level of skill - but attaining this level of skill is no great hardship. All you have to do is read a fair bit of literature and do a lot of bird-watching
2. How does BARC operate?
BARC consists of 8 experienced birders with a particular interest in field identification. We are not omnipotent, and cannot automatically look at a record and say: "that bird was misidentified" etc. What we can do is provide an informed (we hope) opinion on a record: we consider whether there is any chance that a misidentification occurred, and whether the record meets basic standards of documentation. More often than not, it does! About 20% of the records submitted to BARC have not been accepted, this doesn't mean that we consider them all misidentifications or hoaxes. On the contrary, in most instances we find that records of non-acceptance are caused by insufficient evidence or poor documentation rather than an incorrect identification. This is particularly so with some of the more difficult species to identify such as waders and seabirds. Especially if the bird was observed for a short period of time by a single observer. This can and does happen to all of us at some stage or other. For a more detailed account of how BARC goes about the business of adjudication take a look at the committee rules.
3. How should I go about the task of taking notes?
There are many opinions on the best way of going about this but perhaps the first steps are to (1) know your topography, (2) do your homework and (3) practice recording skills, There is much already in print on this subject and we have referenced a few of these in the references and bibliography page (link not available). In summary one of the best Australian sources for topographical information is HANZAB Vol 1.
The chances that you will take note of the crucial identification features when confronted by a rarity will be greatly increased if you have done some background reading. This way you will know what the important ID characters are in various hard-to-identify species, and be aware of the alternative identifications that will need to be considered. It is important to be aware that the standard Australian Field Guides are in many cases not the last word on identification. In some groups of birds (especially waders and seabirds), Australian Field guides have not been particularly thorough in researching what is known of Field ID - and even when they have all the information available, the authors face a mighty struggle in trying to squeeze in all of the intricacies of e.g. stint identification into the limited space available.
Some birders can take astonishingly detailed notes on a bird on the basis of quite brief views. They are not making it up; nor are they remarkably talented. It is simply a matter of practice. You won't get very much practice if you only take detailed notes when you find a rarity, for the simple reason that rarities are rare! Taking descriptions of common birds is a very worthwhile training exercise, and need not be regarded as a training exercise alone; many birders go into this kind of thing with the intention of learning how to age and sex the birds they see regularly in the field. There is a great deal that isn't known about such aspects, so there is always the possibility of learning stuff new to ornithological science. For some birders this is great fun, and the satisfaction of finding and clinching a 'plumage tick' rivals the experience of nailing a rarity. It is also worthwhile taking descriptions of rarities you see which were found by other people. Again, this isn't only worthwhile as a training exercise. There is no guarantee that the finder of a rarity is going to write it up - and even if they are, it is possible that they will miss aspects that you pick up. Quite often a submission of a rarity includes notes taken by many observers - in fact, the more descriptions taken, the more likely the record is to get through.
4. What should I do when I have found a rarity?
Assuming you do encounter a rarity which you want the rest of the world to share (or envy) there are three simple steps to follow: (a) Take a detailed description; (b) Get other people to see it; (c) Obtain documentation such as photos or tape recordings, all of which will help enormously. The sequence in which you do these things will depend or what and where and when the rarity is sighted. Taking a detailed description is the most important of these three steps; it is often not possible to get photos of a particular rarity or to show it to other people, but with detailed notes you should be able to work out what you've seen and document it adequately.
When confronted by a major rarity, the ideal is to see and describe every bit of the bird. In some cases this may make the description consume several pages of notebook; this level of detail may seem unnecessary, but it isn't! For example, BARC has been unable to accept several submissions which contained superb descriptions of an ostensibly easily identified bird, the Ringed Plover. If you are using one of the standard Field guides, you may think that you've only got one real ID contender to worry about: Little Ringed Plover, which should differ obviously in many characters, e.g. no pale base to the bill, no wing-bar, etc. However, there is another bird to worry about; it isn't covered in the Australian field guides, but Semipalmated Plover has a real chance of turning up in our region one day (some birders argue that it already has!) and is not easy to distinguish from Ringed. If you don't hear the diagnostic call, or note the presence/absence of a small web between the outer and middle toes, or note where the lower margin of the black lores meets the bill, the chances are you will not be able to clinch identification.
