They’ve got wings, beaks and funny little feet, and volunteers in Northumberland have spent over 10,000 hours traipsing around fields to count them. It’s amazing that birds attract so much attention from us humans, but the dedication has paid off (it took the volunteers four years) and now all the data has been submitted to a British Trust for Ornithology national survey, and also used by volunteers to create a beautiful book, The Northumbria Bird Atlas.
The book is gorgeous, printed on quality paper in full colour (made possible thanks to sponsorship and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant). There are 512 pages, featuring photographs, information and detailed maps (painstakingly created) of every breeding and wintering bird in the county, along with a forward by author Anne Cleeves (who’s married to one of the survey team). The bad news is only 2,000 copies have been produced and they’re in high demand.
‘This is part of our problem,’ says Tim Dean, who was one of the survey volunteers and edited the book with the help of three others. ‘We’ve never produced something of this sort of quality and most of the bookshops are selling it very quickly.’
Originally from London, Tim looked after computer systems at Natwest before retiring to Northumberland 10 years ago. He now lives in Rothbury and is the Bird Recorder for Northumberland (every county has a Bird Recorder, who’s responsible for collating sightings of birds and producing an annual report). He volunteered for the role of editor.
‘To be perfectly honest with you I ended up becoming the editor because nobody else wanted to do it,’ he laughs. ‘It was obviously a big role. You have to be retired to take on something like this because hundreds of hours have gone into just trying to decide how the book was designed and trying to do the mapping.’
The mapping is impressive. Each species has its own set of maps based on the results of the survey, which was carried out between 2007 and 2011. Basically, volunteers walked around every bit of Northumberland, spending a couple of hours in each tetrad (a 2km by 2km square) noting down any birds present.
‘A lot of it’s down to hearing,’ explains Tim. ‘All species have a specific song so you don’t even need to see a bird to record it. You just hear it and know what it is, which is why you want surveyors who know their bird song.’
Each species has a photograph on its pages, though one bird presented a problem: the quail. Although plenty of quail were found in the dense grass of Northumberland, nobody had a photograph, and even after contacting all the Northumberland photographers Tim and his team could find, they still couldn’t get a picture.
‘To be honest, that was a good thing,’ says Tim. ‘It’s a schedule one breeding bird which means it’s a critical breeding bird and shouldn’t be disturbed, so we don’t want photographers going up to birds and flashing them to get a photo. We found a lady in Lothian who had a decent quail picture and we thought, that’s quite close, we’ll have that.’
Completing the survey and creating the book was an enormous task, but Tim says he wasn’t surprised so many people put in unpaid hours – ‘We’ve got a long tradition in the county of people who are happy to do this sort of thing,’ he says. According to him they’re happy just to see their efforts being published, those tiny dots on a map, guiding the twitchers of the future.
You can buy the Northumbria Bird Atlas for £25 in good bookshops or via www.ntbc.org.uk, which is the website of The Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club.