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Keeping a watchful eye on our waterbirds - the Wetland Bird Survey

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Logo: Wetland Bird Survey

Great Britain hosts an estimated 13 million waterbirds in winter. Population estimates of our non-breeding waterbirds are just one output from the UK’s Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) – along with annual species trends, site totals, protected site trends, low tide distribution maps of estuaries and the UK’s wintering waterbird indicator. All these statistics rely on the fieldwork of around 3,000 counters, coordinated by 140 volunteer Local Organisers and the WeBS team at BTO, on behalf of the WeBS partnership.

So, as someone working or aspiring to work in the countryside management sector, why might you be interested in WeBS?

Contributing to the scheme

Counting for WeBS using a camera on wetland (Teresa Frost)
Counting for WeBS (Teresa Frost)

WeBS Core Counts take part monthly throughout the year, with a particular emphasis on coverage in September – March. On every visit the counter must estimate the numbers of all waterbirds present on their site or part of a site. Unlike other waterbirds, counting gulls and terns is optional.

There are two main ways people get involved in WeBS. Most come directly as a volunteer to cover a site (or part of a site) – more details of how to do this are given below. In other cases, where the wetland is managed by a conservation organisation, the counts may be done by the reserve manager or their staff and volunteers.

One of the amazing things about WeBS is its longevity – the scheme began with national wildfowl counts in 1947. Consistency is very important for WeBS, and where possible the same counter is encouraged to stick with their site for as long as they are able. We have some amazing volunteers who have counted the same site for over 50 years! This does mean that your first choice of site may not be available, if it is already being counted by someone else. However, it can still be worth getting in touch with the Local Organiser, because depending on local circumstances you may be able to join a site team or provide cover when the regular counter is on holiday.

There are many sites that do not have a counter, and counters are retiring constantly (although sometimes only in their 80s, when mobility issues catch up with them!). So we are always looking for new counters across the country. As well as sites with many waterbirds on, where coverage is really important – places like large reservoirs, wetland reserves and estuaries – we need a reasonable sample of smaller sites, river and coast to be covered, so that statistics are representative for the waterbird species that occur more widely in the countryside.

Counting these smaller sites can be a great place for people to get experience in bird monitoring, as well as a way people can provide much needed data for places they are visiting regularly such as a local park. We’ve particularly noticed some of our younger recruits starting off on these smaller sites, and then, after building their ID and counting experience, joining teams on the more complex sites. Continuity of counter on smaller sites is a little less important, as the sites are a bit easier to count accurately than the large sites, where you really need to know the site, its birds, and how they behave there to do an accurate count. So these types of sites are ideally suited to those who are only able to commit for a couple of years before they move on, for example whilst they are at university or in their hometown before getting that dream job in the wilds – where hopefully they will again take on some local WeBS sites!

It’s also worth being aware some universities have bird or conservation societies who “adopt” a WeBS site. This is a fantastic way for people to count as a group, find about WeBS and learn from each other, and means that although the people may be changing, we are getting data from the site on a continual basis.

Accessing WeBS data

Whether or not you take part in the scheme yourself, or organise the counts on a site you manage, if you are involved in managing a wetland site there is potentially a wealth of information available to you from the WeBS scheme – in some cases data going back to 1947, although we do still have some historical data from pre-1966 to digitise.

The first port of call is the WeBS Report Online. This gives data at a site level, although note that some of the sites are very big – e.g. the Solway Estuary. This published summary data is available to everyone to view and use as downloadable open data. More detailed data, including monthly counts on parts of large sites, is available via data requests and our data management system WeBS Online. Free access is available to landowners, so do get in touch if you think WeBS count data might be available on your site and you don’t already have access.

Find out more

All the information on the scheme, methods and results can be found via www.bto.org/webs. View the WeBS Report Online at www.bto.org/webs-reporting and see details of all WeBS data available at http://www.bto.org/webs-data.

WeBS is a partnership jointly funded by the BTO, RSPB and JNCC, in association with WWT, with fieldwork conducted by volunteers.

Partnership logos: BTO, RSPB, JNCC & WWT

More details on how to take part

  • Use the WeBS Vacant Sites tool at www.bto.org/webs-vacant-sites to find sites near you that aren’t currently being counted. The largest sites are divided into countable sectors and each sector is shown separately in the tool.
  • Consider what type and size of site would be suitable for you. Small sites with few birds may take as little as 20 minutes to count and suit someone less experienced at surveying, whereas a site that involves a lot of walking or has thousands of birds of many species could take several hours. If you are a skilled birder, why not see if you can help us fill in priority site gaps?
  • You need to be able to accurately identify all the waterbirds that regularly use the site. One way to get an idea of which species regularly occur is to use the “View Site” link in the vacant sites tool to view historical data on the online WeBS report.
  • You also need to be able to accurately count the number of each species present during your WeBS count. Consider access points and what landowner permissions you may need to obtain. Some sites can only be feasibly counted by boat.
  • For priority sites, it is especially important that few visits are missed, so counters need to commit to counting on the official core count Sunday (the national priority date or local tide-adjusted date for certain estuaries) as often as possible throughout the year, with particular emphasis on the September – March period. Other counters should also try and complete their counts on the priority date – but a count on another proximate date can be better than none at all!
  • Some regions have fewer existing WeBS sites set up. If you regularly visit a river, lake or other wetland that isn’t already a WeBS site, you can ask us to set it up as a site for you.
  • Contact your Local Organiser through the WeBS Vacant Site tool to get allocated to the site and we’ll send you the WeBS Counter starter pack.
  • Want further advice? Chat to your WeBS Local Organiser about local mentoring and training opportunities or guidance on how you can best get involved locally and visit the WeBS website at www.bto.org/webs.

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