Friday, 26 October 2018

Who wants records and how do we submit them?

A thread on the UK Hoverflies Facebook group yesterday raised a host of questions:


Whether there is any need to submit records of the same species on different days

It is worth remembering that we cannot go back and create data once the day has past, so making as full a record of what we see is a way of preserving a point in time that may be useful in the future. If you see something and can be sure of its identity, then log it and submit it! Modern databasing systems cope with vast quantities of data so there is no problem about volume.

The bigger problem comes when people selectively submit data. Are all species treated equally, or is there bias towards the more ‘interesting’ species? If there is bias, then the commoner species appear to be rarer and the rarer species commoner. The most telling lesson comes from the BTO’s ringing programme, which actively discouraged ringing of house sparrow until it was too late and the decline (crash) had happened. Commoner species are often the bellwether of the natural world because they tell us a lot about the wider landscape. Rare species are rare because their ecological requirements are more precise, and these are much more scattered (but may have been widespread in the past).

The HRS encourages daily recording as this helps to paint a picture of the seasons and years. Sadly, we have lots of evidence of sensitivities to changing weather patterns, but older data are so limited that we cannot go back and test ideas against previous major events such as the 1976 drought. BUT, if we make sure we have the data now, our successors will be able to do so much more.

The problem comes because there is a commonly held misconception that recording schemes are simply about mapping distribution. That was the case when schemes started in the 1960s and 1970s but once modern computing because available and powerful a wide range of new opportunities emerged. I’ve written previously on the use of opportunistic data and its use in occupancy modelling. Most, if not all, recent reports on the status of British wildlife are based on this modelling (and HRS data are part of this).

The more complete the data the better. It is worth recording the gender of the animal, what it was doing and whether it was associated with a particular plant. BUT, there are complications – some insects will sit on flowers but not be taking pollen or nectar – so be sure that it is actively foraging and say, ‘at flower of …’. A note saying ‘on lupin’ is meaningless – it might be sunning on lupin leaves or feeding at the flowers; we get lots of data of this sort and, sadly, it is impossible to use.
As a simple illustration of what we can do with data on gender, Figure 1 illustrates the differences in phenology of male and female Eristalis tenax – without full data extracted from records from social media we would have a far less complete picture because most people submit records just naming the animal with no associated information.

So, the best mantra is ‘see it, log it, submit it
Figure 1. Phenology of male and female Eristalis tenax in 2018. Without regular and detailed recording of a seemingly common species we would not have such a complete picture of its over-wintering ecology.


What is the preferred route for records to reach schemes?

There are numerous ways of submitting data to schemes: spreadsheet, Mapmate synch, downloads from other databases (e.g. Recorder), iRecord and posting on Facebook (where schemes extract directly).

Scheme organisers are not a uniform bunch, and each has their own preferences. Some schemes definitely prefer iRecord; others do not! Again, I have written about the issues we have with iRecord, so take a look! Speaking strictly for the HRS, we prefer spreadsheets or databases downloads/synchs for big blocks of data. I do all of the verification for hoverflies on iRecord and it is probably the most frustrating job of the year! So often people submit a record based on a photo where you can tell what the gender is, but it is not logged. If I go in and adjust every record then there will be months of work and I simply don’t have the time, so the information is lost. I also get immensely frustrated when I see the same photograph used to support a series of records from different dates – can I really believe the records? Equally, I get frustrated when several posts of the same species for the same date and place – why not one post and save both me and you time?

I am far more sanguine about extracting data direct from the Facebook group. Until very recently I have done this but thanks to a wonderful team of volunteers we now have a group of data extractors (a HUGE thanks to David Rayner and the team – Chickena Lurve, Sue Kitt, Katie Stanney and Adam Kelsey). This data has been an important stage in developing the data because there is much more consistency in the validation of records; I now use this independent of the main dataset to look at some of the ongoing responses to the environment – it provides real-time data to work with.


What happens to the data?

We must always remember that scheme organisers are simply the custodians of the scheme and the data that have been assembled. Schemes should (hopefully) pass between generations and provide the foundations for our successors. Each scheme operates independently, and some are far more active than others. There are a few schemes that are essentially moribund because the organiser has ceased to be actively engaged but cannot be persuaded to pass on the data and the responsibility. Most are active to some degree but may not engage with media such as iRecord. Some schemes (e.g. moths, dragonflies, plants) have a network of county records, but many are effectively ‘one-man-bands’. The numbers of active recorders for most taxonomic groups are very limited and there are fewer still people who are prepared to take on administrative roles.

Where schemes are active and engaged, there should be data transfer to the NBN on a regular basis. Here, I must put my hands up and say that the most recent HRS data are not on the NBN because we are trying to clean up the dataset and mark-up the dodgy records (it is a monumental task). We do, however, pass on data to research groups as and when we are asked. So, when you see reports based on wildlife statistics you can be sure that HRS data are part of the mix. I cannot remember how many requests we have had this year – maybe half a dozen.

In the case of the HRS, incoming data are loaded into RECORDER as the storage platform – Stuart Ball is the data manager, whilst I am simply the front end who deals with the wider administration. The data are used to inform a range of products, most notably the maps in the WILDGuide and the analysis behind the 2014 Species Status Review. We have a problem with the original HRS website (Stuart managed to break the mapping system and has never found a way of repairing it). Stuart is developing a new site, but it is not on active release (links are often provided to the FB group) – it is one of the multitude of jobs that are reliant upon a small nucleus of people who run the schemes.

In theory, Stuart and I should be writing a series of research papers based on Stuart’s occupancy modelling. We have a lot to say but seem to be stuck in the drafting stage! Meanwhile, I do try (intermittently) to provide a bit of feedback on this blog – scroll through the posts and maybe something will be of interest.

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