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The value of citizen science

The value of citizen science

Goliath Heron
Goliath Heron


Bird atlassing is simply birding a set area using a defined protocol to produce a list of records which are then submitted. There are two sides to atlassing - the birding part where you are outdoors compiling your list - and the more scientific side of it, which many atlassers don't delve into after submitting their lists.

Quite simply it is birding with a purpose. To be valuable it needs to be repeated, which brings a temporal component to the data. The term ‘atlassing’ is used because the lists of birds can be presented as maps – simple visual information which many people can understand, like the distribution maps in your bird book. This brings the spatial component to the project.

Atlassing produces information on distribution, abundance and change using both spatial and temporal components. Bird atlassing in southern Africa is controlled by the SABAP2 project, which is run from the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town. SABAP2 stands for the second Southern African Bird Atlas Project. The first project ran many years ago and with all the changes in bird demographics and technology since then, a repeat of the project was called for.

Why go atlassing?

At its most basic level it is fun! It brings a new twist to birding which so many people enjoy. Technically, you are contributing to a huge project which is a valuable conservation tool.

Most birders enjoy getting out in the bush, and atlassing encourages regular trips which can bring a new excitement to birding places where you have often been, including your home patch. When compiling your list you will be surprised how often common birds can be missing and you find yourself looking for that cattle egret or grey heron which is normally plentiful!

How to go atlassing

You need three things to go atlassing: at least some knowledge and birding skill, knowledge of your area, and to be able to keep track of time - even just day by day! Binoculars, a watch and a notepad are basic requirements. A GPS is very useful but not a necessity. If you are atlassing with the smartphone app none of these are required except your binos - the app does the rest for you.

The basic method is to follow a set protocol within a defined area. The name given to an area defined by the SABAP2 project is a ‘pentad’. This is a grid formed by lines of latitude and longitude five minutes apart both northwards and eastwards. It is roughly9km2.

• A minimum of two hours must be spent atlassing, and a maximum of five days.
• Keep a list of all species identified, either by sight or sound, in the order in which they were identified.
• Make a note of every hour that has passed in your list of birds seen - so you actually have a list hour-by-hour of birds identified.
• Submit your list to the SABAP2 project.

How to submit your pentad list

• There is an online form available on the SABAP2 website. This may be easiest for beginners.

• Use a smartphone app called Lynx BirdTicks SAF - presently available for android phones only, but an iPhone app is being released shortly. It emails your list directly from the app.

• Download and install the Data Management Software from the SABAP2 website - though this has proven tricky with the range of updates required even for Windows 7 systems. Knowledge of birds is something which comes from experience - but atlassing is not just for experienced birders. Knowledge of the pentad boundary is however very important. You also need to know the pentad code. The code is taken from upper left corner of the pentad - or the north west corner. One of the easiest ways to learn the pentad and code is from the website: www.sabap2.adu.org.za :

• Go to Coverage Maps and zoom into the place you want to go in your relevant country. Just click the area you want to atlas and the code comes up.

• Click the code and a new window will open with a summary graph for that pentad. Below the graph is a link called Google Map - clicking that will take you to another window with a map of your pentad with the boundaries marked for you.

• You can toggle to satellite view to learn the pentad and memorise physical features and habitats.

Even the city centre has birds, with specials like the Peregrine falcon utilising highrise buildings. The Zambezi really has only one city - Tete - and it has a resident pair living right in the city. Generally birders like to go out to wild places with scenic, well preserved habitats, like parks and reserves. These tend to get well covered by atlassers - and it is a nice challenge to look on the coverage maps and find pentads which are not yet done, often in far out places, which makes for adventurous atlassing! As long as you know your pentad boundaries you can bird anywhere.

The SABAP2 project includes central Africa as well - so north of the Zambezi can just as well be atlassed. The SABAP2 website shows Zambia on the coverage maps, and you can also atlas in Angola, Malawi and northern Mozambique as the database still accepts these records.

Birding clubs are a good place to start, as birders there are already active and can help you get going. Contact the local birders in your area for help.

Local bird clubs:

Namibia: www.namibiabirdclub.org
Zambia: Zambian Ornithological Society www.birdwatchzambia.org
Botswana: Birdlife Botswana www.birdlifebotwana.org.bw
Zimbabwe: Birdlife Zimbabwe www.birdlifezimbabwe.org

The SABAP2 project: www.sabap2.adu.org.za

Many birders will remember the first atlas project from about 15 years ago. There have been a lot of changes since then and with birding being a common pastime there are plenty of citizen scientists to help. Birds are relatively easy to monitor compared to other life forms, like the insects and reptiles. The digital internet age has made it easy to set up a project which runs itself using the submissions of lists by volunteers, and the data is immediately up todate and available.

The data is both educational and recreational, used in school programmes and environmental education, showing changes in the bird world over time. Birders can access information on a species and learn where to find them. With more compilation and study the data can be used to focus research and in conservation work, both directly for the birds but also for the environment in general.

The SABAP2 website is informative and has a registration page for new atlassers to sign up. The coverage maps show impressive work in South Africa, particularly around the major urban centres. All the submitted data gets vetted before being used. It is compared to existing data from the first atlas project, as well as other data from the present project.

If a record is new for a pentad and it does not look as if it should be there, the atlasser will be sent ‘Out of Range’ forms via email which need to be filled in and returned. This is a way of making sure mistakes are eliminated while rare or interesting records are captured.

Ideas for beginners

Learn your birds - you need to be able to identify them. If you are a new birder, set yourself a challenge of identifying 20 different species. Once you are confident you know them, set a new target of 50, and then 100. Being an effective atlasser does require some bird identification skill.

Study your home pentad. Learn all the habitats where you will find different birds, and how to access them. Some sections may be private property and maybe you cannot access the entire pentad. Become familiar with using a GPS to monitor pentad boundaries as you move around. Google Earth, via the coverage maps on the website, also really helps and if you can obtain maps from the Surveyor General's Office, the 1:50,000 series has the five minute marks on the map making it easy to draw boundaries onto the map. Atlassing is fun and addictive - you will be part of a network of bird diversity ambassadors - and you will be contributing to a valuable and dynamic project.

Read more articles from this issue:
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