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Biological Recording

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Logo: Natural History Museum - Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity
Steph Skipp helping a family on the Tring bioblitz (copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)
Steph Skipp helping a family on the Tring bioblitz (copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)

Most people who are passionate about the natural world and who enjoy going outside, either to their garden, local parks or the wider countryside, usually enjoy identifying what they see to some degree. They might be participating in national recording days, such as the “Big Garden Birdwatch”, or making regular surveys of their local green spaces for Butterfly Conservation. But whatever they do, biological recording can be an incredibly fun and addictive hobby that can take you on a lifelong journey of appreciation or even a related career.

I suppose my own interest in natural history started when I used to try to catch bees and butterflies with my hands in my parent's garden - even being stung didn’t seem to put me off! I started actual biological recording in my teens when I was given a moth trap and a copy of Skinner’s identification guide. For years I would put the trap out in my garden or on my local nature reserve and then send in all the species lists to my local records centre – just for fun, without really thinking about what happened to the records. At that time I just wanted to see more things and build a longer list.

Katy Potts recording beetles (copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)
Katy Potts recording beetles (copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)

Later, in my 20s, I looked at the Wildlife Trust’s paper files on the same nature reserve and saw that naturalists before me had seen hundreds of insects and plants that I didn’t even know existed. My curiosity was instantly piqued and I joined lots of insect study groups like the Dipterist’s Forum, Bees Wasp & Ants Recording Scheme and the British Entomological & Natural History Society so that I could meet the experts and learn from them. I twigged pretty quickly that a microscope was needed but after a bit of saving I was able to get a simple one and I started to enrol on just about every identification workshop and field trip that I could.

You have to be comfortable with taking voucher specimens if you want to work on the more “difficult” groups, like flies, wasps or beetles. But I had dabbled in pinning dead moths and I fully understood the necessity to take specimens to be able to see the very tiny features that guide you through the identification process. A voucher collection of well prepared and well labelled specimens (showing what it is, where it was caught, when it was seen and who caught and identified it) is also a valuable learning and reference tool which needs to be looked after and stored correctly because it will hopefully be passed on eventually to a museum for longterm study by other experts. Collections are more relevant than ever as researchers seek to compare changes in biodiversity through the centuries.

This eventually led to me starting the UK Tachinid Fly Recording Scheme with a colleague - collating records and mentoring others in how to study and record parasite flies. Then, in 2012 I joined the Natural History Museum’s Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, where I both encourage and support UK natural historians and I also look after the database that supplies all of the names of UK wildlife to the biggest national recording projects. I’d gone full circle and was now in the position to help the next generation of taxonomists and recorders.

Hardy naturalists surveying botany in the rain with Fred Rumsey (copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)
Hardy naturalists surveying botany in the rain with Fred Rumsey (copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)

Going back to the beginnings, the key to biological recording is a passion for needing to know what something is. Good observation and identification skills are essential because accuracy is vital to the integrity of the data - if you are ever unsure about your observation it’s best not to log it. I would also always recommend going out into the field or to workshops and learning from other experts – they will be able to give you tips that you’ll never find in the books. There are also a lot of good mentoring groups on social media (e.g. Facebook & Twitter) where you can post photos and discuss IDs with the experts – it’s a very sociable hobby.

You can submit your sightings directly to individual recording organisations, like Butterfly Conservation, the British Trust for Ornithology or to individual recording schemes like mine. But many people enjoy using apps like iNaturalist, which has elements of Artificial Intelligence and crowd-sourced identification to help you if you don’t know what you have photographed. But if you are sure of what you have seen, a better solution is to use iRecord, a free national system for logging all wildlife sightings, where the data is instantly made available to recording schemes and local records centres.

What happens to all this data though? Well, most of it gets collated by researchers on platforms like the NBN Atlas where distribution maps can be created, and phenology can be plotted. The raw data can also be crunched and help contribute towards the answers to big questions, such as around climate change and the effect of human actions on the world around us. It doesn’t matter if you are recording a rare fly on a mountain or a blackbird in your back garden – it all counts and it all helps to protect our vital natural resources. So why not get out this weekend and take your phone or simply a notebook. Jot down what you see and tell people – make a difference and start the hobby of a lifetime!

By Chris Raper,

Manager of the UK Species Inventory,

The Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity,

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces with Parks Community UK on 22 February 2021. Read the full issue here

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