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Bird Detectives

No sighting is official until the Texas Bird Records Committee examines the evidence.

By Kim Denby

Texas boasts more species of birds than any other U.S. state, and the number continues to climb as people report birds previously not seen here. But who decides when a reported bird sighting is genuine? Behind the hoopla that surrounds a rare sighting in the birding world, the sober and deliberate job of arbitrating bird sightings falls to the Texas Bird Records Committee.

The bird records group is a standing committee of the Texas Ornithol-ogical Society. The committee’s continuing mission is to seek out and document bird species new to Texas.

“Our primary purpose is to gather and maintain information for the TOS’s bird checklist for the state,” says Mark Lockwood, TBRC secretary. “We solicit and archive information on rare species, and we maintain a written checklist.”

The committee meets once a year, usually at Texas A&M University. However, the nine-member group reviews material throughout the year. Birders submit forms to the committee and describe in as much detail as possible the bird that they believe to be rare, meaning birds recorded on average fewer than four times a year and occasionally a bird that has never before been documented in the state.

“We request observers to send us written notes, and it is our collective opinion that determines whether the documentation provides adequate proof,” Lockwood says.

Preferably, the birder should get a few photographs or an audio recording to support his description.

“For a bird to be added to the state list, there has to be a photograph or audio,” Lockwood says. “There has to be some tangible evidence.”

The “state list” is the Texas State List, the official record of bird species documented and accepted by the TBRC. This list can be found on the committee’s Web site, along with the Texas Review List, a list of bird species that may have only been spotted a few times and for which the committee requests documentation.

The committee receives about 200 submissions for sightings of birds on the Texas Review List each year, and the number of birds on the state list was 621 as of August 2005. There were 140 birds on the review list.

Experts say it’s unlikely there are actually more bird species occurring in Texas than in past years. More likely, there are now more people out there looking for them — more birders with the expertise and technology to find and document rare birds.

With the introduction of digital photography and the Internet, the process of reviewing documentation of sightings has become more efficient for the committee.

“This greatly speeds up the process,” says Lockwood. “The Internet allows committee members to review the records simultaneously, and it seems we get more photos because of the widespread availability and use of digital cameras.”

Two birds that have been recently added to the list are the social flycatcher and the black-headed nightingale-thrush. The social flycatcher, usually found in Northwest Mexico down through Brazil and Argentina, was spotted in January at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. The black-headed nightingale-thrush is native to Mexico and Costa Rica, but was found in Pharr, Texas, where it spent the summer of 2004 lounging in a Pharr resident’s backyard. This was the first record of the bird in the United States.

For more information about the Texas Bird Records Committee, visit <www.texasbirds.org/tbrc/>

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