In praise of the Big Birding Society

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

In praise of the Big Birding Society

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Yesterday, the BTO, JNCC and RSPB published the latest Breeding Bird Survey results.  This updates trends in the UK's widespread breeding birds up to 2010.  At a time when we are being encouraged to think differently about how people can help the State deliver public services, it is worth remembering that the BBS would not happen without volunteers.  Last year, 2,519 volunteers helped to collect the data to inform the report.  They would each have invested about six hours of fieldwork.  They will have made two early-morning visits to their randomly selected 1-km square during the April-June survey period and will have recorded all birds encountered while walking two 1-km transects across their square. Together, these volunteers managed to record data from 3,239 1-km squares. A fantastic achievement.

Our view is that this form of monitoring is essential to identify current conservation problems, allowing us to decide among competing priorities for deployment of limited resources.  By providing information on the trends of individual species biodiversity monitoring tells us which species we need to worry about.  It also provides information to help us assess whether we are living sustainably by keeping an eye on how the other species on which we share this planet are faring. 

And the BBS is one of the most powerful surveys we have.  By using birds as an indicator of wider biodiversity, it provides a snapshot of the health of the natural environment.  And, because this is the sixteenth year that the BBS has been running, the survey is able to detect trends in populations to help assess effectiveness of conservation policy and practice. 

Here are the headlines from this year's results:

  • Since the start of the survey in 1994, 26 species have shown significant decreases, with the greatest declines being in willow tit, turtle dove, wood warbler, whinchat, nightingale and yellow wagtail (pictured).
  • in 2010, a number of species reached their lowest levels since the survey began; including farmland species grey partridge, lapwing, skylark, rook and starling, along with the long-distance migrants turtle dove, swift, yellow wagtail, and nightingale.
  • Between 2009 and 2010, notable declines were detected in stonechat (-53%) and kingfisher (-39%), possibly due to prolonged freezing conditions in recent winters.
  • The small-bodied birds coal tit and long-tailed tit reached their highest levels since 1994, despite recent cold winters. Numbers of blue tits and goldcrests, which fell between 2008 and 2009, showed signs of recovery. It will be another year before we can report on the impact of the 2010-11 winter.
  • The good news is that 40 species have increased significantly since 1994. The increases reported for red kite (+475%), great spotted woodpecker (+139%), blackcap (+73%) and whitethroat (+25%) are amongst those to be pleased about. However, of the 20 red-listed species monitored, only tree sparrow and song thrush have shown significant increases since the start of the survey, and even so song thrush decreased significantly between 2009 and 2010.
  • In the last year the house sparrow has also shown a significant increase (11%), largely due to an 18% increase in Wales. In Scotland, house martin, tree pipit and willow warbler have increased significantly since the start of the survey in contrast to the declines shown in the UK as a whole.

It's too easy to take this information for granted.  But just imagine if we didn't have this system.  We would have no meaningful way to understand the health of the natural world and no means of working out which species were in trouble to enable us to allocate finite conservation resources.  So the 2,519 people who annually give up six hours of their time every spring to collect information about birds are doing us all a huge favour.  They are the genuine heros that make up our big birding society.

  • Not sure how many people took part in the Atlas survey for the BTO but now it's all over there are potentially recruits to move to the BBS. This should provide even more data. Send them all an invitation!