Surveying our Breeding Birds

I last took part in the BTO‘s breeding bird survey (BBS) some years back when I was living in the Sperrins, and the area I surveyed was hill farm country and upland bog. Since then, quite a few things have changed in my life, including relocation to the city. Having completed my PhD, I find myself with more time. So this year, I am back as a BTO breeding bird surveyer. Quite a grand title, isn’t it? The work itself promises to be a lot of fun, and in preparation for it, I set out last Saturday to the lovely Peatlands Park, where a small group of us met with Shane Wolsey of the BTO for training.

The methodology for the survey is quite straightforward, but obviously for the standardisation of data collection it’s important that everybody follows the same instructions. Basically, you are assigned a 1km square, and you walk across that square twice. On your two walks, you record any bird you see or hear. Then you send the results to the BTO. That, in a nutshell, is it. You don’t have to be a brilliant birdwatcher. In fact, because the BTO prefers the same surveyer to work in the same square year on year, the individual surveyer’s relative ability contributes to standardisation of data for that square. So essentially if your ability doesn’t massively change from year to year that’s fine. You’re collecting the data consistently and that’s the main thing.

In practice, as Shane said, the BTO wants you to improve your skills, so the above is not to be taken as a directive not to get better! My point is simply that every little does genuinely help. So even bad birdwatchers, as Simon Barnes affectionately described the majority of us, have a lot to contribute.

The detail of the method is thoroughly explained on the recording forms. Each straightish-line dander (transect) across your 1km square is divided into 5 x 200m sections. You then mark the distance the bird is away from you: either within 25m; between 25-100m; or over 100m. It’s easy enough to estimate all these distances. A long adult stride is about one metre. Go to the park or along the street or to the nearest field with a friend/partner/child. Pace it out. Get your eye tuned into judging.

Then you walk the line. The 2 lines don’t have to be dead straight, in fact it’s more likely they’ve wend their way adjacent to or along field boundaries and lanes. And you do have to get the landowner’s permission, but once that’s sorted you’re good to go. The two transects shouldn’t overlap or run too close together, otherwise you risk surveying the same area (and recording the same birds!) twice.

The BTO provides you with record sheets for your 10 x 200m sections, and handy one or two letter codes to record each bird. So B. is a blackbird. R. is a robin. CH is a chaffinch. You underline to indicated you detected a bird by its call; you circle it to show you detected it by song. An arrow indicates a ‘flyover’. But if your aural identification skills aren’t so hot, don’t worry about it, the unadulterated letters show you got it by sight.



My ‘practise’ recording form. Presuming you can read my writing, can you guess what the letters stand for?

Answers on a postcard! No, not really!

See below.





The reason I’m going on about this and dropping major hints that everyone who can identify a few species of birds should get involved, is this. The information obtained from these surveys is important for research of all kinds. Trends in bird populations give us vital information about the health of our local environment and the impact of global environmental change. In the oft-quoted analogy, they are the canary in the mine. However, and this will come as no surprise to anybody who’s been conscious for the last number of years, this coming year there are cuts in funding to environmental organisations (one example) and that means that a huge proportion of the squares that are normally surveyed by professionals, are not likely to be surveyed. Shane told us that in 2014 there were 118 BBS squares covered in Northern Ireland of which 52 of were covered by professionals. These 52 squares are inevitably at huge risk of not being surveyed at all as a result. As Shane put it: “A 44% drop in the number of squares covered would have a real impact on our ability to produce robust trends, particularly if this drop was maintained into the future.”

So, if you care about birds, if you care about your children, sign up for a BBS survey! It’s really not difficult to do, and you get the pleasure of being out and about in the early morning and enjoying your local birds, as well as knowing that you’re contributing to work that will help them to be around in the future.

My own allocated square couldn’t be more different from the one I did a few years ago. The squares are randomly chosen to get a good spread across all types of habitat, whether they are good for birds or not. Mine’s now an suburban one, in Belfast, partly in the grounds of a college. I could be doing this square from now till I’m eighty and enjoying the consistent rewards of what Stephen Moss has called ‘patch-watching’, creating a permanent record of the birds in one tiny area. This is ‘my’ patch and already I’m feeling a connection to it. It’s another way of belonging, of being at home.

Codes: R. =robin; GC = goldcrest; BH = black-headed gull; MA = mallard; HC = hooded crow; D. = dunnock; ST = song thrush; WR = wren; CH = chaffinch; SH = sparrowhawk; SG = starling; JD = jackdaw; MG = magpie; TC = treecreeper; LT = long-tailed tit; BT = blue tit.

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