A recent report on Oregon Birders Online of a Magnificent Frigatebird along the Columbia River set off a series of messages questioning the accuracy of the identification. This, in turn, triggered even more messages, some highlighting the birding credentials of the person who made the initial report, some criticizing those birders who simply dismiss reports of rarities from birders they don’t know, and some describing how objective skepticism of birding reports is a good thing.
It all boils down to this: How do you know if a report is credible? How skeptical should you be? How convincing does a report have to be before you will chase the bird being reported? Each birder will answer these questions differently. Some require irrefutable evidence, such as a clear photo or multiple expert witnesses, before accepting a report of a rarity. Others will assume the report is accurate until it is proven otherwise. Wherever you lie on this continuum, here are some things to consider.
1. Rare birds are attracted to inexperienced birders. Newbies find a lot of great birds, partly because they look at every bird carefully, and partly because of dumb luck. Just because a birder has not established a reputation, don’t assume they haven’t found what they say they found. Of course, a lot of new birders make mistakes, but why risk letting a rarity go unconfirmed? That Hoary Redpoll your neighbor reports from their feeder may turn out to be a House Finch, but maybe it’s actually a Hoary Redpoll.
2. Even experienced birders make mistakes on occasion. Experience can lend credibility to a report, but it is not a guarantee.
As far as chasing goes, that is also a personal call. Some people will fly across the continent for a good bird. I generally don’t travel more than 90 minutes from home to chase an individual bird, and I usually like verification of the report before traveling that far. But if you are able, why not check it out? You may get to see a great bird, find a different rarity in the process, or at the very least enjoy a day in the field.
As for reporting a rarity, do it. Don’t be afraid of being wrong or embarrassed. You will either provide an important record of a rare bird for your area, or someone will explain your error and you will learn something.
This beast led to an embarrassing mis-identification on my part. But it also led to discussion, and greatly advanced my study of gull identification.