Citizen Science - Time to Play Your Part | Jonathan Breytenbach

Birding means different things to different people. Throughout the world birding is done in many different ways. Some people prefer to just sit down and enjoy the joyful fluttering of the array of birds visiting their bird feeder, with the satisfaction of seeing those winged jewels enjoying the seed that they had provided with so much love, filling their hearts with a sense of purpose and joy. Other people prefer to drive thousands of miles to get to see a certain bird, to tick another species off their lists. Some others then focus on getting as many species as possible for a certain area, in a certain space of time. Throughout these groups of people, you get those that focus more on the scientific aspect of birding, be that through atlassing, documenting nests and nesting habits or feeding behaviour, documenting using photography or sketches and collecting and measuring specimens. Although all these groups of people have ways of birding that differ a whole lot from each other, they also all have one thing in common. THEY LOVE BIRDS!!!

Experimenting with camera settings with the drops of rain falling around this Cape Longclaw

The love for birds is what connects us as birders, regardless of your style of birding. There is no incorrect way of birding, as long as you are not harming the birds or the habitat they occupy. It is YOUR journey, and you decide your style.


My passion for nature is in fact a lifelong companion, working and making his way into every part of my life since I can remember. I believe that such a passion for nature and conservation is an incredibly special gift from God, a seed that needs to be nurtured and watered so that it may continue to grow into something truly magnificent. Not everyone finds that seed at such a young age, and I am forever grateful that I did. Though even finding it at a much later time in your life might prove to be exceptionally rewarding. As a young boy already, I was as awestruck and inspired by nature as I am today. I remember picking up rocks, looking under bark and in leaf litter, trying to find critters of all sorts, regardless of the location, and paying little attention to the people around. I recall a time where I crawled through the legs of about 10 people standing in a queue at one of the pay points of our local SuperSpar, desperately trying to catch a beetle that eventually made me crawl right underneath the cashier’s chair.

We encountered this Striped Pipit on the rocky ledges of the reserve’s waterfall

That very passion for nature grew with me, developing into a deeper interest in a wide variety of fauna and flora. One of those deeper, more mature, and even intensified interests turned out to be in birds and birding. My actual birding journey started in 2017, and since then grew into some crazy, uncontrollable obsession, addiction or whatever you might call it. Throughout my birding journey, I have come to appreciate the more scientific aspect of observing and protecting nature. Not necessarily scientific alone, but an overall deeper interest into the conservation of birds and their habitats, and the different ways in which I can contribute.


It is this love for the conservation and the longing to play my part, that drove me to explore different ways through which I, as someone who is not yet employed with the mission of conservation, and in fact only wrote my matric in 2020, can contribute to science and conservation. During this ongoing search, I have come across many ways in which the average person can play his part.

It is always thrilling to see species such as this Grey-backed Camaroptera out in the open

Atlassing comes to mind straightaway. It is probably the easiest and most fun way to contribute to science and conservation. Atlassing is quite simply recording the different bird species you encounter, together with the date and location. Atlassing has been done since the earliest years by some of the first naturalists to set foot in the bush. As the years progressed, so did technology, and lucky for us birders, a few like-minded innovators had the ability of keeping up, if not even leaping ahead! The brilliant mobile app, Birdlasser, gave birders the ability to become atlassers themselves, contributing to science without the problem of dragging along tons of paperwork and hours of admin. Not only did it give the general birder the ability to be a citizen scientist, but it also further increased the amount of valuable data that is submitted to the Southern African Bird Atlassing Project 2 (SABAP 2), from a mere trickle to an enormous surge. This invaluable data is used to monitor the enormous impact that global warming and other threats have on the population and distribution of Southern Africa’s birds. It is also used to build accurate distribution maps, monitor great bird migrations through treacherous countries, and see changes in threatened species’ distribution, population, and breeding success. Besides the more serious aspect of atlassing, BirdLasser also incorporates an element of fun. Events, challenges, and private competitions all give atlassing a fun and competitive aspect, and you can join as many challenges as you like. Anyone can become an atlasser, and if you are interested in playing a part, you can sign up here: http://sabap2.birdmap.africa/register


