No. 183BATON ROUGE, LANovember 1998

LOS News, Page 3

Table of Contents

A Brief History of the Official Louisiana List
Part 2 -- D. Muth
Given this need for some definitive answer to the question of whether or not a rare bird really occurred, who makes the decision? The simple answer is: we are all free to make any decision that we find suitable. Really, though, that is not a very satisfactory answer. Most of us would prefer to have an independent, impartial evaluation made, and a decision rendered. For North America as a whole, the "official" scientific decisions about what birds have or have not occurred are made by a committee of the American Ornithologists Union (AOU), the most venerable of our ornithological societies, which first compiled an official check-list in 1886. For the sport, the American Birding Association (ABA) has its own checklist committee, which focuses more narrowly on "countable birds" in North America north of Mexico, plus Hawaii. At one time these committees functioned independently, leading to the potential for annoying confusion. However, in recent years, the ABA has ceded to the AOU all decisions about nomenclature, species limits, and final inclusion on the list, while the AOU has come to depend upon the ABA for gathering and evaluating evidence on new occurrences, especially of sight records and photographic records by amateurs.
How about the individual states and their lists? Historically, the decision was made by whomever expended the time and effort to compile a listing. In 1758 Le Page du Pratz published the first attempt at a comprehensive list of Louisiana birds in his Histoire de la Louisiane. It was not until 1900 that another comprehensive list appeared. George E. Beyer, a Professor at Tulane, published The Avifauna of Louisiana, with an Annotated List of the Birds of the State, listing 315 species. This was followed by updated lists published in the Auk by Beyer and others, and, in 1918, The Birds of Louisiana by Stanley Clisby Arthur, which was updated in 1931, listing 334 species. But, in a sense, the first truly comprehensive and authoritative list for Louisiana was compiled by Harry C. Oberholser, a biologist working for the federal government, and published as The Bird Life of Louisiana in 1938, listing 348 species.
After Oberholser left Louisiana to eventually undertake a similar, and far more daunting, project in Texas, the mantle of authority for "keeping the list" fell on the shoulders of a young zoologist at LSU, George H. Lowery, Jr. Lowery came of age in the same period that birding was coming of age, along with the advent of the field guide, and the growing reliance of ornithologists on sight records by skilled amateurs. Keeping the list had previously been simple: anything new or unusual was shot, and the specimen examined and conserved. The importance of specimen collection remained paramount, especially for first state records, but so much data on ranges and migration dates was coming in from binocular-toting amateurs that scientific ornithology was forced to find a way to assimilate it.
Among other things, Lowery encouraged the formation of the Louisiana Ornithological Society (LOS) in 1947 to help cement the ties between professional and amateur. He also supported, with his time, his staff's time, and museum space for a card catalogue, the amateur reporting system that had evolved via the National Audubon Society's publication of seasonal, regional sightings. These have been named, successively, Bird Lore, Audubon Field Notes, American Birds, National Audubon Society Field Notes, and, finally, just plain Field Notes (published today by the American Birding Association). Lowery published his first comprehensive and annotated listing of 377 species in 1955. Louisiana Birds was an attempt at an authoritative, scientific listing, in a popular format. It was revised in 1960 and in 1974.
Lowery was able to retain control of the Louisiana list by default, as much as by the respect he commanded statewide. Furthermore, the amateur community was small enough that he was able to stay in touch with and evaluate the skills of virtually all of the state's serious amateur birders. In the end, though, decisions about records came down to Lowery's personal feelings about the reliability of individual observers, the difficulty of making any particular field call, and the probability of a given occurrence. He seems to have been a careful and conservative list keeper, but not particularly rigid, and by 1974, the "official" state list had expanded from Oberholser's 348 to 411 species.
Table of Contents

