On several occasions over the past twenty years or so the Irish Rare Birds Committee (IRBC) has reviewed the official 'Rarity List' and removed species that it deemed no longer required formal ratification. At a meeting held in Dublin on 11th December 2004, the IRBC decided to radically review the Rarity List and introduce fundamental changes to its methods of record assessment. The primary objective in so doing is to facilitate a more complete official record of rare and scarce bird occurrences in Ireland, and in particular, minimise the unnecessary 'loss' of data. The changes have been made in recognition of the vastly improved means of verifying most rarity records nowadays than was possible in the past. Before describing the changes in detail, it is appropriate to outline the background to these decisions.
Since the publication of the first Irish Bird Report in 1953, the birdwatching scene has changed beyond all recognition. The major advances in bird identification made in the intervening period are reflected in vastly superior field guides and in numerous magazines, topical journals, dedicated internet websites and news groups. The quality of optics used in the field is continuously improving. Observers have become much more mobile, both at home and abroad, allowing them to gain experience of more unusual species and apply this confidently to their observations. All of these factors have led to improved observer competence with regard to many species formerly regarded as "difficult".
Another very significant development in recent years has been the advent of "digi-scoping" - the use of digital cameras and telescopes to obtain photographic images that would previously have been impossible. This is having dramatic and positive implications for the recording of rare birds as the majority of the rarities found in Ireland are now photographed. In many cases the photographs are available for public viewing via websites within hours of the observation. Publication of photographs on the internet on such a large scale has had the indirect and very positive effect of shifting the assessment of a majority of rarity records into a broader, more public domain. Usually, the identification of a rarity is confirmed on the basis of just one or two photographs. Controversial or tentative records are usually discussed openly by observers through email groups such as the Irish BirdNet (IBN). In practically all cases where photographs are published, a broad consensus is reached without the record ever having been submitted to a rarities committee.
At the same time, there has been a significant decline in the willingness of observers to submit written documentation of rarities. Especially in the case of photographed rarities, this reluctance is quite understandable. The net result, however, has been that the picture presented for many species in the annual Irish Bird Report has become increasingly incomplete. For example, in 2002 a record number of Rose-coloured Starlings Sturnus roseus was claimed. The various bird-news sources indicated that approximately 35 individuals were seen that summer, but only 12 were officially added to the records, as no documentation of any sort was made available to the IRBC for the other claims. As a result, with potentially over 60% of the records missing the significance of the invasion of that year is effectively lost. This case is perhaps one of the more dramatic examples of how much we are losing, but the shortfall in documentation of rarity claims has grown unacceptably high in recent years. In the past, attempts have been made to retrieve 'lost records' but the response to IRBC appeals (Irish Birds 5: 353 and 5: 477) has fallen well short of what was required.
This phenomenon is not unique to the Irish birding scene - throughout Europe and the USA national and state rarities committees have reported increased difficulty in motivating observers to submit documentation of rare birds and, as a consequence, significant occurrences have had to be excluded from the official record. This trend seems likely to continue, and quite possibly accelerate, if measures are not taken to counter it.
Revision of the Rarity List
For some time the IRBC has been considering ways in which it should adapt its way of working to one that will not be so adversely affected by the dramatic fall-off in the formal submission of records and, at the same time, can capitalise on the positive developments of the past few years. It has identified two primary means of achieving this objective:
- Placing greater reliance on available photographic evidence and
- Reducing the number of species which, even in the absence of photographs, require formal submission and assessment
In the case of many regularly occurring (and apparently seldom misidentified) rarities it is believed that the official record would be better served by removing the requirement that claims be formally documented and assessed by the IRBC. With this premise in mind, the case for retention (or removal) of every species and subspecies on the existing Rarity List was considered individually, with particular reference to the following criteria:
- Number of records and frequency of occurrence.
- Difficulty of identification.
- Propensity for records to be deemed unacceptable.
- Likelihood of photographic evidence being obtained.
- Ratio of undocumented claims to documented records over recent years.
All species and identifiable subspecies with 10 or less accepted records up to the end of 2004 are retained on the 2005 Revised Rarity List. With a few exceptions, no species that has occurred more than 20 times is retained on the list. Where a species has been recorded between 10 and 20 times the decision to retain or remove it has been based on an assessment of the latter four of the above-listed criteria. Species with a particularly high ratio of rejected claims, such as Goshawk Accipiter gentilis and Gyr Falcon Falco rusticolus are retained, at least for the time being. Where there is a particular risk of erroneous claims e.g. albinistic Common Gulls Larus canus or Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla being mistaken for Ivory Gulls Pagophila eburnea, the species is retained. A few further exceptions have been made where the total number of records exceeds the lower threshold, but few have been recorded in recent years. For example, Bearded Tit Panurus biarmicus is now extinct as an Irish breeding bird (and was last recorded back in 1990), while Scops Owl Otus scops has been recorded 14 times in total, but only four times in the past 20 years. Finally, Canada Goose Branta canadensisis retained on the 2005 Revised Rarity List pending a better understanding of the particular (sub)species involved in records of presumed vagrants.
The 2005 Revised Rarity List comprises species and subspecies for which claims must still be assessed and accepted by the IRBC before the records will qualify for publication in the Irish Bird Report (IBR). The Revised Rarity List will come into effect as of 1st January 2005. Where the validity of the claim is confirmed by photographic evidence (published in the popular birding press, posted on the internet or submitted directly to the IRBC), additional documentation, such as a written description will not be required (though of course any such material that is made available will be gratefully received, and will be filed with the record). In the absence of adequate photographic evidence, alternative substantiating material such as written notes, field-sketches or sound recordings will have to be assessed and accepted in the usual way for the record to qualify for inclusion in the IBR.
