FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions

On the Structure of BBRC

Why is it sometimes called “The 10 Rare Men”?

Well, that refers to the 10 people who actually vote on the records. But there are other people involved, notably the Chair and the Secretary (see below). Additional posts include Vice Chair, Archivist, Museum Consultant & Genetic Consultant and these roles are explained more fully in the Constitution.

So what do the Chair and Secretary do?

The Chair has to be an ex-voting member of BBRC, and one of their main roles is to ensure the voting process is as rigorous and as accurate as possible. They can be asked for advice on difficult records, when they often bring their knowledge of previous similar submissions to help the decision process.

Also, as it says in the Constitution, the Chair is “to act as the conduit for policy development and ideas….”. They will discuss those ideas with the Secretary and other members as appropriate. If necessary the ideas will be brought to an AGM for further discussion and voted on.

The Secretary administers the voting process but is total divorced from decisions made. They liaise with submitters and county recorders to try to get as complete a picture of the rarities occurring in Britain and then  pull together the data and the voting to help produce the Annual Report.

These roles are defined in detail in section 2 of our Constitution.

How are members elected, and when do they retire?

Normally a member retires after 10 years. Nominations for a vacancy can come from anyone, and it is common for the BBRC to put forward a candidate. If there is more than one candidate then an election takes place with votes coming from counties/recording areas & observatories. Counties can allocate  a total of 5 votes to the candidates & observatories 2 votes. Despite what you may hear the BBRC itself does NOT vote.

Do you use outside experts?

Yes we use a wide range of experts, some of which are ‘permanently’ connected with the BBRC and others used for specific matters. The ‘permanent’ posts are the Museums Consultant and Genetics consultant – the latter a new role only started in March 2013. The Museum Consultant checks various features for us at the Natural History Museum, Tring. The Genetics Consultant advises on interpretation of DNA samples, and also carries out DNA analysis if required. Other temporary advisors could include those who have expertise in the identification of particular species, or families, or specialisations such as sea-bird observation.

The roles of BOURC and BBRC

Why is there BOURC & BBRC – what do each do ?

BBRC assess all records of rare taxa that are on Cat A of the British List. Cat A is for those species/taxa that have occurred in the wild since 1950. We also assesses sightings involving a potential new taxon (species or sub-species). If the ID is accepted then the record is  forwarded to the British Ornithologists Union Records Committee (BOURC). BOURC then look at the record again, both the identification & particularly the likely provenance of that First record – provenance means that the sighting is of a naturally occurring bird.

If BOURC are happy then the taxon is added to the British List and thereafter all subsequent records for that taxon are assessed by BBRC alone.

Is there something special if the record is a ‘First for Britain’ ?

Yes there are special criteria which have to be considered, which are listed in our Constitution, Appendix II.

Remember that if a ‘First for Britain’ is accepted by BBRC then it will go to BOURC for acceptance on the official British List. So these guidelines for acceptance of a ‘First’ are designed to ensure that the claim is totally robust and has every possibility that the taxon concerned will be accepted by BOURC.

Even if the identification is also accepted by BOURC (as happens in the vast majority of cases) they still will have to look at the provenance of the record. Only if they are happy that the taxon, and that particular First record, has occurred naturally will they place the taxon on Cat A of the British List.

Vary rarely  a ‘First’ will be accepted by BBRC, but BOURC may disagree that the identification is confirmed/safe. The two committees liaise in such cases, and in fact there are often members who sit on both committees, and the Chair of BBRC always sits on BOURC. Remember the BBRC Chair does not vote in BBRC’s normal assessment process so will not have been involved in the original assessment by BBRC.

Who determines provenance of other records?

Once a species is on the British List then provenance is in the remit of BBRC. If, whilst voting on the identification, any BBRC member feels there is an issue with provenance then they will comment on that as part of their vote.  If the identification is accepted, but a majority of voters are doubtful of the record being a genuine wild bird then it will not be published in the main section (for Category A birds) of the rarity report, but instead will be put in an Appendix “Records where identification is accepted, but origin is uncertain”

The assessment process

How is the voting done?

Records are categorised as either to be voted on by all 10 members or by just 5 members – the latter known as a Motorway vote. Very rare species are sent to All, whilst less rare will go to the respective North or South Motorway team depending on the location of the sighting. The North/South divide is roughly from north Wales across to the Humber.  More detail is given in Section 5.3 of our Constitution.

All voting is done electronically. The Secretary creates a PDF file of all information related to each submission (description, photos, sketches, sound recordings etc.) and also a Batch Voting Sheet typically comprising 5 records. On every record Members give their vote (OK or Not Proven), their experience of the taxon involved (seen Many, Some or Very few/none)and whether they saw the bird. Optionally they comment on its age & sex, and they can also put any comment that can help other voters.

Note that the process takes place via a shared web-space (private & protected of course) but it means that members can comment, maybe not make their vote, and then come back later to complete things. This means the assessment is interactive rather than ‘serial’ and we believe this greatly improves the decision making process.

Do you advise the outcome of your voting?

