Some reflections on successes and problems – personal views from the Atlas Coordinator

How well were the Atlas objectives achieved?

The first objective of the Atlas – to provide a permanent and comprehensive record of the bird species within the county – is completely satisfied, along with providing comparisons with historical studies such as the 1978-84 Cheshire and Wirral Breeding Bird Atlas. The completion in three years, along with rapid analysis and publication, is probably about as fast as could reasonably be achieved for full coverage of the county. The time scale ought to be as short as possible to avoid the distorting effect of population changes during the survey, as happened disastrously to most farmland birds during the extended period of our First Atlas; but one has to balance the desire for a rapid survey with the number of fieldworkers available and obtaining as high as possible evidence of breeding. This has been the first survey to assess the habitat use of species in the county.

The ‘social’ aspects of the Atlas – to promote camaraderie within the birding community and to recruit and educate birders young and old into recognising the value of recording for conservation purposes – seem to have been well fulfilled. It was interesting to go to many different gatherings where birdwatchers were present, and to discover how many people were taking part in the Atlas. It seemed odd that about half of those who individually submitted records for the annual Cheshire and Wirral Bird Reports did not take part in the Atlas, despite regular exhortation; on the other hand, about half of the Atlas participants were not members of CAWOS and for many of them it was their first experience of systematic bird recording. Most observers took pleasure in participating, many of them learning a new aspect to their birdwatching; indeed, several wrote of their frustration that they had not previously learned the importance of birds’ songs and alarm calls and had not studied birds’ behaviour before, so the Atlas brought an enjoyable new side to their hobby. The influx of many new recruits bodes well for the future of bird recording in the county, if the enthusiasm can be marshalled and directed in further projects.

The success of the ‘conservation’ objectives – to enable use as a conservation tool and help in land use planning by local authorities, and to assist rECOrd, the local records centre, in providing data for preparing environmental impact assessments (EIAs) – will mostly be decided in the future. The Atlas results should be used to inform selection of Local Sites (Sites of Biological Interest). In planning and development control, they should not substitute for thorough site-based surveys and EIAs but provide the county-wide context for importance of bird species.

Similarly, fulfillment of the remaining two objectives – to provide baseline data for monitoring future changes in bird populations; and to complement existing or on-going avian monitoring programs at county and national level – will depend on the future actions of the county’s bird societies, especially CAWOS.

The following are some more-detailed comments that may be especially relevant in the conduct of future surveys.

Definition of ‘winter’

The breeding season is defined by birds’ biology but ‘winter’ is defined by our calendar. The period from 16 November to the end of February was chosen to cover the period when most birds were expected to be fixed on their winter sites, with least confusion from migration. This defined period is never going to be right for all species. Some birds can be found breeding at any time of year, such as Collared Dove and Feral Pigeon; others normally start breeding during winter, such as Grey Heron, Tawny Owl, Raven and Crossbill. However, with the mild winters of late and the general advance of breeding dates, many species now show breeding behaviour during February, and sometimes January, and it might be better for a future winter survey to exclude the month of February.

Special sites

Perhaps ironically, some of the most troublesome areas for the Atlas included the most regularly-watched sites in the county. In some of them, observers recorded within their normal ‘site’ boundary but not elsewhere within the tetrad, thus missing some habitats and species. In others, surveyors lumped all of the birds from an extensive site into one tetrad, overstating the records from that tetrad at the expense of neighbouring ones, and sometimes using the same habitat code for all species and confusing the habitat analysis.

Supplementary records

It was a surprise and a disappointment that, despite frequent pleas, fewer than one-third of fieldworkers submitted records from outside their ‘main’ tetrad. In many tetrads the only way to cover all of the square involved moving out of the tetrad and back in again, and surely some valuable extra records have potentially been lost by some observers’ not providing supplementary submissions. It is not known how more supplementary records could be collected.

Incorrect use of codes

Although it is not thought that any of these has substantially biased the results, it is clear from examination of the records and from discussion with some fieldworkers that some of the codes were incorrectly applied. Many observers used RF for unfledged young – birds incapable of flight – of nidifugous species. More seriously, some submissions contained unexpectedly high proportions of RF codes and it is suspected that some surveyors used this code for all juvenile birds, whether or not they were recently fledged, thus undoubtedly including some birds that had nested in an adjacent tetrad, or in some cases, much farther afield. DD codes were expected for some waders and a few other species, but odd records were submitted for a wide variety of birds and there was probably some confusion between DD and D. Some observers used D for birds that sing in the air – Skylark, pipits, etc – or for species whose song-flight is often called ‘display’ – Snipe, Woodcock, etc – when only a single bird was involved and S was the correct code. P was occasionally recorded for a flock of birds, rather than strictly for a male and female associating together in suitable breeding habitat, and the colloquial equation of ‘pair’ for ‘two’ is unhelpful and should be banished from any birdwatcher’s vocabulary. There were many instances of incorrect use of H and O, mostly caused by poor knowledge of the species’ breeding habitats, and most of the obvious examples of errors were changed, such as excluding submissions of H for Arctic-breeding waders that have never bred in Britain, or changing O to H for some ubiquitous passerines. Finally, in winter, a few observers had not followed the instructions for recording birds in flight: birds seen flying from one hedge to another, or hovering over a field, were obviously using the tetrad and were recorded as U.

A more comprehensive set of examples of the use of recording codes could have obviated some of these mistakes, but we were wary of providing a long list for fear that the wrong inference could be drawn from omission from such a list, and preferred to rely on the common sense of observers.