Monday, August 5, 2013

I’m Counting On It.

Lots of rain this morning on the North West coast but 40 miles away at Old Trafford, Manchester it looks like the Test Match should get underway and end in a draw for England; but with the lads at 35 for 3 just now, I'm not counting on it.  Hopefully the bright weather will reach here sooner rather than later and I can get out birding. 

So for now I’m stuck in at the computer and able to answer a question posed by a blog reader yesterday - “How are you at counting pickles in a pickle jar and candy in a candy jar...guess that would make for good practice. How do you get your numbers anyway...had to ask?”. 

Mary, I’d never thought that counting pickles in a jar could be similar to counting birds but in actual fact the same principles apply. 

I’m grateful to Melissa Mayntz for her summary of bird counting techniques reproduced and adapted below, methods which I and many other birders use when out in the field. I dotted the text with photographs of groups or flocks of birds for readers’ on-going practice and consideration. 

Many birding projects ask participants to count birds, and most birders I know enjoy keeping a count of the birds they see whenever they are in the field. Counting each individual bird seen can be challenging, but it can also provide valuable information for scientific research. As populations of birds change, fluctuations in counts at the same locality at the same time of year may indicate shifts in pollution levels, climate change, habitat loss, migration timing and more. 


Annual projects such as the Breeding Bird Survey, Common Birds Census, Garden Bird Survey, BirdTrack, Wetland Bird Survey or the Ringing Scheme are different types of bird census projects which over several years accumulate a massive amount of data about numbers of birds in different locations. That data would be impossible to gather without the help of every participant. However the more accurate a count is, the more useful the data will be for conservation projects and ornithological research. 

There are various ways to count birds depending on the birds present, the size of the flock and how the flock is behaving. Techniques include: 

Individual Counts: When just a few, recognisable birds are present, each individual bird can be easily counted without fear of major miscalculations. This basic one-two-three technique works best when the birds are clearly seen and slow moving so individual birds will not be counted multiple times.

Grouping: Counting birds in numeric groups is an easy method for totalling small or medium-sized flocks. With practice birders can easily learn to count birds not one by one, but five by five, ten by ten, and with practice, fifty by fifty. This allows for a faster count while still keeping the increments small enough for precise numbers. 

Oystercatcher - 240/260?

Grids or Counting in Blocks: This counting system is most often used with larger, single species flocks where the birds are relatively stationary. The field of view is divided into a grid or block of even sections where the birds in one section are counted as close to individually as possible. Multiplying this count by the number of grids or block sections in the flock can give a reasonable estimate of the total number of birds. 

Whooper Swan - circa 65/70?

Selective Counting: When a large flock of birds has some obvious mixed species, it may be possible to selectively count all the birds easily. First, pinpoint the more unusual birds in the flock and count them individually, then use the grid/block technique on the bulk of the birds. This provides not only a good count of the flock size, but also represents the diversity of the birds present. 

Proportions: When a mixed flock has too many species for selective counting, a good estimate can be made by counting proportions of the species present. Similar to the grid/block technique, only one section of the flock is counted, but each different species is noted individually, and the proportions are used to calculate the total number of birds of each species in the entire flock. This technique is best when a flock is heavily mixed and each species is spread throughout the flock. 

Timing: When a flock is moving quickly, it can be impossible to create a grid/block or to count birds individually, since the movement will obscure other birds and make any estimate less accurate. A timing count can be used by focusing on a fixed point the flock is passing, and counting the number of birds passing that point in a certain period of time, such as a few minutes. Then the entire amount of time it takes for the whole flock to pass is noted, and the count is multiplied by the number of increments in that overall time to gauge its full size. This system can also be employed during times of visible migration or massed flight e.g. Swallows, Meadow Pipits or finches passing overhead or through a fixed point. 

Wigeon - circa 70?

Photographs: A digital photograph can be used for an accurate count if the entire flock can be photographed. The photo is then manipulated on a computer or printed out and individual birds are marked off as they are counted. This is a time-consuming method but can be very precise for a reliable count when high levels of accuracy are necessary. 

Sanderling - 65/70?

Practice is essential to develop and refine bird counting skills. The more frequently someone counts birds, the more comfortable they will be with each count made while knowing the data collected is accurate and therefore more valuable. Other ways to enhance the methods of counting birds include: 

Maintaining a notebook at hand to write down a record of birds counted, particularly when counting over a longer period of time. With notes there is less need to “guesstimate”. 

Allow for density when counting flocks, particularly when using grid or timing techniques. Birds are often less dense on the outer edges of the flock, and if grid sections are not balanced a count can be significantly off. 

Work to be as accurate as possible, but when necessary, choose to underestimate rather than overestimate the numbers of birds seen. This will help correct for any inadvertent errors, such as birds that were counted more than once. 

Counting birds can add a new dimension to birding, by not only keeping track of the numbers of birds seen but also making the birding so much more purposeful and useful for conservation science. 

