Following the launch of Eynsham’s Garden Survey last year, some people have started doing monthly surveys of ‘patches’ or routes around Eynsham. We now have offers from a good number of people who know their common birds so that we can expand the areas that we monitor. Some of them have offered to take other people on their route to help them learn. This ‘experience-sharing’ element works for some people and not for others – doing a survey alone is equally valuable to the project.

Also important to note is the number of people who have expressed concern about ‘not being an expert’ and therefore not being the best people to do surveys. We watched a talk on bird monitoring on the River Thame recently and the project organiser said that diffidence was the greatest obstacle to the project. So, if you know the common birds we need you! And we need you regularly…

Sally Taylor will be looking at the data and, Vignesh, our young ecologist friend will come up with some interesting graphs etc. Don and Judy Reid have offered to try being the encouragers and rallyers. We’ve been a bit under-resourced in this department until now and, as a result, some of the novice garden surveyors now need encouraging to return to the task… So, Don and Judy (or Catriona) might ask you, once in a while, for a few lines on your patch or anything of interest that you might like to share with the community. They will also be the ones to communicate with when you have done a survey and they might sometimes do a gentle chivvy… Chris Baker has written a wonderful 200 words on why he does the garden bird survey, which we are about to use to re-inspire people to take it up again for the spring:

The sparrowhawk perched on the garden bird feeder was about six feet away from me in the kitchen making tea. 

It looked me over in the mad-eyed, super-caffeinated way birds of prey have. Quite a moment. And then it was off -- living a wild life on fast-forward, unlike slow lockdown me. Whatever garden bird it had been after this time had got away.

These days, such experiences are noted on a clipboard kept by the kettle in our kitchen. Then each week I fill out a form for the British Trust for Ornithology, and I also send the data to our local exercise, the Eynsham Garden Birdwatch. 

There’s a serious point to this slight bit of admin. Get a big enough collection of bird sightings and scientists can work out all sorts of stuff about the natural world and how it might be changing. But it relies on volunteers for enough sightings.  It’s fun to be useful, but it’s also useful to have fun. Something like the sparrowhawk sighting would stand out anyway. But you can’t enjoy what you don’t notice. And having the spreadsheet by the kettle keeps us noticing and enjoying all our garden bird visitors.

We are also setting up a bird survey ‘group’ on the soon-to-be launched NRN website and a discussion forum to generate further interest around our local birds.

What is our aim in doing this?

To:

  • Use the data gathered to create a baseline from which to set targets and monitor recovery of our local habitats and wildlife over time.
  • Build a local database, based on scientific principles, that is accessible to the local community and can be used by them to defend, protect and enhance our local wildlife.
  • Encourage learning in a broad section of the local community as a means of increasing concern and protection of our local wildlife on the premise that you can only value what you know.
  • Collate, store, analyse and disseminate data to create a local professional resource that can be used in discussion of development and planning. 
  • Share our data widely for research to enhance the protection and recovery of nature. The data will be open source and free for anyone to use.

How are we doing it?

Having now gathered a strong group of birders, we have taken some time to consult with a young Indian ecologist friend of Catriona’s who has been at Oxford University and who initiated a very similar project to ours in Bangalore, India, a few years ago.

One of the greatest problems in gathering data, is collecting it in a format that is most useful to most people. We have discovered, over the last nine months, that many NGOs have developed their own formats. Some (eg BTO) even have a different format for entering data for their Garden Survey and Bird Track.

In order to future-proof our data, and make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible, including future audiences, we have developed an excel form and phone app. using data standards followed by the Global Biodiversity Facility (GBIF). This will allow us to upload it to BTO, for example, but also to the Thames Valley Environmental Records Centre (TVERC) and others.

Another key principle of NRN surveys is that they should be easily accessible by all members of the community. We know that some people prefer to take only a paper and pencil into the field. Vignesh has introduced us to an amazing programme called Field Papers. This allows you to download and print out a map of your route/patch and write your survey data on it. Because it prints with a QR code, we can then photograph your printed map with your findings and upload it to show their grid reference, which can then be entered into the excel form. This is a bit more work for us so if you’re happy to use your phone or enter the data yourself in excel with a grid reference that would be great but we also love this possibility of being able to cater to the ‘paper and pencil’ preferers, who don’t want technology to spoil their experience of nature!

In order to make our data comparable, it would be helpful if we can define times of day that you will do it. Usually, this would be a few hours after sunrise or before sunset. Obviously, in the UK this might be a big ask in summer time. Perhaps you can let us know what is reasonable for you, but avoiding the middle of the day if possible.

It is useful to have the observer name is so that if there are any questions regarding that particular survey, or if a bird X is always being misidentified as Y by a particular observer, it can be easily traced. But some people may not want their name made public. We are preparing a consent form but that includes the option of having your name hidden. 

Data input

It is essential to have all the data collected in a common format to avoid errors and to make it comparable to other local and global datasets. This also reduces the backend work of collating and cleaning up of data. Having open data with well-defined data standards will help this project have a wider impact.

Below is the format for inputing data in the excel sheet or phone app. If you are using a field papers printed map, please mark your sightings with a number and add the information on a separate sheet, preferably excel, but a notebook page is also ok.

If you are using the phone app. https://ee.kobotoolbox.org/x/19kjrsuT you can add all your sightings at one GPS location by clicking ‘add’ rather than re-writing observer name etc. for each entry. This adds a bit of extra time at the backend so it would be good to have feedback if this is useful function or whether it is not too much bother to write the whole form for each sighting.

Judy and Don propose that we record other animals at the same time. The form doesn’t allow this yet but when Vignesh comes back from his field trip, I can ask if we can adapt it or whether we need to create individual forms.

Species (required) Common name of the bird (please check that you have written it correctly eg great spotted woodpecker, not greater spotted woodpecker)

Date (required) Date of observation in DD/MM/YYYY format

Place (required) Location/address of observation

Latitude/Longitude (required) GPS location in decimal degrees

Count (required) Number of individuals observed

Start time (required)

End time (required) Start and end time of observation/survey in 24H format HH:MM

Observation comment (optional) Any comments or additional notes about the bird eg male/female, fledgling, flying over etc or about the site. These comments about the data are also 'data', and are technically called 'metadata'. Metadata frequently turn out to be an important source of answers to questions that we have not yet thought to ask!

Weather comment (optional) Notes about weather

Habitat (optional) Notes about the habitat where species was observed

Observer (required) Observer(s) name (requires consent)