Saturday, April 5, 2014

An Introduction -- "Under Review: The Oregon Bird Records Committee Online Forum"

By Dave Irons -- OBRC Member

The Oregon Bird Records Committee (OBRC) was formed in 1978. Thirty-six years later our work is still poorly understood, so we are taking a pro-active approach to putting a face on the committee and making our function and processes more transparent. We've decided on this format because of the inherent advantages it provides. Your feedback and questions are essential if we are to maximize our service to the Oregon birding community. Yes, you read that right. We want to better serve Oregon birders.

2014 Oregon Bird Records Committee: Front Row -- Rosalind "Rozi" Finnegan; Middle Row (kneeling) -- Harry Nehls (Secretary), Shawneen Finnegan, Jay Withgott; Back Row (standing) -- Tim Shelmerdine, Tom Crabtree, Tim Janzen, Craig Tumer, Hendrik Herlyn, Jeff Gilligan, Dave Irons, Owen Schmidt. (Photo by Owen Schmidt)

What we do:

Our primary mission is to collect, review, and maintain the records of rare birds found in Oregon. We keep and manage the “Official Checklist of Oregon Birds.” We also keep and manage a “Review List,” which is comprised of those species that are rare in Oregon and those for which we want to collect and archive documentation (photos, video, sound recordings, written descriptions, or specimen records). As a general rule, once 30 accepted records are collected for a rare species, it will be removed from the review list. We follow the taxonomy and nomenclature of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) 1998 Checklist and its subsequent supplements (updated annually). We have an annual meeting every spring, at which we review and update our rules of operation, vote on undecided records that have already gone through two complete rounds of voting, and review digital documentation that is not easily circulated. We publish an annual report in Oregon Birds that lists all of the records that have been processed since the prior year’s annual report.

What we don’t do:

We are not “list police.” While we do create the scorecard (the Official Checklist of Oregon Birds), we have no control, nor do we want control over what an individual birder may or may not put on it. What one counts on a personal life list is ultimately a matter of individual choice. Our “not accept” vote indicates that we find the documentation at hand unconvincing and should not be taken as referendum on the observer’s birding skills or honesty. In reality, there are many times when committee members are confident that the reported species was seen, but find the report to be insufficiently documented.

This forum:

Going forward, this forum will be used to address common questions and concerns about our function and process. We plan to offer feature pieces that focus on individual review species. These will include a review and discussion of the previously accepted records, the patterns (geographic and seasonal) that they may reveal, and identification challenges that they may present. We plan to offer historical perspectives on species that were once on the Review List, but have been removed. We may also discuss species that have been extirpated and/or those that were introduced, but failed to establish or maintain self-sustaining populations in Oregon (i.e. Northern Bobwhite). All of the members and alternates to the committee will be encouraged to contribute to this forum and respond with comments of their own when we hear from you via comments. If there is a topic that you would like to see us address, just ask. We look forward to hearing from you. 


  1. I have been wondering why Indigo Bunting is still on the review list, and I was about to ask that question; but I see it is now off the list. So ya beat me to it :) Great work gang!

  2. Bob, The rate of removing species from the Review List has really ramped up over the past decade or so. Prior to about the late 1990s, when the Internet first became a tool that Oregon birders began to use, the pace of rare bird discoveries in Oregon had remained somewhat modest. Since then, the pool of birding talent in Oregon has broadened and deepened and the number of rare bird discoveries has mushroomed. When you look at many species and compare the number of records pre-2000 and the number since, the difference can be stark. As an example, there were just six Summer Tanager records prior to 2000. There have been 13 since. Or how about Rusty Blackbird? Six records prior to 2000 and 11 since, including four in the last five months. Observer effort makes a huge impact and so does prior experience. Once a particular species has been seen by lots of birders, those folks who might not have previously recognized or looked for a species like Rusty Blackbird are suddenly armed with both a search image and the knowledge of where and when to look for another one. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of birders who have moved to Oregon after starting birding elsewhere and those who travel outside the state to go birding. All this combined with better field guides, better optics, and all sorts of online resources to learn from, and it is no surprise that birds that once seemed to be mega rare in Oregon are now found almost every year.