Bird Records Committees
Part 3 -- D. Muth
After Lowery's death in 1978, the responsibility and authority for maintaining the list might have gone to any of a number of individuals. Robert Newman, Lowery's student, colleague, and friend, was one natural choice, especially as he was the senior regional editor for American Birds, and one of the state's most active and experienced field observers. Another likely candidate was Van Remsen, Lowery's young successor at LSU and at the Museum of Natural Science. Other professional ornithologists might have taken on the role, or the task might have fallen to an amateur, as it had in other states. Among the likely candidates were those amateurs who had become authorities and record keepers in their own right for their respective regions, like Horace Jeter in Shreveport or Dan Purrington in New Orleans.
Instead, however, all of the potential successors to Lowery chose to get together and, under the auspices of the LOS, formed the Louisiana Bird Records Committee (LBRC) in 1979. The model for this committee was a similar one that had been formed in California. It was chartered by the LOS, but remains independent and self-perpetuating. It functions under a carefully drawn up set of by-laws, which govern what records will be reviewed, how the review will be done, the standards necessary for a decision, and the requirements for record keeping and promulgation of the committee's decisions. There are six members serving staggered three-year terms, and a voting secretary. Leaving the decision to a committee has advantages and disadvantages. Committees tend to be cumbersome and slow acting. Any single member who fails to act expeditiously (or act at all) can adversely affect the output of the whole committee, but even when it is functioning properly, its decisions can take months or years. Committee debate can become, at times, factional, acrimonious, and contentious. On the other hand, any single individual, no matter how competent and judicious, is subject to his or her own prejudices, dislikes, loyalties, and blind spots. Committees tend to overcome the potential for individual bias to cause error.
I never knew Lowery (though as an enthusiastic novice I corresponded with him), but by all accounts he was extremely accomplished and absolutely fair in his judgments. However, it is difficult for anyone to publicly question one's friends, and some of Lowery's decisions seem to me very likely to have been influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by his unwillingness to embarrass his friends by a public display of doubt. A committee can, to some extent, smooth over the effects of those individual influences, either by the weight of a vote by the non-friends, or by the relative anonymity of a group decision. Committees are not immune to loyalties, dislikes and prejudices, and certainly several members of a committee can share loyalty or antipathy to any individual, but this tends to be less of a problem in group dynamics.
At any rate, the responsibility for the "official list," for keeping the scientific record, as it were, was assumed by the Louisiana Bird Records Committee. The committee has no authority: it can't enforce its decisions. A future scientific researcher (or a lister) can follow its decisions or reject them, but it is likely that if the committee is careful and diligent, researchers will more often than not accept its decisions. As it happens, for the purposes of the game of birding, as regulated by the ABA, the committee is the final arbiter of the Louisiana List. This is an unsolicited authority conferred on state committees by the ABA, and completely incidental to its true purposes. It is one that leads to much of the grumbling against the committee by listers, unhappy about committee decisions that have the effect of rejecting potentially "countable" birds. But making life easier for listers is simply not one of the reasons the committee came into existence.
The purpose of a bird records committee, a "rare" bird committee, is to weigh the evidence and come to some collective judgment about the accuracy of a given identification. Think of the committee as a jury, reviewing the testimony of a witness or witnesses, and evaluating the evidence presented. In a courtroom, the jury doesn't have any way of being certain about the witnesses and evidence before it: it makes the best judgment it can, given the evidence at hand. In a civil trial, the standard of proof is a "preponderance of evidence," in other words, more likely than not. In a criminal trial, the standard is "beyond a reasonable doubt." There are no set rules about the level of evidence needed for individual LBRC members to render a decision, but in my experience, it is safe to say that the standard used was "beyond a reasonable doubt" by most members, and "beyond doubt" where first state records were concerned.
There are myths and prejudices about the committee that continuously surface and resurface. One is that it is (or considers itself to be) a panel of experts on bird identification. It is not, nor is it intended to be, anything of the kind. The best way to view this is to continue the courtroom analogy: the committee is a jury of peers. The committee is sometimes stumped: a description, or a photo, or even a specimen is beyond its skills, and, just as in a courtroom, it consults an outside expert. From time to time, "experts" have served on the committee, but they have been and are the exception, not the rule. In the final analysis, though, the committee is both judge and jury, and the expert opinion simply becomes part of the evidentiary record.
The qualities sought in committee members are: enthusiasm for field ornithology; open-mindedness; honesty; intellectual curiosity; a demonstration of interest in questions of identification, distribution, and vagrancy; a history of participation in the process (submitting records for evaluation, reporting sightings to Field Notes); and good humor. In addition, the committee has generally sought fairly broad geographic representation from the various regions of the state.
Another misconception about the committee, often manifested in people's comments about the process, is that the members are elitist, out to shoot down the reports of any but a select few. I suspect that it is the process of second-guessing, of questioning the observer, that leads to this understandable reaction to the committee. But the committee (and, more broadly, any "official" recorder of records, like the regional editors for Field Notes or the compilers of a Christmas Bird Count) would accomplish nothing useful if they did not remain skeptical and did not insist upon high standards of proof. Rare birds are just that: rare. By definition, they are unlikely to be encountered by birders.
My experience as a member, and the record of the committee's decisions over the years, point to a reality far different from the conception that the committee functions as a collection of elitist snobs. Well-documented reports, whether prepared by known experts, casual non-birders, rank amateurs, or unknowns from out-of-state, invoke in the members an enthusiastic and appreciative response. Members tend to be connoisseurs of fine records, and enjoy the vicarious thrill of other birders' discoveries. Just as importantly, the committee tends to bend over backwards making allowances for novices and those who show willingness to have their record evaluated but who lack the experience or knowledge to present a convincing case.
Conversely, known experts and birders with reputations for skill and accomplishment are given no break. I can think of almost no member of the committee who served any length of time over the last 18 years who has not had records rejected, often while seated on the committee. It is not personal. In most cases, when the committee rejects a record, your honor is not being questioned, nor is your competence. What is being weighed is the quality of the evidence being presented, the likelihood of occurrence, and whether or not the record will stand the test of continuous future re-evaluation. In short, it isn't about you; it is about the record.
The record has to stand alone, and it has to stand the test of time. It is destined to become part of the scientific evidence that will be used to understand the distribution and behavior of the species of bird involved. Consequently, records of extremely rare or difficult to identify rarities will face extreme skepticism. Skepticism is a requisite component of scientific review. Science advances by rigorously and continuously re-testing theories and re-analyzing "facts." Unexamined claims amount to assumptions, which are anathema to good science, and a rare bird report made by you or me is just that: an assumption requiring verification.
Since the committee came into existence, 39 species of bird have been added to the list, either through acceptance of new records, or taxonomic decisions of the AOU, bringing the total to 450 species. The growth of the list by over 100 species since Oberholser's specimen-based list sixty years ago, is, testament to the profound effect that birding has had on ornithology.
Table of Contents

