New Hampshire Audubon Protecting New Hampshire's natural environment for wildlife and for people.

Reporting Rare and Unusual Bird Sightings

Mississippi Kite

Some of the sightings reported to New Hampshire Bird Records are of species that are unusual in New Hampshire for some reason. They may be extremely early or late, far away from their usual range in the state, or simply not supposed to be here under any circumstances.

For such species, and a few others, New Hampshire Bird Records and the New Hampshire Rare Birds Committee (NHRBC) requests that the observer fill in a documentation form, thus providing a permanent record of the particulars connected to a certain sighting. Such documentation is important because New Hampshire Bird Records is currently the only comprehensive source of information on bird sightings in the state. This information must meet high standards if it is to stand the test of time, and thus remain useful to future researchers long after the original observers and committee members are no longer known entities.

Unusual Bird Sightings

What is a Rare Bird?

What constitutes a bird rare enough to require special documentation? The New Hampshire Rare Birds Committee (NHRBC) reviews reports of rare birds and has established a list of species requiring documentation and review. In addition, any species not previously seen in New Hampshire would automatically be added to this list. Other birds need to be documented only under unusual circumstances. These include:

birds seen at times of the year they are not supposed to be here (e.g., a Snowy Owl in the middle of the summer or a Yellow Warbler in the middle of the winter),
migratory birds seen unusually early or late in the migration season (e.g., a Barn Swallow lingering into December or a Red-eyed Vireo arriving in early April),
birds seen in locations where they are not supposed to be (e.g., a Red-throated Loon in the snow in the White Mountains or a Boreal Chickadee in Salem),
and birds seen in very large numbers compared to their normal abundance (e.g., 35 Bald Eagles circling together overhead).

Two very useful guides about the commonality of birds at various times of the year that will help determine a bird's rarity are The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New Hampshire (C. Foss ed.) and A Checklist of the Birds of New Hampshire (Hunt et al. ed.), both available from New Hampshire Audubon, in the Concord Nature Store or on ASNH's Armchair Shopper.

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How to Document a Rarity

You never know when you are going to see a rare bird, nor even what exactly constitutes a rare bird. The best approach if you think you might have a rarity is to take detailed notes on the spot, or at least as soon as you have access to pen and paper. Photographs, of course, are excellent documentation, but if you can't take photos, the best documentation is that which is written at the time of the sighting because it lacks any biases which may creep in after the observer has perhaps looked in a field guide or had a good night's sleep. Use your notes to fill out a complete documentation form as soon as possible (see form below).

But what if you didn't take notes, and you are faced with a documentation form in the mail a week or more after your original sighting? The most important thing here is to be honest. Try, to the best of your ability, to recall your observation as it was at the time of the original sighting. What about the bird made you think it was what you called it? If you didn't see a particular field mark, don't say that you did, even if you have since convinced yourself that such was the case. It is rare to see all the field marks on a given bird, and extremely detailed descriptions, especially those written long after the sighting may give the appearance of having been taken directly from a field guide.

Also important is information on the conditions of the sighting, such as lighting, the types of optics used, and so on. How far away from the bird were you (yes, it's hard to estimate, but give it a reasonable try)? All these things can effect how a bird looks, and can help the NHRBC evaluate the plumage details you have provided.

Finally, and most importantly, it is critical to compare your bird with the more common species with which it can be confused. Failure to do this is probably the most common reason for records not being accepted by the NHRBC. In many cases, we have asked for documentation expressly for the purpose of making sure you didn't see the more likely alternative. For example, why wasn't a Blue Grosbeak really an Indigo Bunting or a Golden Eagle an immature Bald Eagle? Knowledge of the more likely species is actually the first step towards knowing a rarity when you encounter one, and this is how the NHRBC hopes to educate the birding community.

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Documentation Forms

—Print out, fill in, and mail a form in PDF format.
—Fill in a Word file and send by mail or as an email attachment.

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Review Process for Rarities

The New Hampshire Rare Birds Committee (NHRBC) is an independent Technical Advisory Committee to New Hampshire Bird Records (NHBR). The NHRBC sets guidelines which NHBR follows when requesting documentation, and if a sighting you submit meets these guidelines, expect a documentation form to arrive in the mail or by e-mail. Please fill out this form carefully, since it becomes part of a permanent record and may be scrutinized in the future.

Once documentation forms are received at NHBR the appropriate season editor creates a list for the NHRBC to determine which reports require review. For many of the less notable rarities (early or late records, common "hard-to-identify" species, etc.), full NHBRC review may not be necessary. All rarities requiring review are distributed to the NHRBC, which evaluates the documentation and votes on whether the sighting should enter the permanent record. The timing of the NHRBC review may or may not occur before the publication of those records in NHBR.

The NHRBC has a protocol and by-laws governing its operation which is entirely separate from NHBR. Members of the NHRBC are the only ones who can provide information regarding decisions on individual sightings. The NHRBC would like birders to know that the review process applies to all observers. Even the committee members themselves have to follow this process, and in some cases have even had their records not accepted by the whole committee. Also note that records that are not accepted are not discarded. In some cases, new information on a sighting can come to light, and the NHRBC may opt to reconsider it. If you are distressed by the review process, they suggest trying to view it as a learning experience and a way to increase the value of the state's bird sighting data, not as a personal statement or an odious chore imposed upon you by elite birders. Quality control is the only way we can ensure that these records remain valuable well into the future.

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