Wetland Bird Survey Initial Summing Up

Firstly, thanks to the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) for supporting this research. Without them, well, I wouldn’t have been able to travel the length and breadth of Cornwall talking to such enthusiastic volunteer counters. In all weathers I might add. We had rain, snow, sleet, gales, sun, a bit more sun, then mainly overcast.

And more importantly, thanks to the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counters of Cornwall – they volunteered their time to take part in this study and as I slowly collate the results, I really hope to provide them with some useful findings for the future of the survey. A big thank you must also go to the WeBS admin team in Norfolk.

So what did I actually find out … well … here are the results so far.

Summary: This project brought together my existing research on engaging with enthusiasts and recent work on landscape as a vehicle for everyday understandings of environmental change in order to develop a research agenda on environmental volunteering. Integrating literatures on participation, volunteering, citizen science and expertise, as well as work on UK cultures of natural history, I developed research material (photographs, interviews, observations and survey findings) for nine WeBs sites in Cornwall, UK, between July 2011 and May 2012.

Key Findings

* Enthusiasm is an emotional affiliation that influences our passions, actions and performances in space. This project investigated the rich and complex culture of enthusiasm surrounding volunteers (predominantly middle-aged/retired men, with the exception of a few husband and wife teams) involved in counting wetland birds, in order to understand more fully the ‘inner dimensions’ of volunteer knowledge creation. To paraphrase one respondent,

you want to know why idiots like me do counts like this.

A number of motivations for participation emerged from being nosey and inquisitive to the enjoyment and experience of watching birds. All respondents exhibited a good sense of humour and a fair amount of self-deprecation in their attempts to explain to me their interest. For some an enthusiasm for birding developed during childhood, with parents, teachers and school natural history groups getting them hooked. For the majority, the WeBS count featured only as a small proportion of birding activity, which included membership to local birding clubs, participation in other counts and birding for its own delight.  It is important to view their contribution to WeBS as part of a wider set of hobbies and interests involving the volunteering of their time, effort and skill, including railways, stamps, industrial archaeology, music groups, rambling, local history and parish councils. Many respondents informed me in no uncertain terms that they are not twitchers. For the un-intiated twitching can be defined as someone only interested in collecting sightings of rare birds for their ‘list’. Future work might consider the future of environmental enthusiasms, specifically the role of natural history societies in schools as a way of getting to know the environment; as well as wider birding cultures, including twitching.


* ‘The Patch’: Drawing on recent theorisations of landscape as embodied and lived, I considered the role of being in place and the importance of place to counters. I identified ‘the patch’ as a novel spatial category useful to those investigating geographies of leisure and work. Conceptualizing the bounded space assigned to each counter as a ‘patch’ – a term used by, and familiar to, counters, scientists and policymakers – it was possible to examine the motivational role that place-attachment plays in volunteer counting. Often fiercely proud of their ‘patch’, respondents revealed the importance of having an accessible site that didn’t require much effort or for others involved climbing through undergrowth, off the beaten track. A commitment to the assigned ‘patch’ was evidenced through the longevity of some counters at particular sites (up to and over 30 years), as well as breaking bones in the process of counting and then continuing to count another site despite being in pain. Many respondents were recruited to their ‘patch’ by a champion contact who would identify trustworthy counters, there was often ‘arm twisting’ involved but ultimately a culture of friendship and trust to ensure the patch was covered. This was coupled with intangible rewards from being alone and outdoors to the charismatic relationship between counter and bird. However, the ‘patch’ is also an expansive space which includes rooms at home where records are uploaded on computers and notebooks are stored, as well as the places between the ‘official patch’ and the home – identifying additional species en route to the count site.


* Knowledgeability: Alongside the commitment to count on a regular basis, the volunteer must also possess significant knowledge in order to identify waterbirds. The research revealed the heterogeneity of volunteer knowledge and associated practices in WeBS. As one respondent explained:

just talking among birders you may find we are towards one end of the spectrum. We are very, what I’d like to think, is very scientific about it all.

I asked who was at the other end of the spectrum:

people who would think ‘oh that looks about five’, ‘well I think they are all mallard’.

Unlike other environmental volunteering groups, WeBS is dependent upon individual counters, rather than a group culture, it is therefore interesting that a knowledge hierarchy seems to have emerged. During counts, participants mentioned

mentally flicking through the pages of your ID book,

as well as a case of mistaken identity –

one greenshank is exciting, on no, you’re not a greenshank, you’re a redshank, change the stats,


oh my goodness you’re going to test my identification skills.

In addition to submitting their records to WeBs, the majority keep them for personal use, as well as submit them to other local groups and national projects. The national findings are available for free to counters via the annual report and newsletter. The role of local organizer cannot be underestimated, in this regard my research fundamentally altered the organisation of WeBS in Cornwall, with the instigation of an annual WeBS meeting in Cornwall. It is important to note that respondents were involved in a variety of other surveys including butterflies, bumblebees, moths (the new birds apparently), dragonflies and bats. Two areas are worthy of further investigation: i) technologies of birding, from the telescopes and binoculars, to the books and websites, as well as the apps (e.g. bird song app, bird track system) and other birding specific devices (Remembird); and ii) a more detailed ethnographic study of how volunteer data are received and shared in networks within and beyond WeBS.

I’m sure you’ll agree this project has been rather interesting for what it says about people in place and moreover the position of the unsung heroes of science. Committed citizens like those featured here – turning a lifelong passion into a contribution to science or a morning stroll into a walk with purpose. More soon. Promise.

2 thoughts on “Wetland Bird Survey Initial Summing Up

  1. Very interesting – some clear parallels to the bunkerologists I looked at. In particular the self-deprication and knowledge as status. Some echo with ‘patches’ too (although the bunker hunters were more mobile).It will be good to compare notes in Edinburgh.

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