Mastering the Process, or "How Do I Get These People to Stop Picking on Me?"
Part 4 -- D. Muth
Think about that Cassin's Kingbird: thousands of days afield have been spent by some extremely competent amateur and professional field observers in Louisiana, and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, without any Cassin's Kingbird having been found in winter. The closest is a lone individual that wintered way down in south Florida at Loxahatchee NWR in 1988-89. Otherwise, you have to go to the Arizona-Mexican border to find the nearest wintering population. Thus, as a simple matter of statistical probability, the odds against you having seen one are great.
Does this mean that you did not see a Cassin's Kingbird? Absolutely not. Does this mean that only a recognized member of the "birding elite" could have found one? Absolutely not. The luck of the draw is the luck of the draw, and even the most exalted members of the elite started out as rank, untested novices. You may be destined for future stardom, or your discovery may be just a flash in the pan. Anyone of us can be the one to find a first state record, or a second, or a third, or the first wintering vagrant for the region. But the record has to be evaluated on its merits, because, believe it or not, people make mistakes! And yellow-bellied kingbirds are birds about which mistakes are easily and often made.
Yet, Cassin's Kingbird is on just about everyone's list of birds that should almost certainly be found more often in Louisiana. It may even turn out to be regular-- a simple case of our learning a new search image: learning the when and where to find it. So, the experts' skepticism is tempered with the knowledge that you may really have seen a Cassin's Kingbird. Because another thing to know about committee members, and many of the other more accomplished birders around: they are obsessed with thinking about birds, about potential vagrants, about patterns of occurrence, and with trying to guess what will turn up next, and where and when.
Take me as a case in point. I served on the committee for five terms. When I began my tenure I was fairly young (for the committee) and enthusiastic, but an expert on nothing. After fifteen years, I ended my tenure older, but still enthusiastic, and an expert on nothing. In fact, when people start talking about feather tracts and tertial edgings my eyes glaze over. And yet, despite my lack of expertise, I have found and proven to the committee's satisfaction a fair number of significant records, including a number of first, second, third, fourth or fifth state records. The secret is not in developing identification skills to the point of being an expert (though that certainly doesn't hurt). The secret comes down to: luck; time afield; and, most importantly, learning and anticipating patterns of vagrancy by staying up on the literature of identification and occurrence and by communicating with other birders. The importance of this last cannot be overemphasized. The way to find rare birds is to be obsessed with thinking about the possibilities, to go afield each day thinking about what you might find, and to avoid habitual patterns and assumptions.
Enthusiasm and knowledge, however, can lead to a lot of error, as much error as is committed by the uninformed and disinterested. The affliction is commonly known as "rare-bird-itis," and just about all avid birders occasionally suffer bouts of it. Because, even with the best preparation, the best equipment, and the purest of intentions, mistaken identifications are inevitable. If it were easy, it wouldn't be much of a sport. That is why a committee is needed; if observers, even the most skilled observers, didn't routinely make mistakes, there would be no need for an independent evaluation of records.
Last March, I reported to other birders in this state, via the Internet, that I had found and photographed a Red-throated Loon in old Pass Fourchon, down in Lafourche Parish. There are only about five records for the state, with no specimen, and, in fact, no definitively photographed individual. Red-throated Loon is a bird that ought to show up more often in Louisiana. It winters rarely but regularly just to the east of us, and occurs as a vagrant during migration all over the place. I've been looking for a Red-throated Loon for years, and there it was, at last, showing all the field marks: the red eye in a plain, unmarked face; the streaked nape; the gray, white-spotted back; and yes, I could just see it, that upturned lower mandible.
Frantically, I maneuvered to document the sighting. While the bird behaved like a typical loon, refusing to cooperate, I fumbled with tripods, scope, camera, and camcorder, trying to get decent shots. The wind was blowing, the water was choppy, the bird was diving and staying submerged for long periods, resurfacing far away. I spent a time on a wild loon chase, photographing the wrong bird as I slogged through the marsh. But I kept snapping pictures and filming, determined to document the record. I did everything but actually really look at the bird. I came home that evening and spread the word.
