Shorebird Monitoring
(English-language) Outline for Presentation on October 16, 2007
To the Geum River Office of the UNDP-GEF/Ministry of Environment Korea Wetlands Project.
Nial Moores, Director 새와 생명의 터 / Birds Korea

Before talking in any detail, any discussion on monitoring shorebirds needs to start with one main Question: “Why monitor shorebirds?” The second question then becomes, “How to monitor them?”

Monitoring shorebirds depends first on being able to identify the birds, and then in gathering data on them. The data that is gathered depends on the aim of monitoring, but usually includes counting, and other aspects of behaviour or ecology.

So today’s presentation/discussion will look at:

  1. The reasons for looking at birds/shorebirds;

  2. The reasons for monitoring shorebirds;

  3. The equipment for looking at shorebirds;

  4. Identification of shorebirds;

  5. How to count shorebirds;

  6. How to present monitoring program data;

  7. How the data can be used.

  1. Why look at birds and shorebirds?

    The usual reasons many birdwatchers give are that birds are fun, cute, colourful and interesting. If you aim to monitor birds, however, you also need to see each bird and each species as a unit of data – with many units of data over time telling a clear story (the more units of data, the clearer the story will likely become). All species are bio-indicators, some easier to understand than others. Their ecology means that they depend on specific habitats, and occur at specific times of year in specific places. The more specialized species tend to be easier to understand in this way. Their presence in a certain place indicates the presence of certain conditions they need: the animals or plants they eat; the security they need for roosting or breeding. Most shorebird species are highly specialized and reveal much about the habitats they occupy.

  2. What is monitoring and why monitor birds?

    Monitoring is not the same as surveying. There are probably two main differences between monitoring and surveying: purpose and method. Surveying is a more neutral observation of a place, and is not repeated with a consistent method.  It usually comes before a monitoring program can be established. Monitoring usually comes at a later stage. Monitoring aims to measure certain conditions or changes. Ideally, a monitoring program needs to continue over a significant period of time, and in addition needs to be conducted with the same methodology throughout that time, described clearly so that others can repeat it. Any changes in method need to be recorded and described clearly, so that these differences can be allowed for during analysis.  This means that someone monitoring the birds in the Geum Estuary in 2007 or in 2017 or in 2027 should best use the same approach, record the same things, allowing the data to be compared between years.  Using the same kind of method in this way means that changes in the birds’ numbers, or changes in the birds’ habitats (or both), can be measured and made clear through the data.

    This kind of comparative data generated through well-designed monitoring programs is very important if we want to measure whether the species’ population is stable, or is increasing or is declining. Monitoring allows us to measure these changes in an open and scientifically defendable way. If a monitoring program is well designed, it should allow people also to identify some/many of the reasons why the numbers are changing.

    It is of course an obligation of the Ramsar Convention for each contracting party to maintain their populations of waterbirds. Without good monitoring data on how many birds are found at a site, and how their numbers are changing and why, it is rarely possible to develop well-focused conservation strategies. Monitoring of key sites can help countries to develop better conservation strategies, help nations to fulfill their national or international biodiversity obligations, and most importantly help to prevent threatened species from becoming extinct.

  3. What equipment to use for monitoring shorebirds.

    Always, when monitoring birds, the single most important piece of the equipment is the mind! Monitoring requires making good, honest choices, at the beginning of the program (What do we want to monitor? What can we monitor well?); during fieldwork (What is this species? How many are there?); and during analysis (What does the data tell us? What do we need to do collect better data?).

    In addition, apart from the eyes and ears, for counting shorebirds it is best to have a decent telescope (wide-angle eyepiece lens) and a good tripod (solid, stable, best with black or green legs); also a notebook and pens; and if possible a GPS and good maps of the area.

    Further, it is always best to wear dull clothing and to move quietly and carefully. Bright colours attract attention; help cause disturbance; cause stress to birds and reduce the accuracy of the monitoring.

  4. Identifying birds…

    How do you identify birds? What do you look at first?

    To identify shorebirds especially you need to look first at structure; second at contrast; and then third at plumage.