We currently do this in two main ways. The first and most immediate way is that we use Twitter to advise ‘everyone’ (i.e. those using Twitter) of each completed assessment. It simply gives the submission reference number, outcome (accepted or not proven), species, location and first date.

The second way is via a Work-in-Progress file – known as the WIP file. This shows all the records that have been received by BBRC and their current status. We try to keep this updated about 3 to 4 times a year BUT it is a time consuming process to post this file, so that regularity may sometimes drift. Remember members are either doing this work entirely voluntarily or with only a small remuneration so sometimes personal lives do take precedence.

If there is a particularly difficult assessment, and one where the outcome then ends up Not Proven, we may choose to inform the original submitters of the outcome before publicly giving this detail by either Twitter or the WIP file.

What’s the cycle of events each year?

The year can be thought to begin with the publication of the Annual Report in British Birds magazine. It comes out in the October issue, and publishes all records for the preceding year, and any belated records for earlier years. For example in October 2014 the report was for ‘Rare Birds in Great Britain in 2013’. Soon after that a Work-in-Progress sheet will be put on the BBRC web-site to show all the remaining records still at BBRC. It includes those received for the current year (2014 in this example) and those which are still circulating from earlier years.

Submissions are received throughout the year, although any coming in after April/May of the next year will be struggling to get into the next report. Throughout the year records are being circulated electronically to the Committee for voting. Every 3 or 4 months an updated Work-in-Progress file is put on the BBRC web-site where you can find a complete list of those received and any completed outcomes.

A first-pass of the report is done as early as April/May the following year! Around May/June about 50 species are selected that will have a comment included in the Annual Report. These are then allocated to the voting members who each write around 4 or 5 ‘species accounts’. Around July/August a draft report (of records only) is sent to County Recorders for them to check. At the same time the full report is beginning to be assembled, mainly by the BBRC Secretary and the Editor of British Birds. They add things like photos and field sketches that complement the report, and an Introduction is written by the BBRC Chair. The October issue of British Birds is then printed in late September and published and posted out in early October.

How long does it take to assess my record?

Typically around 3months, but it varies widely. At certain times of year the voting members (none of whom are paid, remember) will be busy – often leading bird tour groups. Then they also have holidays, take time out at Christmas & New Year, even go out birding in spring and autumn! The Secretary also tries to batch up records so that the same or similar species can be grouped & assessed together – maybe related to an influx in the year. Whilst well documented records can be very quick, others may ‘linger’ maybe with members waiting until one of team who has particular experience of the species, has commented on the record. So 6 months+ can easily happen.

Also if voting is split then a re-circulation will be triggered –see Section 5.4 of our Constitution which gives more details. That can slow things down considerably.

About Submitting Records

What is minimum needed for a submission ? I have heard you must have a photo for it to be accepted

Apart from a description of the bird we need information such as observer names, location, date of observation but extra information like optics used and weather conditions, also greatly help. Use the standard BBRC form (download here) or send in on-line –click here

For the description we would like to have details of plumage, size, structure, bare part colour etc. but note IT IS NOT NECESSARY to have a photo.

We accept that in the modern world we may only get a photo for the descriptive part, but for difficult species that simply may not be enough. In those cases details of wing formula may be required, or details of plumage tracts which are not shown in the photo. Put simply – send us as detailed a description as you can BUT do not embellish anything. We do not require perfect English in the description, or artwork from Da Vinci if you supply sketches! But accuracy in telling us what you were actually able to see is important.

Sound recording has also become a part of the armoury of a modern birder. If you have any recording, even taken with a mobile phone, then please send that to us.

How does the County Recorder become involved?

We prefer that you send your submission through your county recorder, copying to us at the same time. If for any reason you want to keep your record from the relevant county committee/recorder you can send to us directly BUT please mark clearly that you do not want the information sent to the county concerned. If we do not receive such a request we will always share the information with the Recorder.

Will you accept a submission when the observer doesn’t know the species involved?

No, all records must be ascribed to a species or sub-species that is designated a BBRC rarity or is a First for Britain. A list of the current BBRC species is available on this web site under Main Information. In just a few instances we accept submissions to closely related species pairs such as Eastern/Western Bonelli’s Warbler; again see the list on this web site.

Effectively this means that if you don’t know what the species is, we do not act as your identifier. There are now plenty of ways to broadcast your sighting and get (many) opinions as to the bird’s identity!

What happens if I only heard the bird, but it is one where the call or song is diagnostic?

We discussed the criteria for records involving birds that have been identified principally by calls. Explicit criteria were published in 1998 for fly-over records of one species often claimed on call – Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus (which at the time was a BBRC rarity; see Brit. Birds 91: 500) – but these criteria still serve as the basis for more general guidelines: observers must be see the bird sufficiently well to determine that it belongs to the family being claimed (in this case that it’s a pipit), and there must be a full account of three or more calls from an observer with prior experience of the species. Birders are encouraged to obtain sound recordings wherever possible. In the case of singing vagrants where sound recordings are not available, the previous experience of observers will be of particular importance.