Survey essentials

Two volunteers in a field surveying, by David Tipling / BTO

Participating in surveys is both rewarding and educational

It gives your birdwatching a different focus and helps you develop new skills, such as counting individual birds and using maps to plot their locations.

At the same time, when you take part in a survey it means you are helping to gather valuable data to help us understand how birds are faring and what can be done to help them. It can seem daunting at first, but it soon becomes second nature. The following advice applies to all our surveys and other less-structured schemes*, and will help you to quickly build your confidence.

*We also refer to some of our surveys and schemes as ‘projects’.


  • Before taking on a survey, review the requirements. Do you have the necessary skills and time? Can it be done anywhere and if not, is it taking place near you (or are you visiting the area where it is happening, e.g. Upland Rovers)?
  • Familiarise yourself with survey methods. Each survey has a ‘Taking part’ section on the website, and many have video tutorials that explain how the survey is carried out.
  • Using a map or your knowledge of the area, check if there are any particular hazards or access issues and seek permission from the landowner if necessary.
  • Surveys require you to record some information whilst you are in the field. Make sure you have the right paperwork – this might be sent to you by your Regional / Local Organiser or you can print what you need from the relevant survey pages on the BTO website. A clipboard and a pen will be useful, too!

Read our guidance

Be consistent in your approach

A common concern of people new to surveys is that they might make a mistake, causing the information they collect to be inferior to that of an experienced surveyor. Don’t worry about this: we all make mistakes, and our analyses check for between-observer differences that might introduce bias, accounting for this when necessary.

The key message is to be consistent within your own surveying. For example, if you do a BBS early visit during the second week of April one year, try to make your early visit the following year in the same week. The survey methods will give you guidance about this.

If in doubt ...

When it comes to identification, apply the mantra ‘if in doubt, leave it out’.

If whilst doing a BirdTrack complete list you see a distant gull that you don’t recognise, don’t assume it is a Herring Gull. In several schemes, including BirdTrack, Garden BirdWatch and WeBS, there are ‘either/or’ and ‘unidentified’ options, such as ‘Redpoll (Lesser/Common)’ and ‘unidentified small wader’.

These can be useful if you witness a movement of birds, such as finches moving overhead or groups of waders passing offshore, but cannot assign them to species.

Looking out for Osprey at the Birdfair
Come and meet BTO staff and representatives at events 

Ask for help

At a local scale, many surveys are coordinated by Regional / Local Organisers (who are part of our Regional Network). They are always willing to answer questions about the survey to help you feel more confident.

Some regions host local training events and provide mentoring opportunities, and we also offer a programme of training courses.

Each survey has online resources to help you get started, often including video tutorials, and if you have particular questions or concerns that are not addressed elsewhere, you can always contact the national Survey Organiser via the survey’s web pages.

BTO statement on auto-ID tools

Auto-ID tools that use audio or image inputs to provide species identification are growing in popularity and accuracy. The Merlin Bird ID app is particularly popular for bird identification by sound, and can be extremely useful for learning bird songs and calls.

However, the outputs of auto-ID tools are currently not accurate enough to ensure that our data are robust and high-quality. We also don't yet understand how wider use of auto-ID tools might affect the results of our long-term schemes.

We therefore ask that volunteers taking part in any of our monitoring schemes and in BirdTrack do not rely solely on these apps in the field, and only add records to their survey data if they are confirmed by sight or hearing.

Specifically, BBS/WBBS Surveyors should not rely on Merlin/auto-ID apps for identification when in the field; BBS/WBBS will, for the time being, remain a survey conducted by human surveyors. Use of such tools should only be used for confirmatory purposes.

We do recognise that, with sufficient improvements in accuracy and guidelines on use, the tools do have the potential to increase the quality and quantity of data collected. They may also open survey participation to a wider audience and engage more people with our work. High-quality data and inclusion are very important to us, so we will continue to monitor the development of the tools and update our statement accordingly.

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