Birds are recognised as faithful indicators of the state of the environment and widely used as such across Europe. Here skilled citizen scientists collect data that feed into national annual statistics, but until now, this model of environmental monitoring has not been tested elsewhere.  In our innovative paper we show how, with appropriate support, citizen science-based monitoring programmes for birds can be established in Africa, yielding vital data and insights into environmental change.

Birds as indicators

Indicators based on trends in the abundance of birds are widely used for monitoring the impacts of pressures on the state of nature, determining the effectiveness of policy responses, and tracking progress towards biodiversity targets and sustainable development goals in Europe and have been identified as priorities for development elsewhere. As part of this development, bird population monitoring schemes have now been established in Botswana, Kenya and Uganda, based on citizen science approaches used in Europe, with the aim of monitoring population trends in common and widespread species. The monitoring schemes were established in Botswana and Uganda in 2009, and in Kenya in 2011, and are organised by the respective BirdLife partners, BirdLife Botswana, Nature Uganda and Nature Kenya.  From the outset, RSPB have provided technical and financial assistance.

For Botswana and Uganda, we also provide comparisons between trends of habitat generalists and specialists and of birds within and outside Protected Areas. Challenges encountered included recruiting, training and retaining volunteer surveyors, and securing long-term funding. However, we show that with technical support and modest investment, meaningful biodiversity indicators can be generated and used in African countries. Sustained resourcing for the existing schemes, and replication elsewhere, would be a cost effective way to improve our understanding of biodiversity trends globally, and measure progress towards environmental goals.

Survey design and methods

A semi-random sampling approach was preferred, given the low availability of observers, as it encourages participation in circumstances of uneven participant distribution. This is based on similar approaches that have been employed in Europe. In Botswana and Uganda transects are generally closer to urban areas, given the semi-random selection of sites, and extensive areas, particularly in Uganda, are still without transects. Yet the stratified nature of transect selection has ensured that broad habitats have been represented and there has been a reasonable division of transects between protected areas and the wider landscape.

Both line- and point-count transects were considered to be suitable survey techniques.  The final decision on which technique to use in each country was based on local conditions and existing experience and knowledge.

In Botswana, surveys involve walking a 2 km transect, undertaking a 5-minute count of all birds seen or heard at 11 points spaced at 200 m intervals. Surveys are undertaken twice per year, in February and November. The start and end points of each transect and the route followed are recorded precisely using a global positioning system, so if there are any changes in observers, the transect routes can be maintained. Surveys are undertaken twice per year, in February and November, to cover periods when Afro-Palearctic migrants are present, and when birds are most likely to be readily detected through breeding activity.

In Uganda, a line transect method is used, recording all birds seen or heard along a 2km transect, with counts divided into 200 m sections. Surveys are undertaken twice per year, in January/February and July/August. The scheme in Kenya follows a similar approach to Botswana, with surveys undertaken twice per year, in February and August.

In general, observers are asked to ensure that each survey lasts no more than 3 hours, with the line transect or first point count starting at c. 07.00 and the line transect or last point count finished by 11.00, when birds are most active and easier to detect. However, this was not always possible, and in Uganda time restrictions were relaxed. Standardized recording forms were created for line transect and point count surveys, and adapted for local use by each BirdLife Partner.

Citizen science engagement and training

Developing motivated and skilled citizen scientists is key to the success of volunteer-based schemes. One challenge in Africa was the lack of a tradition and culture of bird watching and systematic recording. Supporting materials for surveyors included user-friendly survey methods and brochures to encourage participation. In Botswana, for example, the existing volunteer network was based upon BirdLife Botswana members and biased towards the capital city, Gaborone, so considerable work was required to identify, motivate and train participants in other areas of the country, to spread coverage geographically. Volunteer training is conducted face-to-face, either one-on-one or at workshops with multiple participants, and through the dissemination of supporting materials. The interest of participants has been maintained by frequent contact, feedback in the form of annual reports, and by the production of items such as field guides and CD recordings of common bird calls.

In Uganda, counts were organized and coordinated by Nature Uganda but are carried out by volunteer birdwatchers, Nature Uganda staff, Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers and by professional bird guides acting in a voluntary capacity. At the start of the scheme, workshops were held by Nature Uganda to train volunteers in the survey methods; these volunteers were later asked to encourage other birders to take part in the scheme by cascading their skills and knowledge. These additional volunteers were trained on site by the participating volunteers. Refresher training courses were conducted for participating volunteers to keep them active and motivated, and these are repeated whenever funding becomes available.

In Kenya, many of the transects are surveyed through the existing Site Support Group network established by Nature Kenya, the BirdLife Partner. More recently, Kenya Airports Authority and some Kenyan universities and their students have become involved, which is fantastic to see. It seems that many people are keen to participate but that bird identification is a barrier and so local workshops and training sessions were run to help address this issue.

Looking forwards

Robust environmental monitoring is essential to support global and national biodiversity reporting mechanisms and to understand how the environment is changing.  It is highly encouraging that Botswana, Uganda and Kenya now have structured bird monitoring programmes in place to help inform their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans under the Convention on Biological Diversity, report against the Aichi Targets and Sustainable Development Goals; and inform their environmental policies and actions. We hope that this will encourage other countries to invest in well-designed, citizen science-based biodiversity monitoring for land birds and other taxa, complementing other essential biodiversity monitoring schemes (for example Red List species and Protected Areas) that have been established in Africa in recent years.  We are keen to help.

The paper Developing biodiversity indicators for African birds has been published online in Oryx

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