  3. 30 records is a reasonable screening standard. However, one of the difficulties that authors of bird publications (whether in paper form or electronic form) face is how to evaluate the flow of records of former OBRC species for purposes of making a statement about the true status in the state.

    A classic example is Blackpoll, which has not been on the review list for a long time, but which has significant i.d. challenges and requires care in documentation (the OBRC has accepted some of mine and rejected others). Is there any practical way for an evaluator to get a grip on the actual status of a species in that situation, other than trawling back issues of OB to see which ones are documented by photos?

    Sign me,

    Crusty in Eugene

  4. Shawneen FinneganApril 8, 2014 at 11:33 PM

    Alan, you pose a good question. My thought is that 30 records establishes a baseline of date ranges, frequency, habitats/locations, and patterns, if there are any. After that what is the purpose of continuing to review records? Threshold varies widely between states. Some only review a small number while California reviews the first 100. Given the size of California and the number of rarities found, the workload of a CBRC member is massive compared to most other states, including Oregon.

    As for difficult-to-identify species, one could continue to review them, but is that the job of the records committee ad infinitum? How long are observers willing to submit documentation of such species if they know they are regular?

    So to answer your question mining data from Oregon Birds, North America Birds, and now eBird would be your best sources of information.

  5. This is one of the many vexing philosophical questions that BRCs deal with. By definition, we are charged with establishing the official list of birds that have occurred in Oregon and reviewing and archiving records of birds that are rare in Oregon. In theory, once a bird has been sufficiently documented and added to the state list, one might ask why it is necessary to continue to review records in order to re-prove what we already know.

    How 'rare' is a bird that has been documented 30+ times in the state, especially since we can know that birders only detect a fraction (probably a very modest fraction) of all the individuals of 'rare' species that pass through the state? California birders find dozens upon dozens of Blackpoll Warblers every Fall. A high percentage of these birds surely pass through or over Oregon as they make their way from boreal breeding grounds far to the north of Oregon to California to the south of us. If identification concerns are reason enough to keep a species on the Review List, we should still be reviewing reports of Yellow-billed Loon, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Least Flycatcher.

    In reality, almost every species presents an identification challenge to some faction of the birding community. Our process is not designed to deal with or solve this issue. There is a time-honored tradition of review and filtration that has fallen to local field notes editors, statewide field notes editors, plus the sub-Regional and Regional editors for North American Birds (formerly Audubon Field Notes and American Birds). Part of the job for the folks who did/do this work is to be familiar with their local reporting base. With the growing popularity of birding, these editors are no longer directly acquainted with everyone reporting sightings from their local area. The traditional network that many of us grew up with is now being augmented by eBird, which can automatically identify sightings that are unusual and put them in the queue of a local reviewer. It is up to the local reviewer to connect with the observer and determine the accuracy of such reports. The OBRC and other statewide BRCs are at the top of the flow chart for rare bird reports. Our jurisdiction is limited to the rarest of the rare birds...species that represent a first state record or one of very few state records.

  6. Hi:

    I do not see a way to send the committee a question, so I am using this blog entry.

    I was trying to figure out why the 1981 report of White-tailed Ptarmagin was not reviewed because it was "no longer on the review list". It was assumed to be an introduced bird with no population established yet? The only ebird record is from 1967 after a population was introduced. Seems to me the report from 81 should reviewed since it could have been a wayward bird, and if not then declined because it was intorduced but not able to establish a population. I can see how that would be different from a wayward bird the drifted south, which would be accepted. And if Northern Bobwhite is on the official state list, why not White-tailed Ptarmagin? Early explorers noted ptarmagin in the Mt Hood area. And I see condor is on the official state list, so just trying to figure things out. And you know what I will be doing above timberline on Mt Hood this summer :)!

  7. Great question Bob. I have no explanation as to why the committee chose not to review the 1981 report. It seems reasonable to assume that White-tailed Ptarmigan once occurred in Oregon naturally, which would put it in the class with California Condor as an extirpated naturally occurring species. Clearly, Northern Bobwhite only occurred in Oregon because it was introduced. Northern Bobwhite is no long "on the state list" or considered countable in Oregon, because there is no evidence to suggest that it maintains a self-sustaining population within the state.