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Volunteer Surveys

Pre-works walkovers

Although we often do bird surveys as part of our work, we also really enjoy taking part in volunteer surveys. These provide valuable data to long-term monitoring programmes, highlighting population changes and helping conservation bodies focus their work where most needed. They are also an increasingly valuable tool for gauging the effects of climate change on our birds.

We recently signed up to take part in the Upland Rover scheme, part of the long-running Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). The BBS was launched in 1994 and is jointly run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the RSPB and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). These surveys provide estimates of breeding species density in randomly selected 1 km squares. Ideally, after volunteers make an initial reconnaissance visit, two survey visits take place, at least four weeks apart, between April and the end of June. Two parallel transects of 1 km are walked within the square. Habitat types are also recorded each year.

Volunteer surveys

Unfortunately, it is difficult to find enough people to survey remote squares so the BTO created the Upland Rover scheme. This aims to encourage more volunteers and recognises the fact that it might be harder to carry out two survey visits to a square. The thinking is that data from just one visit in a season is better than none at all. As Shetland has a number of squares that needed covering, we were only too happy to take on two and have spent recent weekends carrying out our first visits to each site.

Survey Square One

When we saw that one of the squares that needed covering was at Eshaness, we volunteered straight away. This peninsula on the west coast of Mainland Shetland is a stunning location with a dramatic geological history. This was the site of a large volcano, active about 395 million years ago. The coastline is notched by deep clefts, or geos as they are known here, and there are a number of stacks offshore.

Eshaness Survey Square
Stacks at Eshaness

Breeding Bird Surveys are best carried out early in the morning, so we arrived at our square at around 6 am. The weather was perfect with little wind and sunshine. The aim is to take about 45 minutes walking each transect, which is divided into 5 sections. This gave us time to stop and scan the area periodically for birds. The BTO assigns each species its own two letter code and we used these on our forms. We also marked whether a bird was under 25 metres away, between 25 and 100 metres away or over 100 metres from our line.

Volunteer survey form
Example of a completed survey form

The walking here was easy, with short turf along most of the two transects. This meant we had to be careful not to cover the ground too quickly. Once we had finished our first transect, we located the start of our second line and walked back along that. We saw a mixture of waders, gulls and passerines on the survey including twite, wheatear and golden plover. It will be interesting to see whether we record similar species on our return visit.

Survey Square Two

Our second square was near Housetter in North Mainland and quite different terrain from Eshaness. Granite makes up most of the terrain in this area, which gives the rocks a distinctive red colour and gives rise to the ‘roe’ part of some of the place names here, from the Old Norse for red.

Survey two granite
Granite near Housetter

To reach the start of the survey site we climbed a short but steep hill from the road, which was a bit of a shock to the system early in the morning! Once at the top, we discovered a large herring and lesser black-backed gull colony, something we weren’t expecting. Most of us are used to seeing gulls nesting on roofs in towns and cities rather than in large moorland colonies. Beautiful nests made of moss and grass were either nestled between the large red granite boulders, or in a depression made in the middle of one of the stands of soft rush between the rocks. Although the colony wasn’t in our survey square, we made a count of the gull pairs to add a note about them. Herring gulls are in serious decline and we knew this information would be useful.

Gull eggs
Unexpected gull colony near the survey square

Our first transect followed a burn on the other side of the hill. This lower-level area was a combination of boggy areas and rockier sections. This was an ideal area for upland waders, and we saw and heard whimbrel, curlew, snipe, oystercatcher and golden plover. As we reached the end of the kilometre, we could suddenly see north towards Fethaland, at the tip of the mainland, and Yell.

Transect two was higher up the ridge and rockier, with the odd small pool. This was a much quieter area for birds although we did get a few flyovers. It can be frustrating when few birds are seen on a survey, but information about a lack of birds is just as important as recording lots of varied species. Again, it will be interesting to see whether anything has changed for our second visit.

After each visit, we recorded our data on the online portal. Although the Upland Rover scheme recognises that it is not always easy to carry out a second survey at remote squares, we are hoping that we will be back to do ours again in June.