(Also read the following article on the Birdlasser app https://www.thebirdinglife.com/post/six-reasons-that-every-birder-should-be-using-birdlasser)

African Plain Tiger

Another way that I have found that one can contribute, is by submitting photos to the numerous different projects hosted by the Animal Demography Unit’s Virtual Museum. The Virtual Museum provides a platform for citizen scientists to contribute to a wide range of different biodiversity projects. This brilliant project was initially developed by the Animal Demography Unit (ADU), at the University of Cape Town in 2005, and is now managed by the Biodiversity and Development Institute, an independent, non-profit organization, as well as the FitzPatric Institute of African Ornithology (UCT). As in a real museum, the Virtual Museum (VM) collects specimens. But instead of actual specimens, photos are collected. The tags that would usually be found on specimens, are now placed together with each photo in the form of location, the date, the observer, and a definite identification of the specimen. When submitting your photo, you get to say what species you think it is, which is then later confirmed or corrected by a panel of experts. If no ID is given by the observer, it goes straight to the experts for identification. The different projects that can be submitted to include a wide variety of different fields, including projects such as VultureMap, LepiMap (for Butterflies and Moths), OdonataMap (for dragonflies and damselflies), FrogMap, MammalMap and TreeMap, to name but a few. Another fun project to try and collect data for, and even just browse through the submissions, is the BOP (Birds with Odd Plumages), where, as the name suggests, photos of birds with odd plumage variations such as melanism, xanthochroism, albinism and so forth are collected. All the data for these wide range of different projects are used to build the accurate, up to date distribution maps that we find in our trusty field guides. The Virtual Museum encourages everyone with photos of any kind (this is not a photography competition), to submit them to the corresponding projects. If you are at all like me, you have a ton of photos just stored away on your computer or hard drive. Instead of letting it go to waste, why not use it for good? If you would like to start contributing, you can just sign up here: http://vmus.adu.org.za/vm_register.php or just sign in with your SABAP 2 account.


One more platform that I came across during my search, and highly recommend for every nature lover, naturalist and even scientist out there, is the absolutely astounding INaturalist. Working on a similar concept as the Virtual Museum, INaturalist incorporates photographic data submissions from citizen scientists, with experts from around the world positively identifying your observations. INaturalist is a worldwide platform, processing submissions from around the globe, and using it to expand and improve distribution maps, notice trends in species’ distribution and population, geographical colour variations and a whole lot more. Not only is it an extremely user-friendly citizen scientist platform, but also gives observers the ability to discuss and share their sightings, add identification suggestions to other users’ observations, and browse observations in and around your location to help you know what to look out for the next time you go out. iNaturalist is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. It not only provides a seemingly flawless uploading interface, but allows users to keep life lists, gather knowledge by chatting to other naturalists, join projects that interest you or even create your own, run events such as a Bioblitz, or Biobash as I like to call it, and even download field guides. In these ways your data can and will be used for scientific purposes and projects. As stated on the INat website:

“Contribute to Science: Every observation can contribute to biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard weed. We share your findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists find and use your data. All you have to do is observe.”


The mobile app can be downloaded from the App Store or Play Store, or you can sign up and submit directly from their website: https://www.inaturalist.org/

A Yellow-throated Plated Lizard that we found under a rock during our latest biobash

The platforms that I have mentioned are only a few of the dozens of brilliant ways that one can contribute to science, and I am sure that there are many more that I still need to find.

Even though sharing your data for scientific reasons is extremely important, managing your precious data for your own convenience and accessibility is maybe even a tad bit more important. After all, your own ‘library’ is in fact where you will be sharing your findings from. During my search for ways to share my data to help others, I have realized that managing my own data is something that I was paying too little attention to, and before I knew, my photo library was a complete mess, with the majority being useless photos that only took up storage space. I had no confident way of knowing the precise number of different species that I had seen and photographed during specific outings and specific places that I had visited, be that only once or multiple times. It is this mess that led me to think of ways to manage my data. After a bit of pondering, I came up with a way that works for me. I can go as in-depth with my data as I like and adding additional information as I go out more is no problem. It is a bit time consuming to be honest, but in the long run totally worth it and extremely rewarding.

