International Census Plots: a tool to fill the geographical gaps in bird monitoring in Europe

In order to achieve better data on bird numbers and distribution, we need to develop generic monitoring schemes in parts of Europe where they still do not exist. Setting up and running schemes based on fieldwork by volunteers is a challenge in many parts of the continent and that’s why EBCC started the International Census Plots scheme. By taking part in the scheme, countries can provide their monitoring data to the European dataset and develop comprehensive national schemes in the future. However, this can only happen by providing further support to national coordinators of the scheme.

We need to fill in the gaps in coverage of Europe by bird monitoring

There is no doubt that standardised large-scale monitoring of bird abundances together with distribution atlases provide valuable information for research and conservation. Outputs of the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) have been widely used in international and national policies, and, furthermore, the data collected via PECBMS helped to answer various scientific questions. The first European Breeding Bird Atlas (EBBA1) was used in 3,150 scientific publications  and we expect that EBBA2 will also be widely used for science and policy.

However, there are gaps in our picture of European population trends: large areas, mostly in eastern and southeastern part of the continent have not yet developed monitoring schemes which would cover the whole territory of individual countries.

Countries contributing to European trends and indices produced by PECBMS (2021) 

There are multiple reasons for the gaps. Often, there are only a few field ornithologists and volunteer birdwatchers in these areas. 

The number of fieldworkers contributing to the second European Breeding Bird Atlas (EBBA2) illustrates the geographical bias in capacities for monitoring in Europe. While there were some 40 observers per one 50 km square in some western European countries, there was only one observer per two 50 km squares in the east of the continent

This is usually caused by complex reasons some of which may include less wealthy economic situation and shorter tradition in volunteer field ornithology. Further contributing factors can be poor infrastructure, difficult access to some areas or difficult conditions for the development of NGOs and civic society.

It is difficult, but we can do it

Experience in EBBA2 shows, that despite the difficulties, colleagues in eastern and southeastern Europe can deliver great results. Particularly when their effort is supported by training, capacity building and decent funding.

Coverage of Europe in EBBA1 and EBBA2 documents an increase in the quality of atlas data in eastern and southeastern Europe between the two atlases.

Setting up a full scale national monitoring scheme in the near future is however unrealistic. The capacity must be built up step by step. In the meantime, we can start the monitoring with capacities that are already available and contribute to PECBMS in a relatively short time period via the approach of the International Census Plots (ICP). Such plots, if properly surveyed, can provide data for European population indices and indicators, as well as planned updated maps of distribution and serve as a basis for the full scale national monitoring schemes in the future.

The approach of International Census Plots should help

The approach was proposed within the EBCC in 2000s, but was never put into practice. The idea is that instead of setting up large numbers of census plots in each country individually; the census plots are set up in several countries simultaneously having a lower number of plots in each country. Thus, the overall set of plots will not produce data good enough to calculate reliable national population indices, but should be good enough to generate indices representative of the wider region. Later on, as the monitoring is being conducted at the international census plots, capacity at the national level will increase and once it becomes sufficient, the international census plots will serve as a basis for developing of national schemes.

In ICP, where raw data from several countries will need to be combined for calculation of the population index and trend, caution must be paid to compatibility of the field method across the region where it is applied. While in combination of national population indices as practiced in PECBMS, different field methods don’t pose a problem because national indices instead of raw data are combined, this would be different in ICP. Thus, the field method should be kept the same across the countries participating in ICP as much as possible.

Line transect has been found to serve the purpose the best in ICP and is therefore recommended as a field method in the countries taking part in the scheme.

Raw data from the ICP should be shared in order to allow calculation of regional and European population trends and indices, but the organisations running the national parts of the ICP are the owners of the data. Running a national database and potentially also mobile phone apps for field data recordings poses a further challenge to organisations with limited capacities.

The LIFE EBP Reinforcement will help expand the ICP network in SE Europe.

Some ICP pilot schemes have been developed in Serbia since 2021, where around 30 plots have been surveyed annually since then, and in Moldova since 2022, and these pilots have brough promising results. However, for the ICP to be making a real difference the network of ICP sites had to be further extended and this is exactly what is going to be done now thanks to the LIFE EBP Reinforcement.

Within the LIFE project, the main objective is to further develop the ICP network in Serbia and Moldova but also implement the scheme in five other countries: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo. The overall target is to have a network of at least 70 ICP sites in the region by the end of 2026.

To do so, among other things, the LIFE project is going to improve the know-how and capacities of the national ICP organizers through an specific training workshop and will seek also for synergies with the online bird portals and their associated apps in order to improve data collection.

We expect that once the ICP network is expanded and run for c. 3-5 years, the data produced will be good enough to contribute to European species trends and indices. Moreover, this data, together with the one already collected by PECBMS and the online bird portals, should also be used in the framework of the EBBA2 Live Farmland project. And in a longer term, hopefully, ICP will develop into fully independent national breeding bird monitoring schemes.

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