Andy Clements birding. Bruce Miller
Bruce Miller

Widening BTO's appeal

Andy Clements, BTO's Chief Executive, explains why he is motivated to participate in BTO surveys, and considers how BTO can engage new audiences..

Relates to projects

I often hear BTO described as a scientific research organisation, a picture that, for some, conjures up white-coated boffins in a lab. Of course, science comes in many forms, and the BTO scientific reputation for ecological and demographic ornithology is second to none. 

Andy's BirdTrack stats

  • Lists submitted for 650 places in the UK, 900 globally
  • Submitted 2,800 complete lists in UK, 3,000 globally
  • Total records submitted - 80,000 in UK, 90,000 globally

BTO Science

So, outstanding science – and by that I mean science that is rigorous, objective and impactful – is a key element of what we are here for. But, it is only one of the three aspects of our organisation that bring alive our vision of a world inspired by birds, informed by science. We also create opportunities for participation through our surveys that require thousands of skilled volunteers, and we are passionate about communicating our work so that more people are inspired by learning about birds.

We aim to continuously improve our science and maintain our world-class reputation. That is why, in 2019, we invited external academics to review the impact of our science. But I don’t think we have paid enough attention yet to securing more participation through volunteering, nor to communicating with our supporters about the value of their work and the data that they give to us. These two fundamental aspects of our work need radical improvement.

The heart of BTO: volunteers

I am a BTO volunteer myself, contributing to all three Bird Atlases over 40 years, undertaking two Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) squares annually, and submitting BirdTrack complete lists almost daily. In fact, my 2019 target is to submit 365 BirdTrack complete lists, one for every day, which I am set to achieve. It is worth reflecting on why I make these contributions, but also to understand that I happen to be a fairly skilled and nerdy birder, an example of BTO’s traditional supporter base.

To reach wider audiences and expand BTO’s supporter base, we will need to increase participation in our surveys, and better communicate our work. Our unique data, spanning subjects, species, and methods, lend themselves to innovative and novel ways of visualisation to tell their stories.

Ruff. Allan Drewitt
Ruff. Allan Drewitt 

My wider motivations for contributing are certainly to do with supporting BTO, and making observations useful for science, policy and society. But at a personal level, the data I collect for BTO tell my own stories. Bird Atlas records enable me to see my ‘dot on the map’: Peregrine in Scotland in 1970, Cetti’s Warbler in Gwent in 1988, and Quail in Norfolk in 2009. The Breeding Bird Survey is more about being a single cog in the big wheel that drives gold-standard data collection, informing Government indicators with robust population trends.

BirdTrack is my online notebook, documenting all my birding activity and enabling me to look at and use my data in novel and interesting ways: to illustrate talks; focusing effort; informing seasonality; seeing pattern; recording my world birding. With 7 million records now being submitted annually into BirdTrack, growing contributions from individual users maintain the value of this extensive dataset, and we have just published a paper on the quality of the BirdTrack data compared to other more rigorous surveys, such as BBS.

Andy Clements' BirdTrack count
Andy's BirdTrack counts for Ruff at Titchwell. 

Widening our appeal

So, given that I am a committed volunteer submitting all sorts of data, why do I think we need to improve? It comes back to attracting more participants and growing them into skilled volunteers, and communicating much more effectively the value of our data to decision-makers and to wider society. At present what we know is that, despite developments in our survey interfaces, new people often bounce off without contributing. We also don’t produce enough data products and survey opportunities for new people. We are seen to set the skill-level bar pretty high and beginner birders may think we are not for them. In terms of communicating inspiring stories, we are beginning to understand the power of new technologies, for example through our Cuckoo tracking work, but we are aware that we can be much more creative.

We have begun to test the water in two recent surveys designed to attract new supporters. The Tawny Owl Calling Survey, which was designed to be easy to take part in, attracted 7,000 new volunteers for whom this was their first encounter with BTO. And ‘GardenWatch’, in partnership with BBC SpringWatch and the Open University, gave people an opportunity to undertake four simple missions of data-gathering relating to their gardens, engaging a total of over 250,000 participants. I believe both these initiatives are the sorts of opportunity BTO should be giving more people, more of the time. And, of course, hearing from you who are interested in taking part, will help us to together design opportunities that really meet your needs.

I would like BTO to be accessible for all and the go-to place for people wanting to know about birds, and wanting to contribute to our shared outstanding knowledge base.  

I would like BTO to be accessible for all and the go-to place for people wanting to know about birds, and wanting to contribute to our shared outstanding knowledge base. Our new website is a great start, but we need to do more, to offer simpler opportunities to contribute, to create spine-tingling stories from our amazing knowledge of birds, and to appeal to a new and wider audience, all without diminishing our reputation for outstanding science.

We'd love to hear how you think we can achieve these aspirations - let us know in the comments below.

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