How to be a volunteer surveyor

A thriving meadow is a haven for pollinators. Photo by Jon Hawkins/Surrey Hills Photography

BBOWT volunteer, Simon Blake gives an insight into life as a bird and butterfly surveyor for the ecology team.

Where did I put the binoculars? Anti-mosquito spray or sun tan cream? Will I need boots or a hat? Is there any petrol in the car?

Just some of the more challenging questions I face as a volunteer surveyor as the season resumes slowly after the pandemic lockdown. Oh yes, and will I remember whether it’s a small skipper or an Essex skipper with the black antennae ends…should I be lucky to get close enough! 

I’ve been a volunteer with BBOWT for just over three years now, covering Woolley Firs for birds (and the occasional butterfly survey) and Hurley Chalk Pit for butterflies. I also cover two other sites working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

My bird surveys start early (ish) in the morning with a quick text to my contact, Dan, to let him know I’m on site. BBOWT kindly gave me some rules about distancing (the birds – not the dogs and walkers), but then it’s up to me to juggle binoculars, bird-spotting (/listening) and jotting. I sometimes drag along my partner – willingly I hasten to add - as a scribe!.

An early start on a site that is mostly on private farmland, means I get the countryside to myself. On the one hand it’s very relaxing – fresh air, wild flowers, hardly anyone around, just the odd deer or two and the occasional fox; and on the other it’s sometimes a bit frustrating - will you please stop jumping around in that dark hedge and just make a noise so I can tell whether you’re a robin or a dunnock or a warbler!

Yellowhammer in hedge

Yellowhammer in hedge by Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

With regular surveys, I get to see the fields, hedges and trees change as spring turns into summer, the increase in bird activity as the baby birds burst forth and then as they all start settling down to scoff the seeds and berries as autumn/winter approaches.

Not only is it good to see when our summer visitors come and go each year, but also how the fortunes vary for the local robins, tit families, sparrows, the kestrel and green woodpecker family and the ever present jackdaws and magpies (did I say the peace and quiet of the countryside?).

And all for a worthwhile cause, to monitor how our birds are faring year on year. 

The butterfly surveys are easier in some ways – I only have to contend with my somewhat smaller butterfly distance ‘bubble’ – but the population change for some species is quite dramatic and short-lived. 

Green hairstreak butterfly

Green hairstreak butterfly by Paul Thrust

One week I could be counting a handful of green hairstreaks and a couple of grizzled skippers, then a few weeks later trying to fathom out the best way to count hundreds of meadow browns and marbled whites – "please try not to count the same butterfly twice" – easier said than done, and were those ringlets and gatekeepers too?

The ‘emergence’ plots I see in books come to life when you are walking the sites as the species come and go throughout the survey season. Good years, bad years – you get to know the site, what ‘maintenance’ is working and what isn’t, and the impact of long wet or long, hot, dry spells.

But someone needs to tell the butterflies to read the guidance notes I was given: survey when over 17ºC if cloudy or over 13ºC if sunny, best time 10.45-3.45pm.

I stick to the guidelines for consistent reporting, but our local butterflies think nothing of an early start (8am) when sunny (10ºC) and recently, in our mini heatwave, were still happily feeding on the brambles at 8pm! Whatever time of day, it is good to see so many on the wing.

As a bonus, I have been able to attend some free courses to improve my ID skills on a range of topics. Thank you BBOWT, and to Colin (Williams), too, for his encouragement and support! 

Simon Blake worked as an Environmental Consultant for the water industry for almost 40 years; from monitoring the impact of acid rain in the Welsh and Scottish hills to working on the new ‘super sewer’ under the River Thames in London.