The COG Rarities Panel was formed in 1984, initially to appraise unusual records for the Atlas of ACT birds. It was based on a similar panel set up to vet records for western New South Wales for the first RAOU Atlas (1977-81). The need to vet records is not new, and is used by all responsible ornithological bodies to check unusual and extralimital records before they can be officially accepted into regional checklists, manuals and atlases. It is a procedure that provides standards for the reliability of such works and for regional ornithological knowledge.
The function of the Panel today is to
- provide informed and impartial appraisal of the records presented to it, and
- maintain a list of ‘unusual’ species, the sightings of which will not be published as accepted by COG unless they receive Panel endorsement. The Panel does not “reject” records; it accepts or does not accept them. Failure to accept a record merely indicates that, on the evidence available to the Panel, the identity of the bird has not been demonstrated convincingly.
In reaching its decision on records, the Panel considers the details provided against its collective knowledge of the species, as much in behaviour and habitat preferences as plumage traits. Observers may be asked to clarify aspects of their reports. If Panel members lack collective expertise in a species, reports are circulated outside for opinion. Reports of birds unusual to Australia as a whole are referred to the Birds Australia Records Appraisal Committee.
The value of the Panel’s work can be seen not only in the enhancement of the quality of published COG records but also in the monitoring of the status of the birds of the ACT and surrounding areas over time.
Composition of the Rarities Panel (2014)
Barbara Allan [Secretary]
Panel members are appointed by the COG Committee. The qualifications for members of the Panel are a banding licence and/or professional qualifications and experience in a relevant field and/or extensive and proven track record of observing and providing records to COG of birds in the Canberra region. The Panel also uses the services of two local consultants, Mark Clayton and Penny Olsen.
Which birds require an ‘unusual’ bird report?
The Panel has revised the list of ‘unusual’ birds in the ACT (as at May 2013). Hard copies of the list will also be available at COG meetings or by mail from the COG secretary. As a very general indication, if the species does not appear on the COG datasheet, the completion of an ‘unusual’ bird report form is advisable. Please note that these species are not necessarily unusual in the broader Australian context – but they are unusual in our region. If you submit a COG datasheet which lists an unusual bird, the records checker will remind you of the need to complete an unusual bird report form.
The Panel always stands ready to assist birders identify what they have seen. Please feel free to submit a report or a photo about any bird species which may have puzzled you, for informal feedback.
What about the problem of multiple reports of the same bird?
Thanks to the excellent alerting service now provided by the COG electronic chat line, the same unusual bird may be seen by many observers. The Rarities Panel suggests that the original finder of the bird should be the one to submit the report or, if that person is reluctant to do so, that he or she ensures that a subsequent observer does so. Any subsequent records of the same species in approximately the same location at roughly the same time will be published by COG as if they had been endorsed. This presupposes that the record submitted is adequate in detail. The Panel secretary will pursue the matter with other known observers until a report is forthcoming.
How to submit an unusual bird report
Unusual bird report forms are available in hard copy at COG meetings, or can be mailed to you by the Rarities Panel secretary or COG secretary. They are also available electronically for downloading from the COG website, at www.canberrabirds.org.au. Once completed, the form may be emailed to email@example.com, mailed to COG Rarities Panel, PO Box 301, Civic Square, ACT 2608, or placed in the red records box at COG meetings. If you have any questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone the Panel secretary.
Please complete forms for records as fully as possible, paying particular attention to the description of the bird and its behaviour. If you were unable to see certain features, say so. For example, if a striated breast is a key characteristic of the species and you only saw the bird from the rear, it is important for the Panel to know this.
What happens to your report?
Electronically submitted forms are acknowledged on receipt. If the form appears to lack relevant detail, the Panel secretary may contact you for further information. The Panel meets approximately quarterly to consider unusual bird reports. Reports will be accepted (endorsed), not accepted, or further information will be sought, either from the observer or an expert. Endorsed records are published in the next available issue of Canberra Bird Notes, and in the relevant Annual Bird Report, with commentary if warranted. Observers are informed of the outcome of the Panel’s views either by phone or email.
In reaching its decision about a record, the Panel considers the following matters:
- does the record appear to be a faithful account of what the observer saw and did not see? [by all means, consult a field guide, but only after noting the details of what you saw first]
- has the observer had previous experience with the species?
- has the species been observed in that location before? in the ACT before? and if so, recently?
- are the details of the sighting collectively consistent with the species claimed?
The Panel is obviously influenced by matters such as accompanying good-quality photographs (though it acknowledges the possibility of digital tinkering).