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Recording at Flamborough
History of the Bird Observatory Network | Print |


To many the heyday of the bird observatory was during the 1950s and '60s but recent work by the network of current observatories suggests that the daily census information which each collects could be a valuable tool in the long-term monitoring of bird population.

The daily census is an integral part of daily routine at an observatory and is one of the criteria by which an observatory is assessed for accreditation to the Bird Observatories Council (BOC). Accreditation is also based on the observatory having a defined recording area which has been covered for at least two years and with coverage being maintained for at least the main migration periods. The observatory must be able to offer training/ringing facilities to visiting ringers and be able to arrange accommodation for visitors.

The BOC was formed in 1946 to co-ordinate the work of the established observatories and standardise methods of data collection and is made up of representatives from each of the accredited observatories (there are currently 16 accredited observatories - see the map) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The definition of a bird observatory put forward in 1946 was: "a field station co-operatively manned for the purposes of making continuous observations on migrant birds, and for catching, examining and marking them". This definition is still valid today although the purpose of the observatories has been expanded and is now given as:

" The Bird Observatories' primary purpose is to conduct long-term monitoring of bird populations and migration.

Individual Observatories are located at prime migration points, where a daily census is taken and other standardised methods of data collection are used in a defined recording area.

An integral part of observatory work is bird ringing, undertaken within the national scheme which is licensed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and co-ordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology. This provides data for guiding conservation policies of such bodies as English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage and their counterparts in Ireland.

The Observatories enable and encourage volunteers to participate in scientific studies of birds and the environment. The results of these studies and more general information are made freely available to researchers and to the public who are welcome to visit Observatories."

This takes into account the realisation of the importance of the daily census data, the need to make this data available for wider scientific study, and the need to try and attract more birdwatchers/researchers to the observatories.




Most recently the BOC has been working on proving that the daily census data can be used to monitor bird populations. We have analysed the daily counts of eight species - Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, Song Thrush Turdus philomelos, Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis, Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis and Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus - currently only back to 1990 as the census counts are held in paper logs and the data far from accessible. We have found that where other current methods for assessing population change, such as the Common Bird Census and Waterway Bird Census, show changes the observatory data shows similar trends. This makes the data of real value as the daily census goes back much further than any comparable data sets. The observatory data would also provide a handle on species not covered by other current methods such as Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe, Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus, Whinchat Saxicola rubetra and others with a westerly, non-farmland distribution.


The next stage is to try and obtain funding to have the entire backlog of data transferred to computer so that it can be used. Between all the observatories there is something in the region of 750 years' worth of data to computerise - no small task, but essential if the value of the data is to be realised.

Funding is a near-constant concern for many of the observatories. For most it only comes from membership schemes and visitors to the observatory. The need to juggle a warden's salary (where one is employed) with maintenance of buildings and costs associated with ringing is a tightrope act at the best of times. The growth of mobile birding, whereby people wait and see what is seen where before deciding what to do at weekends, had a serious impact on observatories during the 1980s and 1990s and many observatories have had financial concerns in recent years.

Although interest in chasing rarities is still high there does recently seem to have been a renewed interest in counting birds. Several new projects run by the BTO have generated much interest and there is huge interest in the Watch Groups run by the various county Wildlife Trusts, which are encouraging younger people to make observations on their environments.

If you have taken part in any of these then you could find a stay at one of the observatories very rewarding. You will, hopefully, see good numbers of migrants be they on land or sea and, what's more, your birding will count by contributing to the daily census. The mainland observatories are obviously the most accessible and also have other good birding spots nearby should the weather not be conducive to migration. The island-based ones are a little harder to get to, require at least a week's stay, and in the case of North Ronaldsay and Fair Isle, getting to the islands is not cheap but the experience is almost certainly going to be worth the effort.

The east coast observatories at the Isle of May, Filey, Spurn, Gibraltar Point, Holme and Landguard are perhaps at their best in the autumn, with the possibility of large movements of common migrants as well as the added spice of possible eastern vagrants, although the Isle of May can see similar arrivals to Fair Isle and North Ronaldsay during spring.

The south coast observatories such as Sandwich Bay, Dungeness and Portland can have good days in both spring and autumn although spring arrivals tend to move through very quickly - you can literally see the birds making their way north up through the hedges at Portland in the spring. Sea-watching can be good in both spring and autumn and even winter at Dungeness can see large movements and plenty of activity at the 'patch' - the outlet for the water used in cooling the nearby power station.