Thursday, 10 March 2011

Some musings on "citizen science" and rarities

Reading Wikipedia today I discovered that the BTO is regarded as one of the worlds leading "citizen science" organisations. I was looking at definitions of birder, twitcher and ornithologist and it came as a surprise to me to find a new label. I started out as a science student so it feels good to be involved in massive projects like the atlas and BBS which have direct benefits for UK bird populations. Not sure about the citizen scientist description though; I prefer birder.

As it was a cold windy day I decided to do a bit of citizen science on my laptop. Two data sets available on the net have grabbed my attention recently. The first is the BBS data from Lincs available at showing how common breeding bird numbers have changed since 1990. Its fascinating. The second is the Birdguides Online UK Rarity archive of current defined BBRC rarities. Since the latter is only available by subscription I thought I would share it first. I copied and pasted all Lincs rarity records into a spreadsheet, sorted it by date order and then assigned every record from 1960 to 2008 to its 10 km square. For those interested a total of 251 records averaging about 5 a year, with a max of 14 in 1990 which was a Parrot Crossbill invasion year. I then mapped the results onto this 10km square schematic map of Lincs.

This produces lots of questions and as in stock markets past performance is not always a good guide for the future. For instance that 16 in the bottom right hand corner is Wisbech Sewage Farm which hasn't had a BBRC bird since 1983. Two squares above it with 4 is Frampton Marsh, shaping up to be one of our top hotspots. What are the chances of a Black Winged Pratincole there in 2011, what a hat trick that would be.

No one will be shocked that Gib is the best spot, though Donna Nook/Rimac run it close and the whole coast from Cleethorpes to Gib is good. I always wonder to what extent observer coverage, local weather variations, habitat, length of coast and funneling effects affect where birds are turned up. My dream is an experiment which would involve a series of days in which randomly selected 1 km squares on the coast and inland could be simultaneously covered in timed visits by a big team of observers to try and get a handle on why migrants turn up where they do. It would have to be repeated a number of times to generate sufficient data to get meaningful results. Perhaps there will be a chance to discuss the value/feasibility of this with BTO's professional scientists at our local conference at Riseholme on 16 April. If you haven't booked yet get a move on you don't want to miss out.
Finally where is the best place to live if you want to go for/find rarities in Lincs?
The picture left takes the data above and looking at each 10km square in Lincs shows the number of rarities accessible in a 5 x 5 grid centred on that square. The best place to live with a score of 139 is TF57. The village of Huttoft in that square is half way between Gib and Donna Nook and a couple of miles from the sea. Interestingly no BTO member or other serious birder lives in TF57 but George Rutter in Sloothby (TF47) is closest to the ideal position. Ed Mackrill in Welton le Marsh in TF46 is pretty close to it too, perhaps partly explaining why he has the biggest Lincs green list. Half of the Lincs top 10 listers live in just 2 squares TF38 and TF48 which are at the top of the triangle that runs from Louth to Theddlethorpe to Gunby Corner.
By the way if anyone would like the spreadsheet of the raw data (which runs from 1800) email me and I'll send you it.
I'll do the Lincs BBS data next time.

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