It's been seven-and-a-half years since I arrived back from an exhilarating Champions of the Flyway event in Israel as part of the BirdGuides team. During that trip I took to a new messaging app that was in use by the race organisers and participants – I soon used it to kick off a county group for sharing bird news in Northumberland.
It may have been the first county WhatsApp bird news group in the UK. Having looked through 40-odd county groups that have appeared subsequently, none pre-date Northumberland. It's been an interesting journey watching WhatsApp change the dissemination and gathering of bird news and observing the consequences, good and bad, as well as some unintended and unanticipated.
There can't be many birders who aren't now in a WhatsApp group of some description, whether it's a countrywide 'elite' twitching group, a county sightings group or just a handful of birders sharing their patch news with each other. I think it's reasonable to say that WhatsApp has created the local grapevine that most of us would want in terms of news sharing and has levelled the playing field across many counties. I wonder how many people have now seen birds that they otherwise may not have known about thanks to WhatsApp?
These kinds of changes are never plain sailing of course. WhatsApp for bird news has had its fair share of critics, some of whom have never embraced the idea and for a plethora of reasons probably never will. What's absolutely clear, though, is that some of the early criticism of the birding groups that suggested switching to the platform was about suppression could not have been more wrong. The sheer volume of bird sightings generated through WhatsApp has been staggering, with anywhere up to double the number of sightings made available to local birders during the last five years as compared to the previous five-year period.
However, the most satisfying aspect of this change over the last couple of years was to see WhatsApp contributing to positive messages that quickly limited the public distribution of information about rare breeders. There have been a number of instances where quick intervention by group admins has ensured that news of rare breeders was handled appropriately and allowed for monitoring to be established before news was made public (where appropriate).
I'm sure that we'll see future developments, whether within WhatsApp or on similar platforms, that may have advantages or additional features. One of the big challenges going forward will be the group size restrictions that some of the well-established groups are nudging up against or have already encountered. Scilly, for example, now has at least two groups due to the popularity of the first and the number of visitors; Shetland has tried in part to overcome this by creating groups for different rarity categories. Ireland, meanwhile, has headed off to an alternative platform that doesn't constrain member numbers but offers a similar though slightly more complex messaging service.
There are some challenges, though. How does WhatsApp tie in with records required for county reports? Particularly when many may see submitting records and/or descriptions to county recorders as duplication or 'extra effort'. If some tech-savvy birder could figure out a method of extracting the data I can think of several recorders who would be eternally grateful (my DMs are open).
I’ll end this with an appeal. If you're in WhatsApp groups then note that they work best when people share – that includes you, not just other people. Don't just take news, give it back. It takes just a few seconds to post an update and (almost) every such one is helpful to others who may want to see the bird(s) in question.
- This column first appeared in the December 2022 issue of Birdwatch magazine.