BDInsight – March 2020

BestMarch for the Virtual Museum

Awesome citizen science teamwork for March 2020. Together we achieved BestMarch late on the evening of 30 March 2020! Now we have the whole of today to push the RED dot upwards, so that there is a big gap between it and the dot for March last year (see the graph below).

In spite of the setbacks of March, we continue to build species distribution maps. Please work through your backlogs, and please see what you can achieve in the locality you find yourself in now during the lockdown. Well done, Team Virtual Museum. Thank you. Stay sane, stay healthy and BioMAP at home.

Citizen Science: a solution to the problems of the 2020s?

We did this crazy exercise at the BDI Citizen Science Conference in the Karoo! An independent organization** made a list of “cultural” issues which might need a “shift” in our values and beliefs. We had a discussion in which we considered whether “citizen science” could help with awareness of these problems, and help provide a shift in the attitudes, values and beliefs! This is their full list, verbatim, unedited!

What we discussed ran like this. “In what ways can ‘citizen science’ (i.e. involvement with citizen science projects) help make a shift on how people see these issues? How can ‘citizen science’ change people’s attitudes values and beliefs. In what way does the organization of citizen science projects need to be adapted to help mitigate these issues?” At first glance, some of the topics seem far removed from “citizen science”. How on earth does “citizen science” interact with “hopelessness”? But this is the challenge. In the BDI, our focus is on both “citizen” and “science”. The “science” part is easy; trying to mitigate the real problems of the day, through citizen science, is going to stretch us.

Citizen science is about community, sharing knowledge, biodiversity stewardship… and having fun!

We are compiling a report on this discussion.

We are under lockdown, and many of us are wondering what sort of world and society we will emerge into on the other side. So this is a great opportunity for each of us to spend a bit of time thinking about these topics. We invite our readers to write a paragraph or more on these topics, and we will compile them into the report. Please email your ideas to Les Underhill (les [at]

Disconnection from nature – Today, some see humanity as something apart from nature – not integral to it. And many believe this is what’s driven our civilization to the brink of environmental collapse. So we need to further cultivate the idea that we are one with nature – in fact we are nature defending itself.

Hopelessness – There is indeed a lot that needs changing in this world, but one barrier to making change is a feeling of hopelessness that seems to be rising across society. Let’s inspire hope in people so they believe in their own power to change their world.

Nationalism and division – Division and hate are overpowering social media. But we are one people, one love. Let’s counter nationalism with a global sense of community and commonality.

Anger and trigger – We all have things that steal our cool. We call them “triggers”. And when triggered, people act most often from anger and anxiety. We need to cultivate a culture of “untriggering” – taking a deep breath and acting from more self-aware emotions.

Rape and trauma – Recently, victims of sexual violence have used social media to tell their stories, and overcome shame and deep pain. One important next step is to focus on the pride of surviving trauma and giving people a network of online support.

Division and hate – We are living in a moment of deep division, and there are few public models for how to talk constructively to people on the other side of the political/ideological spectrum. What if we learned to be better in our ability to disagree with strength and kindness?

Sexism, men and toxic masculinity – Let’s open up a discussion about how we can raise little boys free from the toxic stories about what “real” men should be – often portrayed as unemotional or unfeeling.

Lack of inspiration – Our heroes sometimes feel too grand for us. We don’t feel like we, in our regular lives, can be great based on these stories. What if we found ordinary people who have risen to this moment and done incredible things, and share their stories to inspire others?

Screen addiction and loneliness – We are living an epidemic of screen addiction, disconnection and loneliness. Let’s support one another in unplugging more, and cultivating and appreciating real-life deeper connection.

**Avaaz is the organization whose survey we used. This non-profit organization has, since 2007, promoted global activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, corruption, poverty, biodiversity and conflict. It is probably the world’s largest and most powerful online activist network. Avaaz describes itself as a campaigning community bringing people-powered politics to decision-making worldwide.

Climate Change and Willow Warblers

Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilusBirdPix record

One thing we can be grateful for in this crazy time is that migratory birds are not taking the blame for transporting COVID-19. The migrant birds are now on their way north. In the midst of this chaotic week, Magda Remisiewicz (University of Gdansk, Poland) and Les Underhill (UCT and BDI) had a paper published about a long-distant migrant, Willow Warblers. In Poland, there’s a migration study site on the coast of the Baltic Sea near a small town called Bukowo. At this site the birds flying north have sea on their left, and a lake on their right, and are funneled through a narrow strip of land. Researchers from the University of Gdansk, assisted by lots of citizen scientists, have mist netted migrants in spring using a standardized system for decades. They have generated one of the best datasets for investigating how the timing of migration has varied through time.

It has been well known for a long time that migration is getting earlier, and Willow Warbler migration at Bukowo is getting earlier too. What sets this paper apart is that it develops a statistical model that “explains” nearly 60% of the annual variation in the timing of migration. The “explanatory variables” in the model are the big climate indices (such as the Southern Oscillation Index, responsible for El Ninos). Although the model was given “Year” as an “explanatory variable”, it chose not to use this. “Year” was “redundant”. The pattern of migration getting generally earlier was “explained” better by the long term changes in the climate indices. The paper used data from 1982 to 2017.

It is published in the Open Access journal PeerJ. Anyone can download the article for free:


Background. The arrival of many species of migrant passerine in the European
spring has shifted earlier over recent decades, attributed to climate change and rising
temperatures in Europe and west Africa. Few studies have shown the effects of climate
change in both hemispheres though many long-distance migrants use wintering
grounds which span Africa. The migrants’ arrival in Europe thus potentially reflects a
combination of the conditions they experience across Africa. We examine if the timing
of spring migration of a long-distance migrant, the Willow Warbler, is related to largescale climate indices across Africa and Europe.
Methods. Using data from daily mistnetting from 1 April to 15 May in 19822017 at
Bukowo (Poland, Baltic Sea coast), we developed an Annual Anomaly metric (AA, in
days) to estimate how early or late Willow Warblers arrive each spring in relation to
their multi-year average pattern. The Willow Warblers’ spring passage advanced by
5.4 days over the 36 years. We modelled AA using 14 potential explanatory variables
in multiple regression models. The variables were the calendar year and 13 large-scale
indices of climate in Africa and Europe averaged over biologically meaningful periods
of two to four months during the year before spring migration.
Results. The best model explained 59% of the variation in AA with seven variables:
Northern Atlantic Oscillation (two periods), Indian Ocean Dipole, Southern Oscillation
Index, Sahel Precipitation Anomaly, Scandinavian Index and local mean temperatures.
The study also confirmed that a long-term trend for Willow Warblers to arrive earlier
in spring continued up to 2017.
Discussion. Our results suggest that the timing of Willow Warbler spring migration
at the Baltic Sea coast is related to a summation of the ecological conditions they
had encountered over the previous year during breeding, migration south, wintering
in Africa and migration north. We suggest these large-scale climate indices reflect
ecological drivers for phenological changes in species with complex migration patterns
and discuss the ways in which each of the seven climate indices could be related to
spring migration at the Baltic Sea coast.

Megan Loftie-Eaton
Megan Loftie-Eaton
Megan is our communications, social media and citizen science coordinator. Prior to her work for the BDI, she coordinated OdonataMAP, the Atlas of African Odonata. A citizen science project run by the Animal Demography Unit, University of Cape Town and funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. She also coordinated LepiMAP, which is the Atlas on African Lepidoptera. Megan is passionate about biodiversity conservation. She is a firm believer in the power of citizen science and getting the public involved in nature conservation.