Sampling river wildlife, BFC Bioblitz of Serpentine, 31/07/21 (Dave Purchase)

How to survey wildlife

There are many ways to carry out surveys of wildlife, from the very simple and relaxed using just your eyes and a notepad, perhaps with a camera or binoculars (such as sitting in your house or garden counting the birds) through to more complex, time- and effort-consuming scientific and ecological surveys.

This page will give you a brief survey of surveys, plus links to information to find out more. Surveys are great fun and excellent ways to increase your knowledge and experience of wildlife and species identification.

Surveys and sampling

The sort of survey you carry out will depend upon what you are studying and what you want to find out.

If you just want to know what kinds or species of wildlife there are in a particular place or area or habitat, then all you will need to start with are your eyes and ears, plus, depending upon the sizes and distances of what you are looking for, either binoculars or a telescope or a magnifying glass or a microscope. You will also have your chosen means of recording what you find, whether it be a notebook, a sketchbook, a camera, a video camera or a sound recorder. You may also have with you your chosen field guide(s) or keys to identification of your species of interest, which may well be in the form of an app on your mobile phone.

(If you have not already done so, take a look at our pages on How to identify wildlife and How to record wildlife for more information on these topics.)

If you want to know not just what kinds of plants and animals there are, but also to get an idea of how many there are of each species, you will want to carry out some form of a count. It is usually impossible to go and count each and every one present, since that would be like trying to count the different sizes and colours of grains of sand on the beach, and, in the case of animal life, the added difficulty that they are liable to be moving.

So what you will usually be doing is counting a sample of the wildlife in a particular area at or over a particular time.

There are many different surveys of this type that you can take part in, depending upon your areas of interest.

In the case of a survey like the BTO Garden Birdwatch or the associated annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this will be simple and defined by counting the numbers and species of birds in your garden over a defined period, usually one day from dawn to dusk, say.

Good places to start

This is a good place to start. The RSPB has an excellent introductory page on the variety of surveys you can carry out with links to the relevant sites, covering surveys of amphibians and reptiles, birds, insects, mammals and plants.

The Chiltern Commons Project was a Heritage Lottery funded project run between 2011-2015 by the Chilterns Conservation Board.  This excellent project encouraged people to make the most of commons for walking, playing and enjoying the outdoors. It inspired and enabled people to get involved with caring for commons and studying them, on the basis that if we don’t there’s the danger that we’ll lose these precious landscapes for good. Their website, which you can find by clicking on the heading to the left, is well worth visiting and browsing.

As part of that project, they compiled an excellent guide to Surveying wildlife in the Chilterns, which is an immensely useful source for general use, not just the Chilterns. The pdf is available by clicking either on the title above or on the button below.

Buxton Butterfly Surveys

For some years now our member Steve Orridge has been arranging, co-ordinating and reporting surveys of the butterflies in a number of locations around Buxton, including Lightwood, Cunningdale and Ferneydale and more. These resuts have been fed into the Derbyshire Butterfly Surveys and thence into the National surveys, and have provide a valuable source of data to support our wildlife knowledge.

You can view and download a copy of Steve’s report for 2021 here: