Field Techniques for Surveying Birds

Course summary

Field Techniques for Surveying Birds


This tutor-led course offers detailed training in passive and non-passive bird surveying techniques, including group-based counts, and transect and aerial surveys, and mist-netting, cannon-netting and tagging as well as bird survey design and reporting results. The course will provide the expertise and essential know-how needed by the skilled practitioner in bird conservation and ecology.

As a part-time course taught online, Field Techniques for Surveying Birds is ideal for professional ecological consultants, environmental managers and rangers, research and postgraduate students, and volunteers that are seeking flexible study combined with expert training. The course can be taken from anywhere in the world and is international in its use of case studies and examples. Past students on the Ecological Survey Techniques programme have joined us from the UK, the USA, Australia, Africa and Europe.

Field Techniques for Surveying Birds aims to create a rich workshop experience by encouraging direct student and tutor interaction and discussion in an online setting.

This course can be taken with or without Masters-level credit; credit enables students to demonstrate their academic achievement and can count towards further postgraduate study. Students taking the course for credit submit an assessment of up to 2000 words or equivalent, students taking the course without credit will receive a Certificate of Attendance upon successful completion of the course.

The Ecological Survey Techniques Programme can help professionals to apply for Chartered Status (such as Chartered Environmentalist and Chartered Ecologist), and to meet relevant professional competency thresholds. Further information can be found in our Chartered status and essential skills guide.

Thinking of applying? Explore materials or revisit our online open event.

For first-hand accounts from Ecological Survey Techniques students please visit our student

The course tutor will guide students through a series of key topics via reading materials, online activities, and discussion forums. The discussion forums will be the primary space where students are able to interact with one another and their tutor to discuss questions, solve problems and share ideas – just as they would expect to do in a face-to-face classroom setting.

I took this as part of the PGCert, and this was one of the modules which attracted me to the course initially. I feel its inclusion in the course highly relevant, especially given that birds are very useful for monitoring the health of ecosystems and the impacts of anthropogenic change and I am in the process of moving into full time conservation employment.

Damien Farine was excellent at giving feedback, introducing ideas to think about, making suggestions, all with good humour

Students will benefit from the expertise and practical experience of the course tutor throughout their time on the course, and will be able to receive advice and guidance tailored to the particular topic at hand. Students taking the course for credit will also benefit from individual feedback on their assessment submitted after the course.

The first part of the course focuses on passive surveying techniques such as indirect counts of traces and nests, and group-based counts of colonies, flocks, roosts. A range of different netting and trapping techniques will then be introduced, including cannon netting, mist netting, walk-in (cage) traps, active (spring-loaded) traps and entanglement (noose) traps, together with a comprehensive further reading on each method.

Throughout the course students will design their own outline proposal for a bird survey that they will build upon as they progress. This will culminate in an investigation of how to design data collection, and how to record accurate, unbiased and representative samples in order to reach a conclusion. The course also covers new technologies such as acoustic sensors and wireless sensor networks, PIT tags and the use of stable isotope analysis.

All learning materials are made available through the course Virtual Learning Environment ‘Moodle’, and reading is available to download or is accessible via the Bodleian Libraries'online library which provides an excellent range of e-books and e-journals. Via their Oxford username, students can gain access to all the University’s electronic resources enabling them to conduct their own reading and research in their own time.

Field Techniques for Surveying Birds is part of the wider Ecological Survey Techniques Programme that offers a range of standalone short courses, at its heart rests the Postgraduate Certificate in Ecological Survey Techniquesaimed at those wishing to take their professional development to the next level with an Oxford qualification.

Students who successfully complete this standalone module for credit (10 CATS points at level 7) can opt to transfer their credit to the PGCert, subject to the approval of the Course Director and acceptance on to the PGCert. Students successfully transferring credit to the PGCert can expect to receive a fees discount equal to the fees paid towards the standalone module; credit can be transferred up to 2 years after having been gained and is limited to a maximum for 2 modules for transfer. In order to join the PGCert a separate application process is required.

Minimum IT Requirements

Please note that this course is taken online; to participate in our online courses we recommend a minimum computer specification.

Students wishing to take the course for credit will be required to produce an assessment in Microsoft PowerPoint.