    Structure includes the overall shape and size, and especially the bill (essential to the finding and taking of food) and the legs (essential to how and where the bird can feed).  The legs and the bill therefore indicate the kinds of habitats they use, and even the kind of flock size the birds will be in. For example, the Great Knot has a medium-long, rather fine bill, perfect for detecting and eating small shellfish. The Great Knot eats species of shellfish that are found in very dense and local shell-beds, in patches across huge tidal-flats. Feeding in flocks helps Great Knots find the best shell-beds easily and does not stop birds from feeding. The Whimbrel however feeds on small crabs, often caught after chasing them across the tidal-flats. The crabs move quickly down their burrows when they see Whimbrels approaching. This means that the Whimbrel cannot feed in flocks, as the more Whimbrel there are, the fewer crabs there will be on the surface of the mud where the Whimbrel can catch them…

    Structure is the best way to identify shorebirds, and the best way to understand the ecology of that species.

    Once you have seen and described the bird’s structure, then you should look for contrast, the parts of the bird that are easiest to see at long range.

    Once you have seen and described the bird’s contrast, then (and only then) you should look more closely at the plumage, and the colours of the legs and feathers. Colours are very hard to see clearly on tidal-flats and at long range; and accurate description of a plumage requires a good understanding of the parts of the bird.

    Do you know the names of the parts of birds?

    Even with many years of experience, not every bird can be identified. It is important to accept this, and to record this where necessary.

  5. Counting Birds

    Counting birds well requires a lot of practice and experience. However, even those counting birds regularly make many mistakes. No-one can be 100% accurate when counting shorebirds in a big area like the Geum Estuary! It is therefore important to decide realistically what the aims of the monitoring program are; and to design the program accordingly

    Generally, shorebirds can be counted most accurately at or near to high tide in Spring High Tide series when they are concentrated in one or several roost sites; and they can be counted least accurately during neap tides, when there are many places they can go

    Monitoring requires a counting method that can be repeated regularly, often over a period of years. If you are monitoring shorebirds, you therefore need to choose either the period of the very best tides or the very worst tides for counting. If you are conducting more or less monthly counts for example, these counts should follow tide cycles, and not (for example) the sun calendar (e.g. counting on the first Saturday or Sunday of each month, when the tide states will be different between months and years)

    When counting there are some choices to make

    First, choose the best point for counting, and the best time to start counting each species (remember that birds move differently with the tides. Knowledge of a site and of the species there will let you predict this fairly accurately – usually!)

    Then, try to assess the total numbers of birds present within one scan with your binoculars, and record this number (and the time and state of tide)

    Then in the next single binocular scan try to count the flock in thousands (if very many birds) or hundreds, and again record the number

    Next, use the telescope and look through the flock and decide which are the most numerous species. In a slow long scan, try to make a rough estimate of the three or so most numerous species, and also take note of any very special species that you need to count very accurately

    Then try to count the best to count species first (sometimes the most numerous; sometimes the most shy; or the rarest; or the largest). Often if there are many birds and they are a long way away, it is best to count bigger species first, and then work towards smaller species, once you feel more confident about identification

    You can choose to count in thousand blocks; hundred blocks; blocks of ten or individually- or all ways combined. Counters with much experience can count in thousands very quickly and fairly accurately, and will then repeat counts, this time in tens or hundreds to move towards greater accuracy. Counters with little experience need to take time, and count birds in groups of ten first (if there is time!). This means counting from 1 to ten, and then making groups of ten in the mind as you look at the flock. This is very demanding and hard work. It needs complete concentration

    There are ways to share the work, by using codes for species names and a counter to help record as you call out counts.

  6. How to Present the Data

    Presentation of the data depends on what the aims and the methods of the monitoring program are

    At its simplest, make a spreadsheet table, with species name on the left, and columns of counts. Include information on dates; location; counters; and tide states. For publication, explain the method in clear written text, and organize the most useful data in simple table form, if needed supported by tables and graphs.

  7. How the data can be used

    Again, this depends entirely on what the monitoring program is aiming to achieve

    In the case of the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program, we are gathering data to understand and show the importance of the Saemangeum area and the adjacent Geum Estuary and Gomso Bay to shorebirds; we are gathering data to better understand these species’ migration strategies; and we are aiming to monitor the impacts of the Saemangeum reclamation on these same shorebirds. We have designed the program to be workable and timed to maximum effect. We have restricted the main counts to April and May (when the birds are at their most concentrated and abundant, and when we can find sufficient counters); and we are limiting the program to three years (achievable for our organizations; time enough to record the impacts; and in time to present our data and analysis to the Ramsar Conference in Korea in October 2008 – when the data and results will likely have the most effect and interest)

    In developing any monitoring program, it is absolutely essential to decide what the program aims to achieve. Always, one aim should be to help the conservation of birds and their habitats, by providing good and honest data.

Thank you for your time and understanding and good luck with your monitoring!