Waterways Breeding Bird Survey

Dipper by Edmund Fellowes

The Waterways Breeding Bird Survey is an annual survey of breeding birds along rivers and canals.

Rivers and canals are great places for birds and birdwatchers, creating wildlife corridors that strike into the heart of our cities and stretch from moorland to estuary. The Waterways Breeding Bird Survey (WBBS) provides both a great excuse for a summer morning walk and an effective way to monitor the health of the species that live by our waterways.

The WBBS uses transect methods akin to those of the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) but with minor adaptations to a linear habitat. Volunteers walk along from just 500 metres to a maximum of 5 km of waterway, making a note of all of the birds that they see and hear. Surveys are conducted twice a year, between April and June, along with a reconnaissance before that to check the route. Data is then submitted by the end of August, via field recording forms or to submit your data on BBS-Online.

WBBS results supplement BBS with additional data on the birds and mammals specifically in waterside habitats. WBBS covers all bird and mammal species but is especially valuable for monitoring the population trends of specialist animals of linear waters, such as Goosander, Common Sandpiper, Kingfisher and Dipper.

The WBBS falls under the Partnership umbrella of the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey and population trends calculated using WBBS data have formed part of the BBS Report since 2016. WBBS developed alongside the BTO's long-running mapping survey of rivers and canals – the Waterways Bird Survey (WBS), which ran from 1974 to 2007. For up to 25 waterway-specialist bird species, the BirdTrends report includes breeding population trends that are based on a continuous run of WBS and WBBS results since 1974. WBBS is grateful to The Environment Agency for England and Wales for sponsoring WBBS development during the surveys early years.

The BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey, incorporating the WBBS, is a partnership jointly funded by the BTORSPB and JNCC with fieldwork conducted by volunteers.

Time / skill required

  • Undertake three site visits between April and June - a recce and two morning visits, along with data entry.
  • Able to identify UK breeding birds by sight, song and call.
  • Able to identify UK breeding birds by sight, song and call, but want to learn more about WBBS method? We can look into finding a mentor for the first visit or two - wbbs [at] bto.org (email us).
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Project timeline, contributions & findings

Project timeline

  • February – March Forms sent or downloaded
  • March Reconnaissance visit
  • Early April – mid May Early visit
  • Mid May – late June Late visit
  • End of August Data entry deadline

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