With regard to claims of species or subspecies on the Rarities List up to the end of December 2004, but now removed (see Appendix 2) observers will be encouraged to make available verifying photographic evidence on one or more of the popular birding websites, as has been happening routinely in recent years. In the absence of photographs or some other form of supporting information, records will not qualify for inclusion in the IBR where:
- The circumstances and/or source of the claim is unclear (e.g. vague second or third-hand reports). Anonymous claims will not form acceptable records.
- The identification is known to be controversial or
- The record falls well outside the known pattern of occurrence e.g. Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea in County Westmeath, Fea´s/Madeiran Soft-plumaged Petrel Pterodroma feae/madeira in January, 15 Surf Scoters Melanitta perspicillata off the Wexford coast.
Accreditation of records in the IBR
Up to now, accreditation of records in the IBR has been limited to species on the Rarity List. Obviously, there will continue to be accreditation for species/subspecies now listed in the 2005 Revised Rarity List. However, even though it potentially represents a troublesome additional burden to the editor of the IBR, the intention at this point is to retain accreditation for records of all species removed in this latest revision of the Rarity List (see Appendix 2), most of which, by any standards, are still quite rare. This change of policy is not intended simply to gratify observers who like to see their names associated with their records. The name(s) of the observer(s) is an integral part of the record and should, we feel, be recorded for posterity. In addition, the IRBC is conscious of how important the topic of accreditation of records has been to at least a minority of active observers in Ireland, as evidenced by the lengthy debates on the subject on the IBN and at IRBC open fora. In theory, a new, more flexible system will permit more appropriate accreditation than in the past, since there will no longer be an absolute requirement for the finder/identifier to provide documentation of some kind for their name to be published with the record in the IBR. As indicated above, records of these 'accreditation species' will not be published without the source of the claim being known to the committee. We know from past experience that information on precisely who is responsible for particular records is often omitted in day-to-day communication, and can be surprisingly difficult to establish afterwards. Consequently, if the proposed new system of accreditation is to succeed there will have to be more input from the wider birding community on this particular aspect of the record than there has been in the past.
The following system is proposed:
At regular intervals, the IRBC will post a provisional list of all claims of species listed in Appendices 1 & 2 on its web page with the location, first and last dates, age(s) of bird(s) where known, and any other information that is considered relevant. There will be a column showing the names of principal observers associated with the record, by which we mean the observer(s) primarily responsible for the finding/identifying of the bird. It is anticipated that word of mouth communication will permit the compilers of this list to enter the correct names in the majority of cases, but inevitably there will be some gaps and it is likely that where there is less clarity in the reporting, the provisional accreditation may occasionally be incorrect. Birders will be invited to inform the IRBC of any errors they notice in this list so that corrections can be made prior to definitive publication, in the IBR. If no one volunteers information on the identity of the principal observer(s), the record will be credited to whoever supplies photographic documentation. If no photographic or other documentation is available for public scrutiny, and no one takes responsibility for the claim, it will not qualify for publication in the IBR. We anticipate possibly having to make some minor adjustments to this system as we put it into practice. If it fails, proves too complicated or divisive, the IRBC/IBR editor will consider modifying it in ways that eliminate difficulties - ultimately, however, its success will depend on the active participation and constructive input of members of the birding community it endeavours to serve.Back to top
Appendix 1: 2005 Revised Rarity List
|End of Appendix 1
|Cygnus columbianus columbianus
|Tundra Bean Goose
|Anser fabalis rossicus
|Lesser White-fronted Goose
|American Black Duck
|Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis
|Pacific Golden Plover
|Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus
|Baltic Lesser Black-backed Gull
|Larus fuscus fuscus
|American Black Tern
|Chlidonias niger surinamensis
|Lesser Crested Tern
|Great Spotted Cuckoo
|'Dark-breasted' Barn Owl
|Tyto alba guttata
|Motacilla flava cinereocapilla
|Motacilla flava thunbergi
|Cinclus cinclus cinclus
|Rufous Bush Robin
|Saxicola torquatus maura
|Black Wheatear / White-crowned Black Wheatear
|Oenanthe leucura / Oenanthe leucopyga
|Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler
|Great Reed Warbler
|Eastern Olivacaeous Warbler
|Western Bonelli's Warbler
|Lesser Grey Shrike
|Great Grey Shrike
|Balearic Woodchat Shrike
|Lanius senator badius
|Carduelis flammea rostrata
|Carduelis flammea flammea
Appendix 2: Supplementary Accreditation Species
|End of Appendix 2
|Taiga Bean Goose
|Anser fabalis fabalis
|Russian White-fronted Goose
|Anser albifrons albifrons
|Branta bernicla nigricans
|Fea's Petrel / Zino's Petrel
|Pterodroma feae/ Pterodroma madeira
|Great White Egret
|Little Ringed Plover
|American Golden Plover
|American Herring Gull
|Larus glaucoides kumlieni
|White-winged Black Tern
|Great Spotted Woodpecker
|Scandinavian Rock Pipit
|Anthus petrosus littoralis
|Motacilla flava flava
|Siberian Chiffchaff *
|Phylloscopus collybita tristis
* In reality, all records of tristis Chiffchaff are extremely difficult to evaluate, and it may be advisable to regard even the more strongly supported claims as tentative until such time as absolutely reliable identification criteria are established.
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