As I consulted my references the following day, one thing began to nag at me: the bill. All the photos of Red-throated Loon showed a loon with, well, a dainty bill, a petite bill. I did not remember the bill on my bird being dainty; fairly small and slender compared to a lot of Common Loons, but not dainty. Still, all the other marks were right on. Not to worry -- check the video. But the video was useless: too much glare. The photos will do the trick. But when I got the slides back, the bird was a speck, out of focus, and most shots were back-lit fuzzy silhouettes. Only two slides showed any promise. So I had them blown up and printed. Another week went by, and then: "Uh-oh! Where did that honking bill come from?" You guessed it: try as I might, I could not turn the bird in the print into a Red-throated Loon. Instead, it was a Common Loon that was both very worn and molting into breeding plumage, producing just about all of the plumage characteristics of a Red-throated Loon. Rare-bird-itis had struck again.
I tell this tale not just to embarrass myself, but as an object lesson about the pitfalls of field identification. It is an axiom, taught in Psychology 101, that the human mind is amazingly subject to visual deception, and amazingly proficient at "filling in the blanks" even to the point of painting pictures of what is not there. Eyewitnesses are demonstrably and notoriously unreliable. One of the things that we birders have to do is train ourselves to look and look again, and great birders are those who can strip themselves of preconception and field guide images, and absorb the image of the real bird in front of them. But even the best sometimes make serious mistakes. Even museum drawers routinely turn up misidentified specimens.
I'll leave this discussion about bird records with a few observations about birder behavior that I think will allow you to improve your skills, and to improve your relationship to those nasty judges of your bird records:
Spend as much time as you can afield. Pick a spot you really enjoy, that is close to home, and adopt it. Make it your own, make yourself the repository of everything there is to know about its birdlife, about what breeds there, what winters there, what migrates through, and when it migrates. Conversely, visit other places, familiarize yourself in Louisiana with the hot spots that everyone talks about, but also get off the beaten path. Join your local bird club. Join the LOS. Take notes; find a copy of LOS News # 180, and read about how to take field notes and prepare a convincing report to others. Get a camera, take pictures. Take more pictures!
Subscribe to Field Notes and read it assiduously. I really don't think its possible for someone to be a really good birder without reading Field Notes and keeping up with the ebb and flow of continent-wide bird sightings and movements. Subscribe to Birding and other publications, and keep up with the latest identification articles. Tell your friends and family to give you bird identification books for Christmas and your birthday. Get a copy of Louisiana Birds, and study the text and the occurrence charts. Learn what is rare, what is expected, and when it is expected.
Bird with others, especially those more experienced and skilled than you. Show others what you have found. There is nothing like the corroboration of multiple observers, and no faster way to build credibility and friends, people grateful to you for showing them rare birds. There is no surer way to damage one's credibility than to be that infuriating birder who constantly reports rare birds, but never soon enough for anyone else to see them, and who never seems to find them while in the company of other birders. There is also no surer way to damage your credibility than by reporting rare birds, or out of season birds, in a manner so casual as to indicate that you do not understand the significance of the sighting.
Finally, doubt yourself. Leave your ego at home when you go birding. Accept your mistakes with good humor, and be generous about the mistakes of others. Recognize that when someone questions you, they are not attacking you: they really want to see that bird you reported, and they know full well that you, or I, or that ornithologist from LSU, might be wrong. Get it right, and prove to others that you are right, and do it often enough, and I can assure you that the questions will become more infrequent and more respectful. In short, maybe they won't ask you if you can tell a kingbird from a phoebe. (Maybe someday you'll even be asked to serve on the committee!) But, trust me, no matter how good you get, and how sterling your reputation, you'll still be questioned.
Table of Contents

