Winter Wetland Bird Blitz – good for volunteers and good for nature

Did you know that spending time in and around green and blue spaces is beneficial to health and wellbeing1?

The ‘five steps to wellbeing’2 encourage us all to connect, be active, take notice, learn and give, which is why activities such as this year’s annual Winter Wetland Bird Blitz (WWBB) are really important.

On a cold and misty January morning, a small group of volunteers joined the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit (GMEU) along the banks of the River Irwell to record wetland birds as part of the ongoing WWBB monitoring programme.  The lower reaches of this iconic watercourse were surveyed through Manchester, Salford and Bury – including a stretch that is designated a Site of Biological Importance (SBI) because it hosts regionally important numbers of wintering duck.  Monitoring these nationally declining birds is a key reason for carrying out the survey, and it contributes to the monthly BTO Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS)3 – an influential national monitoring scheme that has been running since 19934 and uses the same survey method.

Birds are excellent indicators of the health of the river environment.  The more repeated and comparable data that we have about these fascinating creatures the more accurately we can monitor their numbers.  We can then use changes in the figures to make inferences about the state of the habitat that they live in.

This year the team of dedicated staff and volunteers counted their sections of river from the riverbank on Sunday 23 January. It’s the fifth year that WWBB has been carried out – ideally it would have been the sixth consecutive year but unfortunately the survey was called off in 2021 due to Covid 19.

We caught up with Ken, one of the volunteers who told us about the peace of mind he experiences from taking part in the survey.

“I have to admit to being a bit of a ‘loner’ so spending a few hours with just me and the birds was no hardship – although it is rewarding when people stop and enquire what I have seen!

For me, the anticipation of what birds will I see, how the river is running, will anything new turn up, always focusses my mind on the task and I completely forget about the rest of the world.

There is a point where the river runs below the M60 motorway, and I am always struck by the contrast between the rushing tide of traffic overhead and the tranquillity (and sometimes turbulent) quality of the river and its wildlife”. 

Mike Beard, Natural Course project officer and organiser of the WWBB survey said…
“The volunteers are now entering the observations made into the BTO’s online database to give a snapshot of current waterbird populations and be used to monitor any changes over time.

Though, it must be said that there is much more to be gained from wildlife surveys than data. I was glad when Ken commented about enjoying having time to himself and how focusing upon the survey took his mind away from the cares of the world.  It is important not to overlook the mental health benefits from volunteering, or simply spending time noticing the nature around us.”  

Over winter, the BTO WeBS take place monthly.  If you are a birdwatcher able to identify ducks and interested in helping with these surveys around the River Irwell, contact for more information.

You can also find out about other volunteering opportunities on the following links:.

Volunteering – GM Green City (Opens in new tab – an external website)

GMLRC Events (Opens in new tab – an external website)

Mersey Rivers Trust – Volunteer ( (Opens in new tab – an external website)

Volunteering Opportunities | The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside ( (Opens in new tab – an external website)

Groundwork near me – Groundwork (Opens in new tab – an external website)

Volunteer | City of Trees (Opens in new tab – an external website)


  1. Nature for health and wellbeing | The Wildlife Trusts (Opens in new tab – an external website)
  2. Five ways to wellbeing | Mind, the mental health charity – help for mental health problems (Opens in new tab – an external website)
  3. WeBS is a partnership scheme of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) (the last on behalf of the statutory nature conservation bodies: Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Northern Ireland) in association with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).
  4. History of WeBS | BTO – British Trust for Ornithology (Opens in new tab – an external website)