Tuesday 24 May 2011

BirdTrack. Scientifical enlightenment for the bored birder.

As you may know, I have recently been beavering away on a taxonomic section of the 2008 London Bird Report. I was asked to contribute to the 2007 report, had the time, so said yes. I thought it would be a way give something back to the London birding community from whom I have learned a great deal over the past few years. Having spent many hours going through about seventy LBRs looking for historic records from Wanstead, I can appreciate the extraordinary amount of work that a small number of people put into this publication.

It took hours, far more work than I was expecting. No sooner had I submitted my section for 2007, 2008 appeared in my inbox. I procrastinated for ages, ignored it for longer, and finally started about a day before the deadline. It too took ages, several evenings of work, and then a day-long slog to break the back of it. I finally finished last week. No pressing of "send" has ever felt better. I have a dreadful feeling that 2009 is 'in the post', but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Being totally open and honest about it, it was not in any way enjoyable. In fact it was downright dull - it felt like I was back at work. I had a monster spreadsheet with thousands of records, and I had to write them up extrememly formulaicly, with little or no scope for individual expression. That which I managed to sneak in was ruthlessly edited out once I had sent it in; my contribution was as a number-cruncher and touch-typist. I am being extremely selfish I suppose, but it wasn't my kind of bird-related fun.

Nonetheless I did it. It would have been churlish to return the email marked "Sorry, too boring", and a slap in the face for the many hours spent submitting records by what I have to say is a very small number of extremely dedicated birders. My section has been Crests to Treecreeper. This includes Blue Tits.

Reader(s), do you count Blue Tits as you walk round your patch? I don't, or do so very rarely. Yet there are people who do, and do so religiously. As I worked through the data, I marvelled at the effort it must have taken, after every patch visit, to go online and submit counts. Real counts, counts of 13 singing males, or a pair with three fledged young. My kind of counts are "One, two, three, ten, 15, ah call it 40". Or, "'Cor, that looks like a lot. Er, 80 I reckon". These people have made much more effort.

I go birding on the patch most days of the week - except in June, and more recently, May - and I record my sightings on my own home-made spreadsheet that has now been going years and is extremely unwieldy. I also used to dutifully record the more interesting birds (ie not Blue Tits) on a web page of London Sightings. Were these somehow taken off for the LBR? A quick search of the data I had in front of me suggested not, so I got in touch with my local recorder to ask how it was done. The upshot of this was that I went through my spreadsheet for 2008 and 2009 cherry-picking interesting sightings, and sent them to him in the desired format. When I got my hands on the 2008 data Crests to Treecreeper, the first thing I did was to look for my name - obviously. Four records. Four lonely records, though these did include my gem of a Pied Flycatcher from near Alexandra Lake on a morning that will remain in my memory just about for ever. Still, four records is Pitiful, and with a capital P. I resolved to do something about it.

Enter Birdtrack. The patch workers who make up the bulk of the contributions for the LBR use Birdtrack. After each visit, they conscientiously log the details of their entire visit, and that data feeds not only the BTO's national database for the purposes of proper scientific stuff, but also the local recorders. It turned out I already had a user name and password from the BTO Altas tetrad stuff, so I put that in and off I went, starting from January 1st 2010. I'm on March now, and boy is it dull. Duller even than writing the LBR, and that is saying something. Were I starting from the present day, it would be easy though, a synch. The format is very straightforward, it would take five minutes a day if that. But I have over 150 site visits to enter, plus all my garden skywatching sessions. A quick calculation reveals that I have about sixteen hours of solid data entry ahead of me. Whoopee. I started yesterday, and am now on about mid-March for Wanstead Flats in 2010. It is a long road ahead...

Am I selling it to you? I doubt it. But look, forget about your past records, I am just being bloody-minded. If you start from today it will be easy, a piece of cake. As I was doing a few errands in Wanstead Village yesterday morning, I casually noted a recently fledged Pied Wagtail with an adult. It was the work of moments when I got home to enter it into Birdtrack. Confirmed Breeding! And very satisfying. And so Sean H, who may or may not still be writing Larks to Waxwing in 2011, will now get an additional line in his spreadsheet that I expect he will simply gloss over, as the smallest number of Pied Wagtails from the Essex sector that got a mention in 2007 was 46, and I am 44 short.... But I will have contributed to our national knowledge of Pied Wagtails in urban environments, and I am immensely proud of that. J Lethbridge, OBE, for services to science and stuff.  But if I can replicate that consistently going forward, then my contribution will keep growing and growing, and all the hours I put into patch-working will not just sit on my computer, but hopefully be of use to the wider birding community. So go on, give it a try. Come on, it's June, what else were you going to be doing?! I promise that it's really really easy. Athough you do have to actually count the Blue Tits first....

This juvenile Starling, the first I've seen this year, is now a scientific record.

1 comment:

  1. I have been a Birdtrack user since 2009, but I haven't always been religious about inputting my sightings. I do find that its very time-consuming indeed when you are trying to add all the extra information (Sex, Breeding status, habitat etc). Having spent a lot of evenings over the last 3 weeks, just entering my sightings for April and May, I think that you are either a very fast typist or you are seriously underestimating the amount of time involved in entering 12-months+ worth of records. :)

    I've had burst of keen-ness when I have entered everything and then months have gone by without a thing. I do find it rather slow to use, but given the lack of enthusiasm I've encountered when emailling County Bird Recorders, I've decided that if they are not interested in my counts of robins and suchlike on the Scrubs, then Birdtrack are at least.

    I don't know if you have tried the spreadsheet upload option, but I've been unable to get it to work for me and as it works only for the basic details, I'd have to enter a lot of the detailled information manually anyway.

    What's really needed is an easy to use, smartphone application that can be used to record details when out birding and which can then be used to upload the sightings straight afterwards. I reckon that 9 hours birding at the weekend has involved almost 2 hours of data-entry afterwards - there has to be a more efficient way of doing this!