Wild counts methods

Pick a method that’s right for you and your species.

written Jan 8, 2018 (last updated Sep 6, 2021) • by Jon Sullivan • Category: Count methods

How would you like to count?

There are many ways to count the wild. Which one suits you best depends on you and your species.

In this section, you’ll find ways to count the wild while sitting indoors, while stationary outdoors, and while moving in or on a vehicle. You can type your counts or, if you’ve got your hands full, you can speak your counts.

You’ll also learn quick methods for counting species that are easy and hard to find, and species that are easy and hard to accurately count. You can choose to include just the basics, or plenty of detail.

Decide on a method that works for you, one that meets all of the simple principles of wild counting. Then, get into the habit of doing it, consistently and frequently. Counting the wild is easy once you start. Starting a new habit is the hardest part.

This page outlines your different options and links through to pages explaining each option in more depth.

Ways to record your wild counts

You can type (or write) your counts using the quick WildCounts shorthand, or, if your hands are busy, you can speak your counts using the WildCounts spoken. These are the quickest, least intrusive, ways of making many counts while out and about.

Type your counts with WildCounts shorthand

WildCounts shorthand is designed so that your wild counts can be typed into your phone as quickly as possible, while still capturing all the details you need.

Do you see two monarch butterflies flying? Save time by typing m 2f.

WildCounts shorthand can also get more complicated if you need it. For example, did you see five monarch caterpillars (larvae) feeding on a planted Gomphocarpus swan plant, close (<5 m) to your left, while you were out walking? That would be this:

m larva lc5
Gophocarpus lc1$

(The * means “with” and joins two observations together, whileheo means “herbivory of” and the $ indicates that the Gomphocarpus was cultivated.)

Speak your counts with WildCounts spoken

Sometimes you’re moving too fast to stop and type in your observations. In these cases it’s faster to speak your observations using (WildCounts spoken)[].

Do you see two monarch butterflies flying? Just say “two monarchs flying”.

Did you see five monarch caterpillars (larvae) feeding on a planted Gomphocarpus swan plant, close (<5 m) to your left, while you were out walking? In that case, say “Monarch larvae left close five feeding on one Gomphocarpus left close cultivated”.

Speaking might seem like a faster thing to do all the time, but keep in mind that computers still make mistakes when transcribing human speech. That means that your spoken observations will need more time proof-reading than your typed observations.

Learn more

Got an iPhone? Enter WildCounts shorthand into the FileMaker Go app.

Levels of wild counting

You can keep things simple or go deep into detail. Which works best depends on your time and motivation, how many places you go to count the wild, and how abundant and easy to find are your core species.

You can also mix these up in your wild counts. For example, you might count your favourite fruit-eating bird species but just note the simple abundance of the plants that it likes to feed on (and whether or not they’re fruiting).


If you’re busy and go to lots of places at a lot of times, just noting the presence/absence of one or a few core species will still reveal nature’s changes.

gorse yes
ragwort no
cicada song yes

Simple abundance

If you’re busy and some of your core species are often abundant, simple abundance can be sufficient. It’s one step up in detail from presence/absence.

gorse abundant
ragwort rare

Pacing the wild

Counting your routes in 10 metre long patches (approximately 10 paces) works well for species that are not wildly abundant and grow in clumps where it is not always easy to separate one individual from another.

ragwort rc1p = one patch of ragwort close (within 5 m) on the right.

Counting the wild

Are there four blackbirds? blkb 4 is your count. But what about if there’s about 40? Then your count is blkb ~40.

Distance-counting the wild

If you get serious about your counting, it’s useful to count in distance bands away from you.

With distance-sampling, some clever statistical methods can estimate how many individuals of your species you missed (e.g., because they were obscured from view and didn’t make noise when you passed). All it takes to do that is the assumption that you’re less likely to miss organisms that are closer to you, and you won’t miss any that are right on top of you. These statistics can then estimate the likely true density of your species at your sites, including the things you missed. That makes for more powerful comparisons of wild counts data among different places, times, and observers.

blkb ln4 = four blackbirds on the left in the near distance band (5–20 m).

Methods for wild counting

There are three format options for wild counts data, and which you use depends on whether you’re stationary or moving, and how you’re moving.

While indoors

If you’re stationary, busy, and counting few species, there’s the WildCounts Shorthand Stream. This works well when you’re sitting working next to an open window.

For example,

/15:00- [winoa]
/15:20- [winoa]
bellb song |yes
/15:40- [winoa]
/16:00- [winoa]
gw song yes|
/16:20- [winoa]
/16:40- [winoa]
ft song |yes
/17:00- [winoa]
ft song yes|

The above example is data collected while working inside with the window open, between 3 PM and 5:05 PM. Observations are separated into 20 minute intervals, and winoa means “window open always”. Consistently noted are whether or not song was heard from a small set of New Zealand forest birds (ft is fantail, gw is grey warbler, and bellb is bellbird). The pipe (|) indicates whether song was heard before or after the first five minutes, so that the data can be compared with NZ standard five-minute bird count data. In this example, just presence/absence is recorded, but counts could also be used. Counting just requires a bit more concentration.

Learn more about wild counting from indoors

while at one spot outdoors

Typing in WildCounts Shorthand works well when you’re stationary outdoors or exploring within a small area. Unlike the shorthand stream, each of these shorthand observations gets entered as a separate observation with it’s own geotag and date-time stamp.

Importantly, when you’re stationary or exploring, the wild counts method assumes that your subsequent observations of one species could all be the same individual. That is, unless you explicitly state otherwise. For example, making an observation blkb 1 (one blackbird) then, a few minutes later another blkb 1, would mean that you saw 1–2 blackbirds. If you were sure that the second blackbird was a different individual, you need to write blkb 1!, which would mean that you saw 2 blackbirds.

Learn more about WildCounts Shorthand

while walking

Wild counting while walking works best with typed WildCounts Shorthand. The only difference from stationary/exploring counts is that, when you’re walking, the wild counts method assumes that your subsequent observations of one species are all different individuals. For example, if you type blkb 1 and then minutes later blkb 1, that’s assumed to be two different blackbirds when you’re walking. If the second blackbird might be the same individual you just saw, then that’s blkb 1@! (if it’s definitely the same bird, then that’s blkb 1@).

Learn more about WildCounts Shorthand

while running

When you’re out running, there’s not the time to stop and type in observations, but WildCounts Spoken works well. As long as you speak in the WildCounts Spoken format, your data can be easily extracted out later. As with walking, the wild counts method assumes that your subsequent observations of one species are all separate individuals, unless you say otherwise.

Note that WildCounts Spoken requires the transcription of your spoken observations after the survey (for example, with AWS Transcribe).

Learn more about WildCounts Spoken

while biking

Like running, it’s not possible to type counts while biking, but you can speak observations using WildCounts Spoken. A wireless bluetooth microphone is a good option for safely making clean audio notes while riding a bike. Safety always comes first when biking near traffic.

Learn more about WildCounts Spoken

while a passenger in a car/truck/bus/boat

When you’re a passenger in a vehicle, it’s simple enough to type in WildCounts Shorthand as you travel. You cannot reliably detect as many species when travelling at speed as you can on foot. It makes sense to focus your counting on those species that you can reliably spot and identify while you’re moving quickly. There are still plenty of those to choose from, and you can count the wild over large distances from a vehicle.

Learn more about WildCounts Shorthand


Wild counts can be added to BioBlitz events to learn more about nature.

[More on that soon]