Monitoring has been the cornerstone of science at the BTO since its inception more than 70 years ago, encompassing a range of volunteer and professional-oriented annual and periodic surveys, breeding and wintering bird atlases, garden bird surveys, online bird recording as well as special species or habitat-focused surveys. Much of this is achieved through a unique partnership between staff scientists and a large network of skilled volunteers who undertake a comprehensive array of carefully designed surveys that deliver annual information on most of Britain’s breeding and wintering birds.
The largest recent project was the 2007-11 Bird Atlas, which aimed to determine the breeding and wintering ranges of all British species comprehensively at the 10-km scale, for comparison with the previous three atlases organised by BTO. Garden BirdWatch, involving more than 15,000 volunteers that record weekly numbers of common wildlife species is the largest survey. Outside gardens, BTO organises two of the largest annual surveys of birds in the UK. These are the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey in which volunteers provide counts of all terrestrial bird species on more than 3200 randomly-selected squares, and the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Wetland Bird Survey in which volunteers count most of the UK’s wintering waterbirds on key wetland and coastal sites. These are complemented by a suite of special surveys targeted at riparian birds (Waterways Breeding Bird Survey), herons and egrets (the Heronries Census) and periodic national surveys of species as diverse as Barn Owl, Nightingale and Peregrine. Together with information from surveys related to the demographics of bird populations (Nest Record Scheme, Ringing schemes), annual censuses provide a way of assessing whether effects during the breeding season (e.g. through reduced productivity) or over winter (e.g. through changes in survival) are driving the observed changes in numbers.
The BTO promotes good practice in monitoring and continues to develop its field recording protocols, its use of new technologies including remote sensing devices and online data capture, survey sampling designs, and new analytical methodologies. Expertise is shared with collaborators involved in the monitoring of non-avian taxa, and with bird monitoring initiatives across Europe. BTO monitoring methods have also been adapted to address a range of issues in the UK, including assessing the impact of agricultural, upland or forest land use policies, climate change and other potential drivers of environmental change.
Recent research on Monitoring
Too wet to nest?
Data gathered by nest recorders helps us understand why some nests are successful and others are not. Recent BTO research has developed a method to analyse nest record data more effectively, and revealed some intriguing differences in the effect of rainfall on Blackbird nest success.
Summer migrants stay for longer as the UK climate warms
New BTO research has used volunteer data from long-running citizen science schemes to show how the timing of bird migration to and from the UK has changed since the 1960s.
Cormorant control: it's not clear cut
The UK Cormorant population has increased in size and range in recent decades, with more birds breeding and wintering inland. This has led to conflicts with some fisheries, so licences have been issued to kill up to 2,000 birds annually since the mid-2000s. New research by the BTO has examined whether this control has been associated with changes in Cormorant numbers on WeBS sites, particularly on Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated to protect species under the European Birds Directive.
The study found no evidence that killing Cormorants one winter affected numbers at local sites the following winter. Cormorant population growth was associated with higher intensity control, although this does not show whether control has influenced the national population trend, as Cormorants may simply disperse as a result of disturbance. Further work is needed to monitor Cormorants outside WeBS sites and to research their population dynamics and behaviour. The key questions of whether Cormorant control has the desired effect of reducing predation at fisheries, and how cost effective it is compared to other measures, remain to be answered.
Why become a BTO Regional Network volunteer?
In the first of our Regional Network blog miniseries, we speak to Stephen, David and Nick about why they started volunteering and the changes they’ve seen since then.
Wild Bird indicators
The latest updates to this official government report bring yet more sobering news about bird population trends across different landscapes.