I, citizen scientist

We were an army and every month we would deploy. We would fan out across South Africa. But we didn’t carry guns, our equipment were binoculars, a bird book and a floppy hat.

It was the late 80s, I was at school and I was a bird atlasser.

Now there is a more fancier name, we were citizen scientists and two decades later we have finally been recognised for what we did.

Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica). The photo is t...

The Barn swallow

In 1987 the South African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP) was launched. What they needed were volunteers, people willing to head out and tick off whatever bird they came across. The researchers behind the SABAP wanted to get a handle on bird distribution. Every month I would receive, through the post, a card with a checklist on it. They came in different colours. Central Transvaal had a canary yellow card, Northern Transvaal a sky blue.

My stomping ground was the Klipriversberg Nature Reserve, to the south of Johannesburg.

For two years I scoured those rolling hills, I bundu bashed through the wag a bietjie bushes and I recorded what I saw.

Those little grassland Cisticolas were the worst to identify. Sometimes if you recorded something unusual, there would be a posted query asking for more information. Once I lugged by boom box stereo into the reserve to prove that my sighting of a black widow finch, now known as a Dusky Indigo bird, was legit.

I had a couple of cassettes with bird calls on them, one of them was for the Indigo bird.

I knew I had my bird when after hitting play, the male widow finch began dive bombing my stereo.

There were other even more rare sightings. Once I spotted a Purple roller, a bird usually only found in the eastern reaches of the Kruger national Park.

Hillbrow and the Hillbrow Tower

Two decades ago Barn swallows left Johannesburg 8 days later than they do today

My involvement with the bird atlas project ended when I headed off to university. A year later the atlas project was wrapped up.

Then 16 years later it was relaunched. South African bird atlas project two it was called. Some bird names have now change, digital cameras help verify unusual sightings, and the Internet has made it all that easier.

Unfortunately I have never found the time to take part in the latest project. I have always meant too.

Last week all those hours spent squinting through binoculars, enduring painful wag a bietjie thorn was made worth while.

A couple of ornithologists published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B” that appeared in the Royal Society Journal.

What they did was crunch data from the two bird atlases. The data collected by citizen scientists, as they put it.

They focused on the Barn swallow, back in 1987 they were known as European swallows. What they found is disturbing, barn swallows are leaving South Africa earlier for their migration to Europe.

The European swallows I recorded 24 years ago stayed eight days longer in Johannesburg, than their descendants do today.

The lead author on the paper Res Altwegg told me that they suspected it had to do with global warming. The swallows are leaving earlier to take advantage of insect hatches that are occurring earlier, because of warmer spring temperatures. I am sure in the future more information will be gleaned from that the first bird atlas, to help us understand the effects of global warming. When I asked Res why my name didn’t appear on the academic paper, he laughed.

Hell, I had done the leg work, I explained.

He pointed out that it would be impossible to put those thousands of names of everyone who contributed to SABAP 1 and 2 on the front page of the paper.

But then again acknowledging the names of that thousand strong volunteer army I guess would have been difficult.

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About Shaun Smillie

Journalist, with a love of bones, fossils and other things dug up. Fisherman and occasional beer maker.
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