Finally, remember that counting birds may not be an exact science but it is a highly enjoyable one. 

Pink-footed Geese - +500? 

Please log in to Another Bird Blog soon - I'm counting on it.

This post is linking to Stewart's Gallery  where you will be able to see and count lots of birds.


Russell Jenkins said...

An amazing post, Phil. I'll tag it as a favourite for further reference. Don't count all your ducks til they've hatched, I may add! 3 for 35 is good.

Margaret Adamson said...

HI Phil Very informative adb helpful.Many thanks.

Margaret Adamson said...

Hi Phil Thanks for your kind comments on my post today. I also a a bird 'lady' and only really last week have I started looking at 'things' other than birds!

Mary Howell Cromer said...

Thank you so much Phil. I found this to be absolutely fascinating! I am glad then, that I asked the question. Maybe I will give one of these methods a try the next time I see a flock of birds. The European Starlings are beginning to gather in larger numbers, maybe they will be my first gander ;) As for the some country stores, there will sometimes be quite large jars of pickels and if one guesses how many pickles are in the jar...they win the entire lot. Make them Bread and Butter Pickles, or Crispy Dill, and I just might give it a try too~

Carole M. said...

Hi Phil, I was only talking about this over the weekend...wondering how? Now I get the essence of it but my I think it'd be my luck to be halfway through my assessment as the flock flies off again. Tks for your informative post, and hope your day brightened up weatherwise

Kay L. Davies said...

Fascinating information, Phil. It reminds me of learning to count people in a crowd when I was young. Of course, it was long before digital photography, too.

eileeninmd said...

Wow, Phil this is a great post. With great info on counting. I should bookmark this post myself for future reference. BTW, all you photos are awesome. Happy Birding!

Stuart Price said...

You're beter at counting than I am Phil.

That's the 3rd game out of 3 that we have been 30 odd/3 in one of our innings.

TexWisGirl said...

the oystercatcher photo makes me dizzy! cannot imagine counting any of these. glad there are folks like you who know how to do it.

EG CameraGirl said...

I've always wondered how birders could count whole flocks. Thanks for answering Mary's question and then sharing it with us.

mick said...

Thanks for a very informative post. I am going to bookmark it for use when I get asked the same question. I have found photos and video especially helpful to review an in-field count - and to build confidence in a new counter!

Modesto Viegas said...

Great post!!!
Thanks for sharing!

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

This was so interesting and its a question I've wanted to ask you too.


That was most educational...indeed. But you must remember I do have blond roots - may all be silver strands now, but the golden blond roots show up when it comes to comprehending this all. I've oftentimes wondered how the Fall Hawk Migration that intersects here in South Coastal Texas each year and how the 'experts' can count them so easily. Now, I think I know.

You explained it, seriously, for a laymen to understand quite well.

By the way, so I won't forget before I click publish comment....great bird photos!!

Karen said...

That was interesting Phil! I often wondered how they got the bird counts. We were at a tundra swan migratory stopover pond in the spring, the sign said that there were 2001 swans there that day. I rarely see large flocks of birds where I live, I really enjoyed your photos!

Gunilla Bäck said...

Thank you for this interesting post. I've always wondered how the counting is done.

mick said...

Hi again Phil, I have given a quick answer to your question on my blog - and copying it here now: I think maybe next week I need to do a post about the numbers of birds these waters can support. For a quick answer - 3 years of rains in the outback have bred up huge numbers of waterbirds and now it has dried up so the birds are coming here to the coast. Having these numbers here is definitely changing the equilibrium of the bay - but I don't think anyone knows what will happen now and how long it will take. It's going to be interesting to watch and document some of the expected changes. My own observations and listening to local fishermen makes me think that fish stocks right here are never large! Some months ago I watched a large line of pelicans swimming across the bay and snatching up whatever moved ahead of them. There wouldn't have been much get passed them!

Gary said...

Another great series!! Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

What great information! You are a pro. I'll never be where I would need this, but it is good to know as these are transferrable skills.
Cheers from Cottage Country!

Mama Zen said...

I've always wondered about this!

Arija said...

So similar to counting a large and moving flock of sheep. Love your shots of the massed birds and drat it, it was a draw. Lost again.

Stewart M said...

Nice post - I used to have count the Pochard and Tufted Ducks on a reserve in Gateshead - I often wondered at the time how accurate the counts were!

Cheers and thanks for linking to WBW

Stewart M - Melbourne

MastHoliday said...

Wow, the great number of birds in a single herd! herds looking fantastic.
nice shots.

Liz said...

Wonderful images, Phil!!
A very informative post!

KK said...

It was great reading this post. Earlier, I could not think beyond individual counting. It must have taken you at least a couple of months in order to get good at counting.

I am not a bird person at all, but I reckon that if someone is getting to count birds at many occasions, their area is good in terms of bird population.

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