It isn't easy to predict everything you might need from your field-notes when it comes for writing a record up, and that is the main reason for being as detailed as possible. Bear in mind that as well as identifying your bird to species level, the ornithological world will also be keen to know if it can be aged, sexed and identified to subspecies level - in fact, in some cases species identification cannot be clinched unless the age of the bird is also known. In addition, BARC needs to consider not only alternative species when considering the identification of a record, but the possibility that it had some kind of plumage abnormality (e.g. partial leucism) or was some kind of hybrid. This may seem very picky, as such weird things are undoubtedly rare - but so are rarities! In cases of challenging identifications, it greatly reduces the chances of error if the observer looks for and records subtle inter-specific differences as well as the well-known ones.
In a perfect world, all field notes would be taken while the bird was in front of you, so you could cross-reference from note-book to scope whenever necessary. Sometimes this is possible (especially when watching waders); often it is not (a frequent problem for those watching seabirds). Everyone's approach to this problem varies; some take notes very quickly indeed while the bird is in front of them; others like to absorb every detail and write it down once the bird has disappeared, arguing that while they have the opportunity they should spend every second looking at the bird in question rather than spending half of their time looking at a notebook. Do whatever works best for you. The key thing is do get notes down as soon as possible, and in particular to get them down before you have consulted any literature that might have some kind of subconscious effect on your memories of what you actually saw.
Size and Structure
Extreme care needs to be taken judging size and structure and this is best done by making a direct comparison with a similar species when ever possible. Clearly there will be significant problems if you try to compare a Kentish Plover with a stilt. But if it is next to another plover then size and structure judgments will be invaluable.
Extremely valuable. However, some bird observers much more adept at sketching birds than others. It is something one can improve on with practice, but those naturally artistic types do have a rather unfair advantage. However, even the non-talented can annotate their sketches - there is nothing wrong with doing a sketch that doesn't work out perfectly, provided you note any shortcomings (e.g. 'legs looked thinner than depicted here...').
A field of its own with a large literature, see HANZAB. Potential ID importance - most importantly when a bird is moulting from one plumage to another, and you need to work out which bits = (e.g.) retained juvenile plumage, which bits = breeding plumage. Also affects assessment of primary projection. Often moult contrasts in coverts are helpful in telling young from adult birds.
5. What is expected in the way of a Submission?
There is no strict format for submissions to BARC. We do provide a form (elsewhere on this web-site) which some birders like to use as it gives a logical structure to the report. It is not essential though; other birders prefer other formats. One common labour-saving device is to submit to us a draft of the paper eventually planned for publication; we have accepted many records of rarities that were subsequently published in very similar form in e.g. Australian Bird Watcher. However you go about preparing a BARC submission, it should have the following elements.
(a) Information on the circumstances of the sighting: Where, when, and how well was the bird seen? Distance from bird to observer, duration of views, and light conditions (including notes on glassware used) help the reader understand how well the bird was seen.
(b) A full description of the bird seen. This is usually much the longest section of a successful rarity report. There is no limit on length; some birders have sufficient notes to provide several pages of description (and these are very welcome if available). However, considerably less than a half-page of notes can be sufficient in some cases.
(c) Additional descriptive material. If you can submit photos, or tape-recordings, or field-sketches, this will help a great deal. It is always shrewd to make sure that you have a copy of any submitted photo, just in case a record gets lost in the post (it is possible in theory, but happily it hasn't happened to us yet). If you want to speed up the voting process, it really helps to submit multiple copies of photos (8 would be ideal) but we recognise that this is a process that many birders can't afford. Finally, a photocopy of the original field notes is extremely helpful.
(d) A discussion of the criteria used to identify the rarity.
6. Where do I send the completed submission?
Send your submission including any photographs, notes from other observers or any other relevant material to the BARC Secretary,
60 Leicester Street
Carlton, Victoria 3053
T: 03 9347 0757
F: 03 9347 9323
E: Andrew Silcocks or Tony Palliser
Website address: http://www.www.bianchun.tw
7. How long will it take to process?
This will depend upon the complexity and nature of the submission and. Generally a result should become available within about 3 months. Although, some extreme cases that involve multiple rounds of voting and or expert opinion may take considerably longer.