Chronicles

Nature's Sure Signs
by: Mike Lushington  

            I have just completed my three year term as a voting member on New Brunswick's Rare Bird Committee. According to the constitution of that organization, that means that I had to step down and make room for someone else to assume the position.

            I enjoyed the experience a great deal. Getting an opportunity to sit down with several of the most knowledgeable birders in the province and weighing the evidence for accepting or rejecting a new bird to the provincial list is a detailed and fascinating process. One thing that became very clear to me in those past few years is that there is nothing random or arbitrary in the process; The Rare Bird Committee does not accept new birds easily or casually.

            Naturalists in New Brunswick and, indeed, across North America, are becoming increasingly aware that bird populations and distributions are changing as the climate changes, and as human being continue to alter the landscape in highly dramatic ways. As well, there are so many more people who are out looking for and at birds that many species are being seen where they were never seen before, and are being recognized as "oddities" or "rare birds" in that particular locality. All of this means that there is some pressure on those who keep records to ensure that those records continue to be credible. This is the role of a provincial or state Rare Bird Committee.

            The case of the Wood Stork is illustrative. This is a very large, rather spectacular bird that has no business being in New Brunswick. Yet, over the past few years, there have been several reports of them showing up. One instance was a local one: several reasonably knowledgeable people reported seeing just such a bird one day in mid summer, down in the general vicinity of Eel River Bar. Unfortunately, no one got a photo of the bird, and no one thought to write a detailed description of it. Such a record, no matter how compelling, is not acceptable to a committee that is responsible for ensuring that its records are above challenge. Another report of a Wood Stork, from elsewhere in the province, was accompanied by several superb photos, by two different photographers, as well as by a good verbal description. This record, in all likelihood, will be accepted by the committee.

            In other cases, birds are properly identified and there is lots of solid material to support the identification, but the record will still not be accepted because there is a serious question as to how the bird in question arrived at the site where it was sighted. Any bird that may have escaped from captivity, or that may have gotten here by riding on a ship, for example, will not be accepted. We have had several reports of Ring-necked Pheasants in Charlo in past years ( I actually had one on a Christmas Bird Count a number of years ago) that could not be accepted because we know that these were birds that escaped from some local farm, and that they are very unlikely to survive in the wild on their own - at least until the climate warms up a few more degrees.

            In the end, members of the Rare Bird Committee strive to ensure that works like the recently published Annotated Bird List for New Brunswick are as accurate and factual as it is possible to make them. It is an important contribution to our knowledge of the natural world around us. I am pleased that I have had the opportunity to have such an experience - and to remember, once again, that there is a very important role that dedicated amateurs can play in the ongoing pursuit of that knowledge.

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