Top ten tips for being a biological recording machine

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Friday 2 October 2015 12:14

Usually at this time of year, I burn out of natural history. Mentally exhausted from identifying nearly EVERYTHING I see for a whole summer. So much so that even when I'm 'off duty', my brain continuously identifies things; birds flying over head calling, roadside plants that fall into my field of view, every single moth (or small piece of symmetry) on a shop window. Search image is such a powerful tool that it becomes a subconscious process if you use it frequently enough. I walk around at this time of year feeling a little like Terminator searching for Sarah Connor. Most people back stage at a festival would not even notice the fly. I actually can't stop it you know, I've tried. I'm permanently wired to record.

Yesterday I entered my 30,000th record on to my Recorder database (it was Rhagonycha fulva) so I thought this would be a good time to celebrate and promote biological recording. This includes 7632 plant records, 5372 birds, 4212 beetles, 3981 butterflies and moths, 2483 spiders and 1116 bugs among many more. Here is the view of my records nationally, at the county level and in the People's Republic of Brighton & Hove.

1) Know your basics
I don't want to teach people how to suck eggs here but good biological recording contains at least the following information: Species, Recorder, Location, Grid Reference, Date and preferably some level of abundance or qualifying data.

2) Register on iRecord!
I don't use iRecord as I have my own personnel database BUT if I was starting again and I wasn't a professional, I would be using it. It's a great way for getting your records in AND verified without sending your data to dozens of different recording schemes, you can sign up here

3) Get a smart phone or a hand held GPS
Smart phones have some great features for helping you record. Cheap GPS apps. Increasingly good cameras. Access to Internet resources. If you have a hand held GPS, this is also very useful. I enter my more interesting records in as 'way points'. I type in the species name in short hand on the key pad and it stores the grid ref to 10 figures (I only use 8) along with the time and date.

4) 8 figure grid ref vs site centroid
A site centroid is a generic grid reference for a whole site. It's really good for walk over surveys, recording common and abundant species, birds flying over or when you are recording a LOT of species. A detailed 8 figure grid reference is much better for casual recording, stumbling across something unusual or out of place/time etc. I try to put as much in to 8 figures as I possibly can. Have a look at my records for Woods Mill for example. If I was just putting in to a site centroid, there would just be one blue dot in the middle and that wouldn't be good for informing site management. You can always scale back if you start detailed but you can't do it the other way around!
5) What to record?
You can't record everything. In Brighton I'd be recording Herring Gull every day. That's not gonna tell anyone anything. If I'm doing a survey and that's my job, I obviously record everything but casual recording is a little different. I try to record something everyday and I always record anything that's unusual. So I would always record the following:
  • Something I'd never seen before
  • Something I'd only seen a few times before
  • Something I'd never seen at that site or that time of year before
  • Anything thought to be scarce or rare
  • Anything on a site I'd never been to before

Once upon a time I used to record every Firecrest I heard but these days I hear as many as I do Goldcrest. So this does change with time. You can't record everything all of the time!

6) Push yourself!
Concentrate on the the most difficult groups you can identify as you are more likely to make a valuable contribution to the recording world this way. It's not that hard to find county firsts with invertebrates, even in this heavily recorded part of the world! I'm not saying don't record the commoner things but you'll get more out of biological recording by pushing yourself into new areas in addition to the obvious. The best way to do this is to get into Pan-species Listing. Have a look here

7) Keep up to date
Don't let your records build up into a back log! This can be hard to achieve but if you try and chip away at your records every day/week the job becomes more manageable. I've been there and it's a nightmare. If you do have a back log, concentrate on your contemporary records! This also helps to recognise the value of recording. A worrying number of people who work in conservation do not submit any records for example. I believe this is because in recent years we have forgotten the importance of recording and it's slipped down the priority ladder becoming a nice thing to do! It's absolutely vital to our understanding the world around us. Challenge yourself. Make one record a day for a year for example!

8) Some other useful websites
If, like me, you're not using iRecord, I find Grab a Grid Reference invaluable at finding grid refs when I don't have my GPS. You can get an 8 figure grid reference easily using the aerial photos there.
I also use this website for figuring out what vice county (useful for cataloguing site locations systematically in Recorder) I'm in if I'm out of Sussex

9) Be prepared
Always have some form of a camera, notebook/phone and some kind of pot for bringing a specimen back for identification. Sometimes you get stuck without anything and you need to improvise. This was what happened to me when I got stuck without anything last year coming back from Cross Fit.

10) Have no shame!
Wildlife doesn't wait around for people who are worried about their image or whether someone will be offended if you butt in! You often only have a few seconds to react and it's best to just go for it. People will forgive you for butting in, stopping the car or making a slight detour but you'll never forgive yourself afterwards if you aren't prepared to drop everything ALL of the time. Here are a coupe of examples...

So, no matter where I am, I'm recording wildlife. Such as this longhorn beetle. Recorded in Suffolk back stage at Latitude festival. I was helping Bryony load in Marika Hackman when I had to stop, drop the gear and 'borrow' a box of filters to put the specimen in to be identified at a later date. It was a male Stictoleptura rubra, a species I hadn't seen before. Longhorns are one of my favourite groups of beetles so I wasn't missing the chance at a new species. 

A few weeks later and I'm the toilets back stage at the Green Man festival. I was chatting to Super Furry Animals' back-line tech in the toilets when I spotted a weird looking beetle which turned out to be Oedemera femoralis, if I was a self conscious person, I wouldn't have made this record. I'd only seen this species once before that, also in quite strange circumstances. In a spider's web in a pub garden.

So get out there and get recording! Not only is it great fun, it's a great way to learn about the natural world and informs management, research, planning and much much more. Now I might have had a few weeks out due to illness but I've been able to catch up on my summer back log of records in the process, so as far as field work goes...I'll be back!

2 Response to "Top ten tips for being a biological recording machine"

Crafty Green Poet Says:

excellent advice, thanks

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