On Saturday I woke before the alarm and that was early! It wasn’t because I had gone to sleep before knowing the result of the London Mayoral election and the fate of the several hundred pound bet I had on Boris (that result was never seriously in question) but because I was going out to do the first visit to one of my BBS sites.
It’s routine for me but because some in the farming community always seems so suspicious of the results of the work of myself and thousands of other volunteers giving up our time for free I thought that I’d write this blog as a record of how it works. Perhaps it might correct some of the miconceptions about the scheme from some farmers.
I’ve been surveying this 1km x 1km square for several years. I was contacted by the local BTO rep (another volunteer – like me) and asked whether I would cover a Breeding Bird Survey square locally. I was given a list of a few randomly selected 1km squares and chose the one nearest to where I lived. So that’s the first important point about this scheme – the sites surveyed are chosen at random and that means that they are representative of the country as a whole. They cover all habitats and areas. There is no reason to think that the results are biased by location in any important way.
Having agreed to survey this site I have to do it in the standardised way set out in the scheme. This means covering the site by a set route (ideally two parallel transects), in a set time of the year (April-June), at a set time of day (earlyish in the morning) and a set number of times (twice) a set distance apart (about a month). The details can be found here for anyone interested (more about the scheme; details of the methods).
The route of my survey deviates from the ideal two parallel transects because if I tried to do it like that I’d be tramping through fields of wheat and oilseed rape and that wouldn’t be much fun or very popular. Luckily, my square has two rights of way, green lanes, that cross it and make life a lot easier, but unfortunately one runs north-south and the other east-west so they are hardly parallel! So my 10 separate sections of survey are based on this cross – and that’s very sensible and wasn’t my choice – it was what the wise people in the BTO told me to do before I’d even visited the site to have a look at it. How clever of them!
So, with that modification, I do an early visit at the very beginning of May (quite often this bank holiday weekend) and my second visit about a month later (near my son’s birthday). I tend to leave the house at 0530, park the car at c0545 (you can see I was pleased this random square was close to me), walk down the footpath to the edge of the square and start recording at c0600. I then stroll along the route, stopping every now and again, and record all the birds I hear or see in the three distance categories required (I always have to check what they are as I never remember them!). I record all the birds with their own codes on a map or in a notebook . After a little more than an hour I have covered the whole route and recorded all the birds.
I don’t want to make too much of this but it is a fairly skilled task – recording these birds. Many of the sightings are actually hearings so you need to know your bird songs and calls. On Saturday I never saw the lesser whitethroats, chiffchaffs or song thrushes I recorded – but I know their songs. And there was a funny-sounding whitethroat which I spent a couple of minutes searching for just to make sure that that was what it was – I wouldn’t want to realise weeks later that I’d heard a Marmora’s warbler (some hope!).
I’m glad I can do all of this square from rights of way very easily as otherwise I would have had to contact the farmers on whose land I would have walked. I wouldn’t have minded doing that except that I would guess it would mean contacting four different farmers and I don’t know who they are or where they live so that would have been a pain (I do now know one of them, but I didn’t when I started years ago). But this does mean that the farmers whose land I survey are in blissful ignorance that their birds are being counted so carefully each year.
And you might think that is it, but when I get home, and I am very good at doing this straight away, I enter the sightings onto the BBS website. I like to get that job out of the way immediately. By 0900 the data I had collected that morning were entered and safe.
Now it remains for me to go back in June and do it all again.
And in 2010 3239 squares were covered in a similar way. These are spread all over England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and I wonder how many people were out doing what I was doing when I was doing it, and what they were seeing. That is a very large sample of bird records from randomly selected sites covered in a standardised manner. And that’s why we can be confident about the reliability of these data when they are analysed by scientists at the BTO at the end of the season.
The results are published each year – here is the latest report for 2010.
The work is funded by the BTO itself, the RSPB (through the goodness of its heart) and by the statutory nature conservation organisations across the UK. When I say ‘the work’, what I mean is the data storage, analysis, coordination and communication of the results. Most of the ‘the work’, certainly in hours, is done by people like me for nothing. I’ve done some calculations of these costs before and they still look about right – we all, Government, farmers, foresters, shopkeepers and birders, get a very good picture of breeding bird changes for a government input of about £40k pa contribution to c£1.2m worth of work. [In fact the number of squares covered has gone up so the volunteer contribution has gone up too].
Sometimes farmers, particularly NFU spokespeople who should know better, question the validity of the trends that come out of all this work. That’s a bit rich – in fact it’s a bit poor! That’s why I have written this little explanation of how the data are collected. I’m happy to try to answer any questions about this scheme and – I dare say – so would be the BTO (or RSPB or JNCC). Ask away, anyone, especially sceptical farmers.
And here is a question for the NFU – how about making a contribution to the costs of this scheme? It’s a major way of measuring your industry’s environmental impact (there are others too, of course) and you must be interested in that.
- Posted in: Farming