Citizen mapping of avians in Kenya

Saturday December 23 2017

The African eagle. Each registered bird mapper

The African eagle. Each registered bird mapper notes the birds they see and hear in a given area during a two-hour session over five days. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NATION 

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At a morning bird walk in the forested area around the Nairobi National Museum, we spotted 52 species including three migratory birds from Europe. This was a leisurely activity for amateur birdwatchers organised by Nature Kenya.

But a conservation project is underway to identify the distribution of bird species in Kenya with the help of ordinary people.

The Kenya Bird Map (KBM) is a joint initiative of the NMK, Tropical Biology Association, A Rocha Kenya and Nature Kenya.

“The most basic information in order to conserve anything is to know where it occurs and where the core and periphery of its range are,” said Colin Jackson from the management team of KBM.

The last major, nation-wide study was completed in 1984 and the results were published in the A Bird Atlas of Kenya in 1989. “But in the ensuing period there have been dramatic changes in habitats across the country and the whole of Africa,” says Jackson who is a research associate with the National Museums.

“There is an urgent need to re-map them in order to better understand what impact we have had on our biodiversity,” he added.

KBM is a five-year citizen science project but with plans for longer term monitoring since birds are good indicators of ecosystem wellbeing. To date, more than 100 people have registered for the project since it started in 2014.

Each registered bird mapper notes the birds they see and hear in a given area during a two-hour session over five days. A starter toolkit from KBM gives guidelines on how to chart and submit bird sightings.

The map of Kenya has been subdivided into an atlas grid of hundreds of numbered pentads of approximately 9km square each, which enables easier tracking of observed and unobserved areas.

Some surprising bird finds is the Red-faced Crombec spotted in north of the coastal town of Malindi. It is the first on record in 40 years. A Chiffchaff bird seen on the western side of the Rift Valley was also unusual.

Citizen science, the collection of scientific data by regular people rather than trained scientists and supported by modern technology, is making significant contributions to our scientific knowledge.

Citizen scientists discovered new galaxies in 2016. The method has been used to track the status of different animals, monitoring plant life cycles, air quality, weather changes, and map the moon’s craters.

Since both amateur and experienced birdwatchers are participating in KBM, the data collected has to be vetted through a manual and automated process.

Bird sightings considered out of range or season are double-checked with the observer and if the evidence is insufficient, they are excluded from the database. Says Jackson, “While there will still be errors that creep through, we are confident that the majority of the data are correct.”

Beyond locating birds, KBM hopes the findings will help detect decline in species, the effect of changing climate or human land use which can direct future avian research and conservation.

Kenya has one of the richest bird diversity in Africa with over 1,000 species and the Rift Valley is consistently listed among the top bird-watching destinations in the world.