Programme details

Topics covered by the course in Field Techniques for Surveying Birds include:

Introduction to birds and bird surveys: Advantages and disadvantages of working with birds; What are birds and how do we identify them?; Importance of knowing the behaviour, ecology and physiology of birds; Sources of existing data

Bird surveys - first principles: Why survey?: Question-driven surveys; Context of the survey – am I recording what I aim to record?; Preliminary thoughts on survey design; Setting up your data collection method – data sheets and what to collect

Passive survey techniques 1: Introduction to observation-based techniques; Indirect counts – traces & nests; Group-based counts – colonies, flocks, roosts; Point counts; Area searches; Territory mapping

Passive survey techniques 2: Transects: Distance sampling; Aerial surveys; Counting migrants

Non-passive survey techniques 1: Introduction; Playback

Non-passive survey techniques 2: Catching birds; Mist netting; Cannon netting and hand capture; Nooses and traps

Non-passive survey techniques 3: Recording morphological data; Tagging birds

New technologies: Acoustic sensors and wireless sensor networks; Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT tags); Stable isotope analysis

Bird survey design & considerations: Sampling strategies; Confounding factors

Reporting your results: Analytical tools; Writing up your findings


Non-accredited Study

To successfully complete the course and receive a Certificate of Attendance, active participation of at least one forum post per week, to the satisfaction of the course tutor, in the online course forums is required. The PDF sample above is an illustration only, and the wording will reflect the course and dates attended.

Accredited Study

The University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education offers Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) points for the course. Participants contributing to all the forums and successfully completing the assessment will obtain 10 CATS-equivalent points (FHEQ level 7) which may count towards a Master’s level qualification.

For information on CATS points and credit transfer, including conversion to US academic credits and European academic credits (ECTS), please visit the CATS Points FAQ page.

IT requirements

This course is delivered online and uses the Department’s online assignment submission system (for the course asignment). In order to meet course requirements, students will need access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.


Accredited study: £770.00
Non-accredited study: £440.00
Student rate (non-accredited): £330.00


Dr Jocelyne Hughes


Programme Director in Ecological Survey Techniques and Departmental Lecturer at OUDCE (part-time, teaching and course administration). Research associate with the Water Research Group at the School of Geography & the Environment, Oxford.

Previous posts: College lecturer  at St. Catherine's College, University of Oxford; research fellow at University College London; University Lectureships at the University of Reading and the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Member of the British Ecological Society; fellow of the Royal Geographical Society; member of the Commonwealth Scholars alumni network; member of the Freshwater Biological Association; organiser of my local Wildlife Conservation Group working with volunteers to carry out wildlife conservation projects.


Director of the Postgraduate Certificate in Ecological Survey Techniques which is mostly taught online.

Teach and supervise  on a variety of postgraduate courses at the University of Oxford, including the MSc in Water Science, Policy & Management, and the Postgraduate Diploma in International Wildlife Conservation Practice.

As part of the PG Cert in Ecological Survey Techniques at OUDCE I teach an online postgraduate training course in Field Techniques for Surveying Vegetation; I teach freshwater and wetland ecology on the MSc in Water, Science, Policy & Management in the Geography Department; and Vegetation Survey Techniques for Zoologists at WildCRU, Zoology Department. I believe that ecology has to be taught in the field wherever possible, and I underpin all my teaching with the practical field techniques needed to answer research questions.

I have successfully raised grants from NERC to teach doctoral training courses in practical skills in freshwater ecology, statistics, GIS, data visualisation, insect taxonomy etc.

External examiner at University College London.

Research interests

My research focuses on understanding and quantifying the ecology, hydrology and management of wetlands and freshwater habitats. I have particular interests in the ecological importance of microflow environments provided by aquatic plants in rivers and wetlands; water and nutrient cycling in wetlands; wetland vegetation dynamics; constructed wetlands; biogeography of aquatic plants; and the conservation of freshwaters.

I have carried out field survey work in a diversity of freshwater habitats in Tunisia, Australia, Antarctica, Guatemala and the UK. I am a research associate in the Water Research Group in the School of Geography & the Environment at Oxford, and I am always keen to discuss possible collaborations in interdisciplinary research in pure and applied freshwater processes/ecology.

Marley Fen Project: I am part of a team carrying out field research and monitoring into plant-water relationships at Marley Fen in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire. The results of our research are being used directly in the management plan for this SSSI site.

Reduction of Algal Loading on Water Treatment Works: I co-supervise a research project investigating the ecological functions of a floating reed bed, Living-Filter, on Farmoor Reservoir, for water treatment. The DPhil is funded by Thames Water and involves an industrial collaboration between Aquatic Engineering, Thames Water and the Department for Engineering Science at Oxford University. The research involves field investigations at Farmoor Reservoir and lab experiments using bioreactors at Begbroke Science Park.