1998-1999 Christmas Bird Counts

Crowley: Friday, December 18
Contact: Van Remsen;
Bill Fontenot;

Sabine NWR: Saturday, December 19
Contact: Marty Guidry; 225.755.1915;

Catahoula: Saturday, December 19
Contact: Kermit C. Cummings; 318.640.0312;

Shreveport: Saturday, December 19
Contact: Charles Lyon;

Johnson Bayou: Sunday, December 20
Contact: Steve Cardiff;

Creole: Monday, December 21
Contact: Dave Patton; 318.232.8410;
Robby Bacon; 318.478.4437;

Reserve: Saturday, December 26
Contact: Ronald Stein; 504.536.3348
Melvin Weber; 504.536.2517; mweber@COMMUNIQUE.NET

New Orleans: Sunday, December 27
Contact: Glenn Ousset; 504.271.3319;
David Muth; 504.283.4437;

Lacassine NWR-Thornwell: Tuesday, December 29
Contact: Steve Cardiff; 504.334.1795;

Pine Prairie: Wednesday, December 30
Contact: Marty Floyd;

Lake Ophelia: Saturday, January 2
Contact: Marty Floyd; 318.473.7690(w); 318.346.7586(h); mfloyd@LA.NRCS.USDA.GOV

BCBCBC: Saturday, January 2
Contact: Paul Dickson; Paul@MORRISDICKSON.COM

St. Tammany: Saturday, January 2
Contact: Chris Brantley; 504.674.1691;

Lafayette: Saturday, January 2
Contact: Bill Fontenot;
Judith O'Neale; 318.981.1011;

Baton Rouge: Sunday, January 3
Contact: Van Remsen;
Joe Kleiman

Thibodaux: Sunday, January 3
Contact: Rick Bello; 504.526.6493;

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posted 20November1998