12/03/2008
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Make your birding count for conservation

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Seen a Buzzard recently? You probably have - there are a lot of them about these days. But have you seen a Willow Tit, or a Corn Bunting? We all have a pretty good idea about which birds are on the up, and which are disappearing - the winners and losers. The question is how to measure these changes, and, crucially, how to report them in a way that will actually make a difference.

Willow Tit
Willow Tit, Carsington Water, Derbyshire (Photo: John Dickenson)

The BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is the primary scheme for monitoring the changing fortunes of the UK's wild birds, generating the trends used by Government, and others, to set conservation priorities. Declines in farmland species such as Grey Partridge, Skylark and Linnet are a troubling reflection on our agricultural policies, but, thanks to the BBS, these changes can be assessed and decision-makers alerted. And it's not just farmland birds - the BTO produces BBS trends for over 100 UK species, from all habitats, keeping our finger on the pulse of UK biodiversity.

So how does the BTO produce these trends? Where do we get the numbers? The answers come, quite literally, from the 3,000 birders across the country who spend just a few hours each year surveying a BBS square. If you want to make a real difference to conservation, why don't you join them?

To take part, you just need to make two visits to a local BBS square during the breeding season (April-July), and count all the birds you see or hear. Squares are randomly selected to ensure unbiased coverage, so the chances are that you'll end up somewhere you've never been before! The bread-and-butter of BBS is counting the numbers of common species, but, as with all birding, you never know what might turn up - Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Goshawk, Quail, Black Redstart and Montagu's Harrier all appeared on BBS counts in 2007.

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Starlings are now red-listed due to the rapid decline of their breeding population. Our knowledge about Starling population trends comes from the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey.

The fieldwork is very similar to that required for the 2007-11 Bird Atlas, the ambitious project by BTO, SOC and BirdWatch Ireland to map the distributions of the breeding and wintering birds in Britain and Ireland. Both schemes need volunteers to count birds in selected squares (1-km squares for BBS and 2-km square "tetrads" for the Atlas), but where the Atlas aims to cover every square in Britain and Ireland to map bird populations, the BBS looks at a sample of sites to follow changes in numbers year-on-year. Continuity of coverage is essential to BBS, and volunteers cover the same squares each year, getting to know their bird populations, and often noticing the same changes as shown in the national trends.

New Year resolutions may be dusty and abandoned by now, but if you decided to do something really worthwhile in 2008, here's your chance - just go birding! The BTO offers many opportunities for volunteering, whatever your interest: count birds for BBS or the Atlas, keep your bird lists in BirdTrack, or even record nesting birds for the Nest Record Scheme. All of these are extremely valuable ways of making your birding count.

To volunteer for BTO surveys, and to find out more, please visit our websites:

Written by: Kate Risely, BBS National Organiser