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Haith’s takes a gander at the BTO’s new “interactive” Garden BirdWatch results

Thursday, 15th October 2015

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recently launched its new Garden BirdWatch interactive results page and asked Simon King at Haith’s to take a look and report back his findings – here’s what he found…
First things first, I’ve always thought it a shame that the Garden BirdWatch (GBW) data isn’t shared in a manner that makes it easier to use and certainly more interesting to look at. The BTO and its community of “citizen scientists” put so much effort into bird counting and it must be an anti-climax to see the nation’s data served back on a spot colour graph that (sorry BTO) is suitable for scientists but which lacks the appeal and flexibility of the digital age. So imagine my delight when the BTO contacted me and asked me to take a look at their new interactive results page?

For the sake of good order, though, I should first explain what the BTO Garden BirdWatch (GBW) is. For those who don’t already know: “GBW monitors the changing fortunes of birds and other garden wildlife through its network of citizen scientists. Observations collected by BTO GBW are analysed by BTO researchers and published in leading journals. BTO Garden BirdWatchers have charted the decline of the House Sparrow, the rise of the Woodpigeon, have discovered that urban birds get up later than their rural counterparts and have alerted conservationists to the impact of an emerging disease in Greenfinches” says the BTO. I for one would agree with that summary wholeheartedly; however, again, what they haven’t done is make the information interactive and (dare I say it) entertaining. Until now…

The first page of the interactive data breaks the mould for the BTO and instantly invites one to have a play, this is what it looks like:

Results

The BTO scientists can continue to mine the data but now it’s presented in a way that enthusiasts and amateur naturalists can enjoy.

What I like about the data is that it’s still rich with information and it can be layered with previous years’ data or different birds as per the “annual patterns of garden use” chart below.

Step one:

Visit http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/results/annual-patterns-garden-use

Step two:

Select a species:

What do you want to plot

Step three:

Click on “Show graph”

Show graph

Step four:

Click on + Add Plot (shown above in blue)
Add the same bird species or different one and select a year (for the example below I selected 2014).

Step five:

Compare the data (see below).

Compare the data

What does it show? The black line is 2014 data – which is why there are results for October, November and December. The light blue line represents 2015. We can see that there were fewer Blue Tits in gardens in June this year compared with 2014, but that trend reverses in September as there were more Blue Tits using our gardens this August and September. Helpful? I think so.

Let’s take a look at our good friend the cockney sparrow whose population we’re lead to believe has been in freefall since the 70s:

House sparrow data

Sadly the earliest data available is only 2003; however, the chart illustrates the annual decline. Statisticians amongst our readers will note that once a trend is set in motion it tends to stay in motion and – with that in mind - House Sparrows’ fortunes look bleak, don’t they?

BTO scientists use the GBW data to assist conservation efforts. The recent BTO good news that garden bird feeding may be driving positive evolutionary change in Blackcaps is a feather in the cap for all garden birders. According to the BTO, “New research using data from Garden BirdWatch volunteers has revealed that bird food provided in British gardens has helped Blackcaps to rapidly evolve a successful new migration route. This is the first time that garden bird feeding has been shown to affect large-scale bird distributions.” That’s quite a claim and it’s not hyperbole, it’s a scientific fact that Blackcaps are benefitting from the supplementary bird food we put out in our gardens for them and other species.

Another fascinating feature is the Garden BirdWatch maps, which illustrate by “distribution”, “seasonality” or “Long-term”. Seasonality is something dear to all our hearts at this time of year as the first sightings of swallows can mean one thing…warmer weather is on its way. The map below shows how swallows are plotted…

March sees the very first sightings; by April our shores are inundated with swallows. The BTO have added a neat “Play” button (show below in blue) and clicking on it – on the BTO website - displays a month by month seasonality map, which I really like.

seasonality map

Communities of birds and other wildlife are illustrated by county/region on a colourful wheel that can even be exported as a JPG and accessed locally on your PC. The pie chart below illustrates the area of North East Lincolnshire (home to the Haith’s Bird Food Centre). This chart will be of interest to anyone who’s looking to improve their knowledge of birds; for example, did we all know that the UK’s favourite bird, the Robin, is a member of the Chats and thrushes family? Typically we’ll say “thrushes” and consider these to be Song Thrushes and Mistle Thrushes; however, are we also surprised to see that the Blackbird is a member of the thrush family?

Here in North East Lincolnshire the hedge “accentors” are quite common and often identified incorrectly as House Sparrows. We garden birders would never fall for that ID trap, though, would we? The easiest way to identify them, other than the fact that they look different, is by observing their feeding habits; it’s rare to see a Dunnock feeding on a bird feeder whereas a House Sparrow will happily feed from one. Dunnocks prefer to feed on from the ground.

Graph

I encourage the Haith’s community to visit the BTO website (http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/results) and have a play with the interactive results. As for my feedback to the BTO…I think congratulations are in order.

Feed more birds for less


 

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