What's a description?

5th July 2018 | Richard Burness

The Berkshire Records Committee (BRC) examines all records that involve scarce species, unusual dates and unusually large counts that are accompanied by descriptive notes. Unfortunately, a substantial number of records have to be omitted from the database and annual systematic lists due to a lack of supporting descriptions.

The BRC are currently reviewing records for 2016 in preparation for the annual report for that year. I would appeal to all observers who reported rare or scarce species in 2016 to submit their descriptions through records@berksoc.org.uk as soon as possible.

In making this appeal I recognise that some observers will be unclear as to exactly what is entailed when we ask for a description. Firstly, we should say that the BRC are not here to pass judgement on your knowledge and abilities. We are here to contribute our own skills and experience towards the validation of records. What we want from you is, in plain English, is what you saw (or didn't see) on a particular bird that led you to identify it as you did. We are uninterested in whether or not you are an expert on avian anatomy and biology, so we are quite happy for your description to avoid technical (and probably half-understood) terms. Just tell us what you saw!

What we'd like to know:

Finally, what were the particular points above that made you identify it as you did?

These basics should be accompanied by date, time, location, weather, optics used and anything else considered pertinent. A good quality photograph, if available, would also expedite the validation process.

Below is a sample description of a White Stork that was accepted by the BRC*:

Watched from c400 yds, it could be seen striding along the Loddon streamside, occasionally dipping for food items. The legs had a high back-action, coming up quite near the underside as it walked, and its head had a nodding action as it did so. On the odd occasion it found something to eat, its head would be thrust backwards to propel the food down the gullet. It seemed to be in adult plumage.
Large, Heron-sized bird, though with shorter neck. General appearance - white with black wingtips.

Head - white, with black eye 'smudge'
Bill, stout, long, deep pinkish-red
Neck - white.
Back, sides, under-parts - white.
Wings - white, with black tips when folded whilst walking.
Legs - long, and bright red/pink.

Here, the observer has written exactly what he saw and what led him to identify the bird as he did. The BRC concurred with his identification. You will note that he managed to describe his sighting without reference to obscure feather tracts or other parts of a bird's anatomy.

This is all that we expect.

Richard Burness
Chairman Berkshire Records Committee

*Thanks to Brian Clews for allowing us the use of his description.