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December 2011


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Laura Erickson <[log in to unmask]>
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Laura Erickson <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 28 Dec 2011 11:09:23 -0700
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I am not and have never served on any state records committee, but for
a few years I was the spring seasonal reports editor for the Wisconsin
Society for Ornithology, and as such had to make decisions about
sightings that weren't significant enough to warrant review by the
state records committee. Over the years, especially when I was out
birding all the time before getting too darned busy writing about
birds to have time to watch them, I've had a handful of rare bird
sightings accepted in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and I've had a handful
of rare bird sightings rejected in both states. I'm also sort of a
photographer, and have spent thousands of hours scrutinizing my own
photos and helping people to identify birds in their photos in my
capacity answering some email inquiries to for a national
ornithological institution.

I can think of a few reasonable explanations for why a knowledgeable
committee member might reject a sighting, even one supported by a
photo. (As Carl noted, consider the debate with regard to the
Glaucous-winged Gull.)  In the case of an exceptional hawk, even when
identification is unquestionable, there is always the possibility that
a bird escaped from a falconer rather than being a true vagrant.

Birders naturally want all our reports to be accepted, both for our
sense of validation as competent birders and because our lists depend
on it., and MOURC serves as our referee or umpire. But MOURC's more
important role is scientific. As the Glaucous-winged Gull discussion
shows, there can be differences of opinion even among experts
regarding the identification of a bird shown clearly in photos, and
there can also be differences of opinion as to the likelihood of the
origin of vagrants/escapees.

In the case Steve mentioned of the cowbirds, I think the committee
acted in a perfectly reasonable way, rejecting a sighting that seemed
fundamentally improbable until further information came to light. I
can remember when a MOURC member recommended taking Anhingas off the
state list, including his own record of one, after discovering some
interesting soaring behaviors in cormorants that hadn't been taken
into account in the reports.

Theoretically, in a perfect world, open discussion of a single
dissenting committee member's vote could be enlightening, but seems
far more likely to open up these hard working individuals to personal
attack. I know that there are always suspicions that this or that
committee member is making a decision based on personalities rather
than evidence, but despite my own history of involvement in various
controversies in Minnesota birding, I've never ever felt that any
committee member was likely to decide on a vote for any except
legitimate reasons involving accurate identification and reasonable
expectation that a bird was a true vagrant rather than an escapee.

Allowing one dissenting vote on a committee of seven recognizes both
the difficulties involved in making determinations of significant
records and the importance of a scientific committee being
At any given moment, the Minnesota Checklist is our best understanding
of the status of birds in our state, and thanks to this conscientious
committee, our list is ever evolving. I am very proud to live in a
state with such a fine records committee.

Laura Erickson
Duluth, MN

For the love, understanding, and protection of birds

There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds.
There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of
nature--the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after
the winter.

            —Rachel Carson

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