ArticlesTactical Description Writing

…or “How to Help the Records Committee”

Amateur naturalists in the British Isles have a long history of diligent record-keeping. Birders (or birdwatchers if you prefer) have always played their part, willingly contributing to their county or regional bird report. These records constitute a huge and dynamic database, often going back several generations. Periodically they may result in the publication of a county avifauna, summarising and discussing the past, current (and perhaps future) status of the county’s birdlife. This vast store of records charts the successes, failures, expansions, contractions, migrations and vagrancy of a host of species, and can be a valuable resource for not just the amateur, but also the professional scientist, in the fields of ecology, conservation and the like.

The point of the above preamble is this: Without YOUR records the picture is always LESS complete.

Please, please send your Devon bird records to the County Bird Recorder.

The vast majority of records will involve the more regular breeders, migrants and winterers, but this article is particularly concerned with the rarer Devon birds – those for which a description is required to validate the record.

Let’s make no bones about it – writing a description can be a chore. So, if your carefully written-up record is not accepted (the diplomatic term is ‘not proven’) there may be a strong temptation to never, ever, under any circumstances, submit another! Sometimes, of course, the record may be ‘not proven’ because the description suggests it was actually a much commoner species than you thought it was – this is called ‘mis-identification’, and we all do it, sometimes spectacularly. Other times though, the record may be ‘not proven’ because the description was merely inadequate or unconvincing, despite the fact that the bird actually WAS the rare species you thought it was! This is (a) a crying shame, and (b) very discouraging for you, the honest and sincere observer of a genuinely rare bird, and may unfortunately lead to the stroppy response referred to earlier in the paragraph. This is to be avoided at all costs, and in fact CAN be avoided. To this end, here are some tips on how to prepare a description which has the best possible chance of convincing the Devon Birds Records Committee:

What NOT to Do

“I’ve seen millions of them in France, so I know what they look like and this WAS one.”

This is not a description – it is bluster. Not proven.

Three pages of weather, scenery and narrative before even a mention of the actual bird concerned, followed by two lines of what it looked like. Please adjust your priorities!

Please don’t say “it showed all the diagnostic features typical of the species” without explaining what you think those diagnostic features are, and (more importantly) describing what you actually saw!

There are a few other ways to fill a sheet of paper without, in fact, describing the bird, but I expect the point is made. So, on to the constructive stuff:

How to Write a Description

Start by asking yourself a simple question: if I was assessing this description, what information would I like to have in order to eliminate the possibility of error? Because that is essentially what the Records Committee will need.

Obviously vital is a careful description of what the bird looked like (which we’ll come back to in a moment), but also important are such things as:

  • What species were nearby for comparison (of size, shape, flight, colour, etc, etc)? How nearby?
  • Do you have previous experience of the species? How often? How recently? In the same plumage?
  • How far away was the bird? How long was it in view? How did the weather affect the sighting, e.g., was the sun coming from behind you, illuminating the bird in glorious Technicolor, or was it dull and cloudy?

There are other aspects of the observation that add to the picture, and many of these are mentioned on the Devon Rarity Form.

Now, to the description itself. Very occasionally, a couple of lines will do it:

“Huge, at least as big as a Heron as it soared overhead. White body and neck, black and white wings. Neck and legs extended. Massive, pointy red/orange bill like carrot – legs similar colour”.

Even without additional detail, your White Stork description is convincing enough for acceptance.

White Stork © Mark Darlaston
White Stork – a two-line description might just
do the trick in this case! © Mark Darlaston

But what about that Goshawk? Or Cory’s Shearwater? Common Redpoll? Sabine’s Gull? Honey Buzzard? Even White-fronted Goose? All these, and many other Devon rarities, have one thing in common: they are easily confused with other species. Experienced birders will know this is true, and have probably made most of the classic errors themselves over the years. The Records Committee know this too, which brings us to a key principle:

Demonstrate that you know what the confusion species are, and why your bird wasn’t one of them! For example, why was your Cory’s Shearwater not a Fulmar, an immature gull or a young Gannet?

Every single species has a combination of diagnostic features of plumage, shape, behaviour etc, which distinguish it from its confusion species. To maximise the chance of your record being added to posterity you need to have as much of this information as possible in the description. The trickier and more subtle the species, the more detail you need. For example, a Goshawk description needs to exclude Sparrowhawk. “It was ENORMOUS” may seem convincing enough, but is actually very subjective, and not at all persuasive without a lot more detail!

Goshawk © Mark Darlaston
Goshawk – lots more lines than two will be needed,
and very detailed ones at that! © Mark Darlaston

Annotated sketches are very much welcomed by Records Committees, and even if your attempts at drawing birds look like a child’s jumbo jet or kangaroo they can still be of immense value, and are always worthwhile.

One last tip: the best descriptions never read like a field guide. Rather, they may well have little omissions, often admitted to by the observer (“I wish I had noted the leg colour, but forgot to look”) – and let’s face it, you may well have insufficient time to note every single useful feature anyway. They will also frequently include small details that only personal observation can give, and that may be peculiar to the individual bird.

A couple of facts of life. For one or two species it really is not easy to write a convincing description, and lots of detail will be essential for acceptance. Also, occasionally the Records Committee will make a wrong decision, and perfectly good records will wind up in the bin, while duff ones wind up in the bird report. Pragmatism helps – between us all (and our forebears) we have collectively amassed a huge wealth of 99.9% reliable data, and on balance it seems to me well worth continuing to contribute to it, whatever the ultimate fate of my own painstaking descriptions! I hope you agree.

Important (and less tongue-in-cheek) detail regarding record submission, the list of species for which a description is required, and other invaluable information can be found by clicking on Birdwatching and checking out the links under the heading Recording.

Gavin Haig
12th August 2009