The Sorby Natural History Society, Sheffield

Covering a full range of natural history interests in Sheffield and the surrounding area, providing for both interested beginners and specialists.

Questions frequently asked about bird recording

What species to record

The simple answer is – all species. It is often the so called “common” birds which are overlooked for which we do not have reliable maps of distribution or abundance. Changes in the abundance of such species may be overlooked just because they are assumed to be “common”. The House Sparrow is a good example. It has become increasingly scarce, particularly in urban and suburban areas, but its demise has only recently been recognised. However, common sense must dictate the submission of records of the “common” birds.

Limitations of time and space mean that every sighting of every Blackbird for a given locality is not required. If you watch an area regularly a summary of the numbers seen in winter and in the breeding season or at times of passage is adequate. Similarly regular counts of the less common species in a woodland or other habitat will establish the pattern of changing numbers and a summary giving peaks and troughs will suffice. All birds seen on a random visit should be recorded so that there is at least one record of each species for the locality on the data base.

Large and unusual numbers (or their absence where previously recorded) and the presence of species in unexpected places (such as town centres) should be reported. Unusual nest-sites and behaviour and the size of roosts are all worth recording.

Include records of “escapes” and species which have been introduced and liberated and which may now be establishing feral populations.

Rare birds require special treatment (see “Difficult” species section below).

Where to record

This depends very much on the interests of the observer, the time available and the facility for travel. For the Sorby recording area we need to know the species which breed, winter or pass through on migration and the types of habitat where they occur. Your garden, the city parks or the rural countryside are all a potential source of records.

Certain sites, usually wetland reserves, are valuable for monitoring the breeding success of resident or visiting waders and waterfowl. Fortunately these sites are well watched by Sorby members. However, the health of the breeding populations in the general countryside, which comprises the greater part of our recording area, is poorly recorded. The general decline in the numbers of many of our farmland species is now well established but their local distribution may be patchy and less well known. The Corn Bunting and Turtle Dove are such species. Bird recording on farmland, particularly if undertaken as a long term commitment at the same site, can be rewarding and valuable in providing a base line for future comparisons. The same is true for woodlands, heaths and upland habitats. In general, sites near the edge of our Recording Area are under-recorded.

What happens to your bird records

After the information on your spreadsheet(s) has been imported into the computer, the original sheets are retained and filed under month and year. This makes it possible to check information should the need arise and to refer to any detailed comments not entered onto the computer.

Our records are sent to the appropriate local record centres annually for use for site information and for conservation purposes. The Sorby NHS does not produce an annual bird report since its recording area overlaps part or all of areas covered by local bird clubs or county societies which produce annual reports. The recorders or report editors of these organisations will be informed of the occurrence of a rare species and may be sent our annual records if requested for use in their annual reports. Periodically the Sorby bird database is archived with the BTO using BirdTrack. It is also intended to export our records to the NBN Gateway.

“Difficult” species and rarities requiring description

Lists of species for which descriptions are required are published in the Annual Reports of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union and those of local societies such as the Sheffield Bird Study Group and Derbyshire Ornithological Society. The submission should comprise a field description and supporting drawing made at the time of observation and not after consulting a Field Guide. The evidence will then be passed to the Records Committee of the Society or Bird Club in whose area the species was seen. A Records Committee comprises persons who are experienced in bird identification and who will assess the evidence to decide whether the record can be published in an Annual Report. If the record is rejected the reasons are made known to the observer who has a right of appeal. After acceptance, records of County or National rarities are forwarded to the appropriate County recorders and/or to the British Birds Rarities Committee.

The ideal record should, as far as possible, provide the following information (abbreviated from British Birds 1962, 55, 559-60):


  1. Size (estimated or compared).
  2. Size and shape of bill, length of legs, shape of wings, length of tail etc. (compare with similar known species).
  3. Plumage description and position of any distinctive markings supported by field sketches.
  4. Colour of bill, legs, feet and eyes.
  5. Behaviour: flight action and quality of call notes.


  1. Associated birds if any.
  2. Nature of ground and use made by bird of cover.
  3. Distance from bird, angle of view: period of observation.
  4. Weather, visibility and optical aids.


  1. Previous experience of species and of species with which confusion is possible.


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