Hugh has been fascinated by birds from an early age, initially local patch watching and trips around the UK and Europe, and graduated into the early twitching scene in the UK from the mid 1970’s onwards and has never looked back! Over the years he has been involved in several County bird societies with local surveys and conservation activities and is keen to share expertise and put something back into the UK birding scene. He is now County Recorder for Cheshire and Wirral and Secretary of the National Association of County Recorders (ACRE). He is also an A ringer and trainer with the South Manchester bird ringing group.
What does a county recorder do?
Well, the role really revolves around bird records and sightings and usually the role is part of the main County Birdwatching society or group. County recorders get involved in many aspects of bird recording, like Atlas’s or Avifauna’s, or rarity evaluations, but a key part is to ensure that the bird records, the county’s database if you like, is validated. It’s also an interface with the birders in the county and the organisations outside in the birding world, like the British Birds Rarity Committee, the Rare Breeding Bird Panel, the BTO and RSPB, local ringing organisations and local ornithological societies. It’s all around bird records and sightings.
Does all this data come to you?
Well no, birdwatchers submit their records via a wide range of recording options, the BTOs Birdtrack, Breeding Bird surveys, WeBS counts, data from ringers and ringing groups, BTO surveys, Nest Recorders, RSPB Garden Bird surveys and of course, birdwatchers submit direct to the County organisation, sometimes that could be to a County Recorder, in C&W I am lucky enough to have submissions and database managers who field over 100,000 records each year.
I think there is a perception that you’re only interested in rare and scarce bird sightings?
The County Society is interested in all records, and all records go into the county database. As County recorder I do have a focus with rare and unusual bird sightings, but these take many forms. They can be national rarities in which case it’s around interfacing with BBRC, but a rare local breeding bird would result in local engagement with landowners, RSPB, and local groups for instance if protection was required. Unusual early or late migrant dates or interesting sightings of birds “out of place”, a Red grouse in Birkenhead Docks for example, all come across my desk. And of course I get lots of phone calls from the general public, usually staring with the comment “I had a funny bird in my garden yesterday”.
How do you decide if an unusual sighting is correct?
At the National level BBRC has a rigorous approach to record validation, and this is mirrored at the County Level. There is usually an agreed list of species at the County level, where a description is required before acceptance into the database. Most County recorders will chair a rarity panel of suitable experienced local birdwatchers who would review descriptions and records sent in by birders. Our role is to ensure that the bird was the species claimed, and that a mistake wasn’t made.
Doesn’t having to write a description put folk off submitting anything?
Not in my experience, a few well written lines, focussing on the shape, jizz, plumage and behaviour and why it was the species claimed are all that is required. You don’t need reams of paper with feather by feather details, just the key identification features, preferably noted at the time of the sighting. Of course, these days many birders carry cameras and even a poor record shot is often enough to confirm a claim. Talking with my other recorders, the vast majority of records submitted are accepted, it’s only a few percent where we consider it “not proven”, and that was usually due to the briefness of the sighting, or some other factor that suggests a mistake was made.
Has the advent of all the online recording systems, the internet with blogs and social media helped or hindered your role?
A bit of both to be honest, quite clearly a claimed scarcity posted anonymously online without description is of no use to anyone, but most systems like the BTO’s Birdtrack have a filter than warns a submitter that the bird is a county rarity and a description is required. If the details aren’t sufficient there is always the ability for me to follow up for more information. This isn’t just about what you might consider a rarity, it is also species of county concern, like Turtle Dove, Wood Warbler or Willow Tit for instance. In many respects these are the sightings that need validation more than a rare American wader, as these are the species that tell us about conservation concerns at a local and national level. If birders want to make an impact on local conservation, its important to get these sorts of sightings right.
Do you have any messages for the up and coming young generation of birders?
A key point is that they submit their bird records, whether via Birdtrack, BTO surveys, or direct to the county organisations. Many of the latter have websites with submission information and details. Just putting it on your personal blog means it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s obvious how powerful the data of the recent BTO Atlas is and will be to spark future research and developments, and this is the sum of many local birders sending in data via BTO reps and the County systems. In addition, local data also gets used for local planning applications, environmental impact surveys and all kinds of actions at the local level, so submitting records does have an impact closer to home!