Freshwater Ecology & Conservation: A Handbook of Techniques: I am currently editing the freshwater volume in the TECS series, to be published by Oxford University Press

D.Phil student- Ana Castro-Castellon, Department of Engineering Science (Living-Filter: floating biofiltration system for phytoplanton reduction on water treatment works)

MSc student 2015- Clarke Knight, School of Geography & the Environment (diversity and distribution of non-native invasive shrimps in the River Thames and tributaries)

MSc student 2014- Thanti Octavianti, School of Geography & the Environment (phosphorous loads in the Upper Thames catchment)


Selected Publications:

Castro-Castellon, AT, Chipps, MJ, Hughes, JMR & Hankins, NP (2014) Living-Filter: an in-reservoir biofiltration system for phytoplankton reduction at the abstraction point. In (eds. Nakamoto, Graham, Collins and Gimbel) Progress in Slow Sand and Alternative Biofiltration Processes- Further Developments and Applications, pp. 405-412,  IWA Publishing, London


Shi, JZ, Yan-Hong, L, Zhao, M & Hughes, JMR (2013) Hydrological characteristics of vegetated river flows: a laboratory flume study. Hydrological Sciences Journal 58, 1047-58

Co-editor Hydrology & Hydrochemistry of British Wetlands, John Wiley & Sons

Author Aquatic Plants of Tasmania, (Illustrations by Georgina Davis) University of Melbourne

Co-author Inventory of Tunisian Wetlands, University College London, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Ramsar Bureau

Author of first vegetation survey and map of subantarctic Heard Island (Australian Antarctic Territory) published in Polar Biology

Dr Holly Kirk


Holly has been spent the last four years working with UK seabirds as part of her DPhil in the Department of Zoology, Oxford University. This combines traditional field work techniques with new spatial and behavioural logging technology. Her current focus is on the migration behaviour of the Manx shearwater, Puffinus puffinus. Before coming to Oxford she worked as a field researcher on a variety of other projects, requiring entomological, botanical and ornithological data collection.

For more information about her current work go to

Teaching methods

The teaching time frame covers 5 weeks. The content covered is roughly comparable to 1 week full-time study, students can expect to engage with and contribute to the course for around 10-15 hours per week depending on whether it is taken for credit or not. The course tutor will engage online for no less than 6 hours per week, this is usually distributed across each week and will focus on particular topics and activities.

There is no set time to log in to the course, which makes it ideal for students in different time zones as well as those wishing to study flexibly on a weekly basis; topics will be covered following a suggested calendar of activity, ensuring that activities, discussion and reading are completed within the 5 week duration and at an even pace with other students.

Assessment methods

Students undertaking the course for academic credit must submit a summative written assignment of up to 2,000 words or equivalent.This is due approximately two weeks after the final day of the course. The pass mark is set at 50%, work awarded 70% or over will qualify for a distinction.


We strongly recommend that you download and save files before completing to ensure that all your changes are saved.

Apply to take the course for academic credit

If you are applying to take this course for academic credit you will need to complete and return the following documents, alongside a copy of your CV. Please ensure you read the guidance notes before completing the application form, as any errors resulting from failure to do so may delay your application.

Terms and Conditions

Apply to take the course not for academic credit

If you do not wish to take this course for academic credit you will need to complete and return the following document, or use the ‘enrol online’ button below. Please ensure you read the guidance notes before completing the application form, as any errors resulting from failure to do so may delay your application.

Terms and Conditions

Student rate

If you are applying for the student rate (non-accredited study) you will need to complete and return the following documents, alongside a copy of your CV. Your reference will need to be sent from your current academic institution confirming your current status. Please ensure you read the guidance notes before completing the application form, as any errors resulting from failure to do so may delay your application.

Terms and Conditions

Charity rate

If you are applying for the charity rate (non-accredited study) you will need to complete and return the following documents. A reference is required from an authorised person at the Charity confirming their UK charity number. Please ensure you read the guidance notes before completing the application form, as any errors resulting from failure to do so may delay your application.

Terms and Conditions

Selection criteria

CANDIDATES: applying for academic credit

All candidates will need to:

  1. Hold a minimum qualification equivalent to a first Honours Degree (BA, BSc, etc). Non-graduates may be considered if they are able to demonstrate considerable experience in a relevant field. If in doubt, please email;
  2. Offer some first-hand knowledge and/or experience of field work or conservation issues;
  3. Satisfy the minimum required English language criteria set by the University, being either a native English speaker, or able to offer test results as specified. Applicants with borderline scores may be accepted on condition that they attend a language course and gain an acceptable score;
  4. Demonstrate an ability to be able to commit the necessary time to study;
  5. Have good access to a computer and a fast/reliable internet connection;
  6. Demonstrate an ability to work alongside fellow students and tutors as part of an online community and independently.


Where requested, this should be supplied with your application. Applicants are advised to email should they be unsure about the suitability of the referees they intend to use.

Written work

Please note that we do not request submission of written work.