The view over Rustenburg from the Kgaswane Nature Reserve.

The whole concept came about after me and a friend had our third biobash to our local nature reserve, Kgaswane Mountain Reserve. Biobashing is put quite simply, going out into the field, and trying to find as many living things as possible. These not only include birds, but all living things, such as Butterflies and Moths, Dragonflies and Damselflies, Frogs, Snakes, Scorpions, Spiders, Lizards, Plants, Flowers, Trees, Mammals, Insects, and everything in between. Starting off at 5:30 and ending at 19;00 proves to be both rewarding, and exhausting, especially since we travel by foot. We usually walk about 25km a day, covering every habitat we can manage, which often requires mountaineering skills like no other, stamina like a wild dog, and arms of steel, required to pick up basically every rock in the reserve and carefully placing it back as we found it. Snacking happens on the go and carrying enough water without weighing you down too much is at times challenging. Despite all these aspects, which I like to think of as things creating the adventure and being a ton of fun, rather than hurdles or challenges, there are also the things that make you want to stay right there in the field, forever. Looking over the edge of a seemingly never-ending, vertical drop, with the sound of thousands of litres of water dropping down into the abyss, roaring in your ears. Having intimate encounters with some of the most secretive and range restricted creatures. Refueling your tired body with the freshest, clearest mountain spring water in the world (at least it seemed like it for us) and getting that one target animal that finally makes you believe that it does exist after all. It is these things that made us return, time and time again. And that, made the number of species found, continue to rise into a later rather staggering amount. Managing all these records for our personal benefit and for the ease of later identifying every species, became a rather daunting task. I realized that there are probably a few likeminded people that might be struggling with the same issue, or others that might just want to start off in a more organized manner, and therefore found it appropriate to share my way of organizing my sightings. Although it is nothing spectacular, I hope that a few people might benefit from using this method.

An example of the spreadsheet I use to record our observations

I simply start with a blank Excel spreadsheet. I then decide how complex I would like to make my spreadsheet. This determines what headings I will have in my spreadsheet. As my home language is Afrikaans, but the greater part of the scientific world operates in English, I add a column for Afrikaans names, and one for English names. I also add a column for scientific names, as unlike the birding world, some other fields such as Lepidoptera (butterfles and moths) rely a whole lot more on scientific names than common names, if there are even common names to begin with. I then like to add a column for recording the subspecies of every creature, if there are any. Those that do not have subspecies, I just leave blank. This allows you to later filter the species by whether it has a subspecies or not. The next column is where I add the date of every time we visited the reserve for a biobash. Each visit gets its own little column. This allows me to add a little check-mark next to every species, under the date which we have recorded it. I can thus see if we have recorded a certain species during our first visit, our second, our third, fourth, or both the first and the third, or even all four. By checking the species off like this, you can later filter your data to show only the species you have seen during e.g., Biobash 1, or filter it to show only those you did not see. You can also add in more columns for each new visit to the reserve, and only tick off those that you have seen, and add those that is new for the list.

Rhysida afra afra.

The next column is where I put in reference numbers for every species’ corresponding photo. I add a reference number for a photo of the species for every visit we have seen it. The photos are then stored in the same folder as the spreadsheet, under a different subfolder for each visit. This allows me to quickly go to the photo of the specific species, be that to show to someone or to submit to one of the different platforms that I have discussed earlier on. It is not always possible to positively identify a creature in the field, and for that reason we try to take photos of every creature we come across. This also enables me to submit my records to any of the citizen science projects, as these require photos to submit.

Even though there might be a range of better ways to record and manage your data, this is a way that I have found that works for me, and I hope that it might be of value to some like-minded birders and naturalists alike. I also hope that after reading this, you feel encouraged to play your part in conservation by joining some of the various citizen science projects, so that we might conserve and protect our rich and beautiful fauna and flora for future generations to enjoy and protect as well.


Jonathan Breytenbach was a guest on Episode 10 of The Youth Birding Podcast - you can listen to it on your favourite podcast app or head on over to https://www.thebirdinglife.com/youth-podcast/episode/3b7f06ec/the-birding-life-youth-podcast-or-10-jonathan-breytenbach


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