The birds are counting on you

A HUGE bird project is about to get under way and it’s one in which readers of the Outdoors page can participate.

Commencing in November and continuing until 2011, the bird populations of Britain and Ireland will be censused and their distributions mapped.

The first such bird survey was carried out between 1968 and 1972. Almost 15,000 volunteers took part, making it the largest co-operative field project undertaken anywhere in the world up to that time.

All of the 3,862 10km by 10km squares in these islands were visited during the summer months each year and the birds nesting, singing or feeding their young were noted. In some cases, observers spent up to 200 hours in a single square trying to prove the presence of the more elusive species.

The Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, edited by Jim Sharrock, gave the findings of the mammoth survey, with distribution maps for every breeding species. Published in 1976, it proved a pioneering work and bird societies throughout Europe tried to emulate it.

The volunteer army took to the field again between 1988 and 1991 to bring the breeding data up to date. The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, which appeared in 1997, also focused on the changes which had occurred in the bird populations since the original survey and identified the main trends in bird numbers. This, together with the original volume, provides the baseline against which changes in our bird populations have been measured.

Breeding atlases, of course, only deal with the summer months. To complete the bird picture, the squares were visited during the winters of 1981/2 through to 1983/4. The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland appeared in 1986. The winter atlas showed not only where birds were, it attempted to estimate the numbers present in each square.

The fieldwork for the new atlas is scheduled to begin on November 1. The project is being organised, once again, by the British Trust for Ornithology in Britain and Northern Ireland and by BirdWatch Ireland here. The new atlas will cover both winter and summer periods and estimates of numbers of birds present in each square will be made. It will, therefore, be the most ambitious field atlas attempted anywhere. It’s a daunting prospect, but then, there are far more bird-watchers around than there were during the previous surveys. The identification books, bird-song tapes and binoculars which are available today are also better.

The past few decades have been a time of great change for our birds. Farmland species, in general, have declined. The corn bunting is extinct here. Corncrake, partridge and twite have almost disappeared and cuckoos are thin on the ground. But not all the changes have been bad. The fortunes of our birds of prey, many of which were in deep trouble during the other atlas periods, have improved. There is also a newcomer among our wetland birds, the little egret has arrived. It has become a familiar sight on Irish estuaries.

A volunteer usually surveys at least one 10km square. Discovering which birds are present, and determining whether they are breeding or not, may mean spending some time in an area. Finding some of the shyer species requires careful detective fieldwork and censusing is an excellent way to improve field skills. You may feel that your knowledge of bird identification is not up to the task, but don’t be discouraged. Everybody can recognise a robin, a blackbird or a magpie. Any reliable record, even of a common species, is valuable, so get hold of a pair of binoculars (size between 8 X 30 and 10 X 50) and one of the many excellent bird identification books which are available nowadays and have a go.

Report all of the birds which you are able, reliably, to recognise. Don’t worry about species which you can’t identify or ones which you think you may have missed; other observers may find them. You should also submit what are called ‘roving records’; these are sightings of species which you happen on accidentally anywhere in Ireland or Britain. Make sure to note the locations of such observations accurately, so that the sightings can be assigned to the correct squares.

This time around there is a further innovation. Timed counts will be carried out in selected tetrads (a tetrad is a 2km by 2km square); two counts per tetrad in the breeding season and two during the autumn. This technique, combined with the fancy statistical software which is available, should enable more accurate estimates to be made of bird numbers. Not every observer, however, will be expected to carry out timed counts.

Now is the time to start brushing up on your bird-watching skills and thinking about the square, or squares, which you might be able to cover. BirdWatch is recruiting observers and the Atlas co-ordinator for Ireland, Brian Caffrey, will be giving a series of talks and workshops over the next few months. More information is available from BirdWatch Ireland’s Midland Office, Crank House, Banaher, Co Offaly or email

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