Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal – Biodiversity Ireland

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Dr. Liam Lysaght, Centre Director, provides an overview of his recording activities using Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal during the Coronavirus lockdown. and highlights some of the functionality of the system that he finds most useful. 

The Coronavirus lockdown has meant that I have been confined to within 2km of my home now for a month or so. I am fortunate because I live in the countryside and the neighbouring farmers are happy for me to walk the dogs across the fields as often as I like. Being confined to a small area has not diminished my curiosity about biodiversity; if anything, it has encouraged a greater curiosity about the biodiversity to be found close to home.

Using the ‘View My Records’ function I can map all my records on a map or aerial photo.
Using the ‘View My Records’ function I can map all my records on a map or aerial photo.

I have been using Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal to log my observations. It is a very handy platform to easily capture any sightings I make. I generally use the Biodiversity Data Capture app on my phone to record my observations, as the records feed directly into the Portal. It means that I don’t have to worry about the precise location as this is generated automatically by the phone’s GPS, and I can easily attach a photo with the record. Having a photograph with the record is a great help for validation at a later stage. If I am unable to confirm the identification of a species on the spot, I take a photo on my phone and check the identification in some of the books that I have at home. If I am sure that I have the correct identification I then submit the record later using the laptop. I just have to be careful that I enter the precise location of the sighting using the map browser.

Most of my recording activity involves simply noting casual sightings of interest while out on my walk. The more systematic recording that I do is through the structured monitoring programmes. Nevertheless, over time a lot of data can be generated with little effort.

The Citizen Science Portal is a handy way for me to see my recording activity over the last few weeks.

All I have to do is click on the ‘View My Records’ tab and insert my email address. I can almost make out my regular route from the distribution of records that is visible in the map browser available within this section. I didn’t think I was doing a great deal of recording but the map shows that even noting a few observations daily soon builds up over time.

The Portal allows me to check my recording efforts since the start of 2020 and I can compare this with other years. My perception is that I have been far more actively recording biodiversity this year. The figures show otherwise. I submitted 762 records during the first four months of 2020, whereas I had submitted 852 for the same period in 2019.

The charts are a useful way to see my recording effort over time
The charts are a useful way to see my recording effort over time

The charts show that I have paid more attention to butterfly recording this year, whereas last year I did quite a bit of bird and plant recording early in the year. This is obviously a reflection of my newly acquired role in having responsibility for the butterfly recording and butterfly monitoring schemes of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and of course, the beautiful weather we have had since the lockdown.

Another feature of Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal that I really like is that it provides me with a table of all the records that I have submitted, ordered chronologically from the most recent to the oldest, and it allows me to view the photos and any other associated information that I have submitted with the record. Over time this builds up into a very comprehensive and detailed record of my personal recording activity. At any stage, I can automatically download all the records as a .csv file, so I have full access to them. It really is a personalised record management system for me, which allows me to easily digitise my sightings on an ongoing basis. If these records are of value to someone else too, then great, they are there to be used.

Recording for me is a personal pastime, but it is good to know that I am part of a network of recorders across the country who are also documenting the biodiversity they find in their own locality.

I have opted into being part of the ‘Recorder League’ where I can compare my recording efforts with others. There are 1,270 fellow recorders participating in the league, and with the 191 different species that I have recorded since the start of 2020, I see that I am in 17th place in the ranking. Using the ‘Compare Year’ function I check the system to see how this compared with my recording efforts from previous years; 2019 was the year I recorded most different species with a final tally of 471 species. It is unlikely that I will get anywhere near to this number in 2020 because of all the travel restrictions that are in place. The ‘County League’ shows that since the start of 2020 the most records have been submitted from counties Dublin, Cork and Galway demonstrating that there are plenty of recording opportunities in urban as well as rural areas.

I have full control over all my records and can download as a .csv file if I want to import them to other software
I have full control over all my records and can download as a .csv file if I want to import them to other software

Species Stats’ shows the number of records of the different species submitted to the portal. Already this year more than 800 sightings of peacock butterfly have been submitted, which is a huge rate of recording for so early in the season. It is somewhat pleasing to note that the three most commonly recorded species so far this year are the peacockorange-tip and small tortoiseshell, showing the huge contribution that recorders are making to the ongoing Butterfly Atlas 2021 project.

Using Biodiversity Maps (URL: https://maps.biodiversityireland.ie/) I downloaded a list of the records for Brambletown, the townland in which I live, to see what is known about the biodiversity of the townland. A total of 338 species has been recorded for the townland, which is more than I had expected. It shows there has been a good level of detailed recording for what is a fairly intensively farmed landscape. I see 12 species tagged as Invasive have been recorded in the townland, the worst of which to my mind at least are the grey squirrel and mink. Fortunately, there are no records of the dreaded Japanese Knotweed! I also notice that there are records of two Endangered moss species and two species of non-marine mollusc that are Threatened with extinction. I am delighted to see that I have contributed records of two bird species, Barn Owl and Yellowhammer, which are on the Red List (delighted, that is, to have recorded them not that they are on the Red List!).

One of the advantages of documenting what you see in your locality and keeping a record of these observations is that you never know what significance your records might have in the future. For example, when I first arrived at Bramblestown about 20 years ago I recorded a wall butterfly resting on an area of bare ground in one of the fields. Looking back on the records now I see that wall brown has disappeared from the locality and is now extremely rare, if not extinct, for the entire county of Kilkenny. Little did I know when I noted this creature basking in the sun on 20th August 2000 that it would enter into the database as one of the last of its kind for Kilkenny. I also remember the excitement of recording my first comma butterfly in 2015 and little did I know then that this species would become a regular feature of the area’s fauna over such a short period.

All my validated records can be accessed through Biodiversity Maps, by generating a report of the records for Bramblestown townland.
All my validated records can be accessed through Biodiversity Maps, by generating a report of the records for Bramblestown townland.
People often ask me why I do so much biodiversity recording?
Well, the answer is simple; I enjoy it. 

And I enjoy keeping an observant eye on the biodiversity around me. No matter where I am, I keep my eyes open for what biodiversity is around me, and I have gotten into a routine of recording what I see. I know that this kind of casual recording is not as valuable as the systematic survey work that I do, such as the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, the Countryside Bird Survey or the Car-based Bat Monitoring, yet that does not mean it is unimportant. All of the casual records that I submit to the Citizen Science Portal are validated by an expert, and if accepted are then added to the National Biodiversity Database and made available through Biodiversity Maps, the Data Centre’s data and mapping portal. This means that all my records are freely available for anyone to view, and if a decision is to be made that might impact on the biodiversity of an area, then this information is freely available to inform those decisions. This is what sets Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal apart from other online recording systems. The record entry form is only the tip of the iceberg to a large bioinformatics infrastructure and network that support the management of data and information for Irish needs. Any small contribution that I can make to building the knowledge base on what species occur where, and allowing these data to feed into an information pipeline that is required by Irish practitioners to inform and improve decision making for conservation within Ireland, is worth making.

I have the satisfaction in knowing that my records are adding to the scientific knowledge on the biodiversity interest of Bramblestown, and this information can be used by others for the betterment of conservation action in Ireland.