Mapping the Birds of South East Scotland – A Celebration of Citizen Science in Action

This week’s blog is written by Mike Thornton, a NatureScot operations officer in the Lothians, and a keen volunteer citizen scientist. Mike has worked on a range of citizen science projects, including the Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-13, a Scottish Ornithologist Club project charting changes in the distribution of birds in the Lothian and Borders.   

A redshank, one of the waders whose range has shrunk in South-east Scotland, according to records compiled by over 800 volunteers. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The UK has a strong tradition in amateur natural history, going back to the 18th century, when the English parson naturalist, Gilbert White, compiled detailed observations of wildlife in his Hampshire parish for nearly four decades. We now have a well-established network of amateur naturalists in the UK, collecting data in citizen science projects, charting changes in the locations and numbers of animals and plants across the UK, and providing a strong evidence base to inform conservation policy and management.

Citizen science has been particularly successful in mapping Britain and Ireland’s birdlife, with three national Bird Atlas projects revealing how the distribution and abundance of birds in these countries has changed since the late 1960s. These national projects have inspired many regional bird atlases, including the recently published Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013, which updates a similar atlas survey completed between 1988 and 1994. More than 800 volunteers helped map just over 160 breeding bird species in the Lothian and Borders bird recording areas, a wonderful example of volunteers contributing to conservation efforts.

Buzzard territories have expanded in South-east Scotland. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The project has shown some remarkable changes in the region’s birdlife, with just over half of the breeding species showing range contractions, and a third range increases. Perhaps the most significant change revealed was the loss of breeding waders, such as redshank, snipe, lapwing and curlew, particularly from the uplands and hill fringe areas, as a result intensified grassland management, and an increased number of their nest predators, such as crows and foxes.  Conversely, consistent with national trends, the buzzard has shown a significant range expansion. Buzzards were only found in the uplands in the late 1980s, but now occupy most of the region, a response most likely associated with reduced persecution and an improved food supply.

The Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013 provides the most up-to-date information on the distribution and abundance of the region’s birdlife, and allows organisations like NatureScot to better understand how environmental pressures, such as land use and climate change, are affecting our biodiversity. This knowledge can be used to develop conservation policies, as well as to target management to help mitigate some of these pressures on our biodiversity in our rapidly-changing world. If it were not for the great army of citizen scientists, like those who participated in the Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013, we would not be in such a strong position to take well informed conservation action, and we have a lot to thank them for.

This exhaustive study is based on nearly
half-a-million items of data collected by over 800 observers.

More information about The Birds in South-east Scotland 2007-2013 and where you can purchase a copy can be found here. If you want more information on getting involved in bird recording with the Scottish Ornithologists Club, see SOC’s Get Involved web page and The British Trust for Ornithology web page.

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