Nowadays, we are only too aware of the effect man has had on the natural environment and the grave consequences that has had for wildlife. With the spectre of Global Warming threatening to wreak more havoc on our wildlife, the ability to monitor change is a very valuable one. To do this we need to know what is out there and how many.
I am sure everyone has said something like "I haven't seen many house sparrows this year!". It is probably true, but with no hard evidence to back up that claim, there is little that can be done to make the situation better for the house sparrow. That is where the various systematic recording schemes come into their own. These are often run by the societies devoted to one class of animal or plant and carried out by skilled professional or amateur naturalists.
In addition there are schemes that encourage the general public to participate and send in their sightings, like the RSPB Garden Birdwatch scheme that took place last weekend. The data gleaned from such efforts can cover a large geographical area and provide extra data that more concerted surveys cannot achieve. A similar approach has been taken by the Scotsman with its Wildlife Watch scheme run over the last few years that covers all species and has brought in some interesting sightings.
The monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts is of particular interest to us in Montrose as the Basin is a major habitat for the wildfowl and waders that are the subject of this study. The data obtained is useful for monitoring bird populations on the Basin as well as providing the organisers with data from across the whole of the UK which can be collated and published.
Looking at the maximum counts for Basin birds over the past 5 years we can see that the majority of species are maintaining their numbers. These include the iconic eider duck and the curlew, for instance. The pink-footed geese that are so much a signal of autumn over Montrose, are counted under a separate scheme, but are also keeping their numbers up.
Species that are not doing so well are turnstone and dunlin, whose number are slipping slightly. Both are showing about a 50% decrease over the five year period and this mirrors the situation across the UK with both species in trouble.
On a better note, a couple of species doing well over the last 5 years are whooper swan and greenshank. Again, this agrees with national trends that shows these birds on the increase.
The problem with all these schemes is that you can never know precisely how many members of a particular species are present in your study area as animals, birds and insect are often secretive, highly mobile and not distributed evenly across the landscape. So when you count 100 swans on the Basin, that needs to be interpreted in the light of the habitat, state of the tide, time of day, time of year and other factors that we don't know anything about!
That is the interest of scientific enquiry - finding out as much as you can so that you can understand more about the subject under scrutiny.
Those who want to find out more should look on the Internet for the WeBS site at www.bto.org and also look at the National Biodiversity Network gateway (www.nbn.org.uk) where you can find out about the distribution of species by using the NBN Gateway.