How to be a citizen scientist in your own back garden (and elsewhere)

Common blue damselfly by Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

The lockdown is a great opportunity to hone existing wildlife ID skills and learn new ones, and provide data for conservation too.

Normally, at this time of year, many of my BBOWT colleagues and I would be in the field surveying the plants and wildlife of the three counties.

Now, due to the coronavirus restrictions, our horizons have narrowed, and the focus of our attentions has become more localised, but there is still much of interest to be seen and done. 

I’m fortunate in having a small 20x15m garden. The wildlife and plants within it have never been scrutinised so closely. In a few short weeks of recording, I’ve recorded 71 species: 20 birds and 51 others including various mammals, amphibians, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, wasps, bees, hoverflies, dragonflies, snails, slugs, and spiders. 

Focusing on my immediate surroundings has turned up such delights as the extraordinary looking puss moth, St Mark’s fly, large red damselflies, and ashy mining bee.

Puss moth

Puss moth by Vaughn Matthews

The current restrictions are a great opportunity to hone existing wildlife ID skills and learn new ones. My focus has been on my garden, but much of the suggestions below are equally applicable for when you are out on your daily exercise walk.

Here are a few suggestions for improving your ID skills:

1.    Learn the songs of birds in your immediate surroundings. The BTO have published a series of birdsong ID guides on YouTube. Have a listen to some of them and then listen to the dawn chorus from your home.

2.    Build your own moth trap. Start simple with a bedsheet and a light. Use the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s ‘What’s Flying Tonight’ web application, to help you identify the moths you see.

3.    Learn to love dandelions. Joshua Styles published a great beginner’s guide to dandelion identification on YouTube recently.

4.    If dandelions are too daunting a challenge to begin with, get started on plant identification with the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.

If you don’t have a garden, you have the option of noting all the wildlife and plants you see on your daily walks, and trying to identify any that are new to you.

Regardless of what you do, consider submitting records to iRecord. If you have a smartphone or digital camera, photos can be submitted along with text. Your submissions will be checked by experts.

By submitting records, one learns, and contributes to citizen science projects recording range, date of appearance, and numbers of plants, insects, and birds. Just like that you’ve become a phenologist, and a citizen scientist! 

Cockchafer beetle

Common cockchafer by Nick Upton/2020VISION

Follow BBOWT on Twitter  and Facebook and learn what others are seeing in our three counties. Some amazing things are being recorded in, and from, people’s gardens. In the last few weeks, my BBOWT colleague, Conor MacKenzie photographed the locally scarce and GB Red Listed common clubtail dragonfly, Gomphus vulgatissimus, in his garden.

Elsewhere in the UK, others have reported seeing some of the white-tailed sea eagles that have wandered from the Isle of Wight reintroduction site flying over their houses.

Nature writer Melissa Harrison, who writes regularly for The Wildlife Trusts, posted a photo of a white stork flying over her sister’s home in Surrey.

Things to look out for in May specifically include:

  • Hawthorn blossom
  • Returning swifts
  • Cockchafer beetles (Maybugs) flying
  • More species of damselfly appearing e.g. beautiful demoiselle, banded demoiselle, common blue damselfly, blue-tailed damselfly
  • First dragonflies on the wing, look out for broad-bodied and four-spotted chasers
  • First elderflower blossoms towards the end of the month.
  • Have a look at the May wildlife blog for more species to look out for.

For more help identifying what you've seen, try these websites:

Dragonflies and damselflies 
Bees/Hoverflies/Flies courtesy of Steven Falk

You could also join our private Facebook group, which great for getting help identifying species or using your own knowledge to identify species for others or give advice about local wildlife.

Join our Facebook group

Take a look at our Take Action for Wildlife page for more ideas about action you can take for wildlife during the lockdown period and beyond! Here are just some ideas: