Should Black-tailed Godwits cross the Sahara?

Are Dutch-breeding limosa Black-tailed Godwits that now winter in Spain and Portugal doing better than ones that travel to the other side of the Sahara?

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Changing weather patterns and land management are providing opportunities for many bird species to modify their migration patterns – both in terms of space and time. Dutch limosa Black-tailed Godwits were traditionally thought of as long-distance migrants that spent the winter months in countries such as Senegal and Guinea Bissau. In recent years, however, increasing numbers have been observed to fly no further south than Spain and Portugal, where their winter distribution overlaps with the islandica race.

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Fewer Black-tailed Godwits  return to The Netherlands each spring

As has been described in a previous blog (Dutch Black-tailed Godwits numbers down by nearly 75%), the limosa population in western Europe is in serious decline. The proportional change is therefore even more impressive than the change in numbers. Márquez-Ferrando et al showed that the number of birds wintering in the Doñana Wetlands, Spain has increased from 4% of the flyway population in the late 1980s to 23% in 2011.

The annual distances travelled by African-wintering and Iberian-wintering Black-tailed Godwits are hugely different, being about 10,000 km and 4,000 km, respectively. A Doñana bird therefore needs to find much less fuel for migration when compared to  a bird in Guinea-Bissau.

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Flamingos for company in Spain

Logic might suggest that travelling less far should have benefits. Provided that an Iberian bird survives the winter, it should be better placed at the start of the next breeding season? There’s less far to travel to return home and it might be easier to use weather cues in Spain & Portugal to determine the best time to make the journey, given that Atlantic lows affect the weather patterns across large sections of western Europe?

In a new paper in Ecology & Evolution, Rosemarie Kentie and her colleagues investigate whether there are differences in timing of breeding and breeding success between Black-tailed Godwits that spend the winter in Africa and those that only travel as far as Iberia. Do European wintering birds start breeding earlier, do they choose the best breeding territories and do they have a higher chance of successfully raising chicks?

Timing of arrival

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Maroune, Khady Gueye, Jos Hooijmeijer, Haije Valkema & Idrissa Ndiaye in Guinea Bissau

This paper benefits hugely from colour-ring sightings made in both African and European wintering areas. Most of these have been collected by dedicated teams but additional reports by other birdwatchers are also gratefully acknowledged. Their efforts distil into 180 known Iberian-winterers and 131 known African-winters.

When the spring arrival dates of males and females of the two groups were compared, Rosemarie Kentie discovered that African winterers arrive back two days earlier than Iberian winterers and that males return to the breeding grounds three days earlier than females (see table). Mean lay date of first egg was five days earlier for African birds.

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Mean spring arrival dates

Although the magnitude of the differences seem quite small, the results are statistically significant and previous work has shown strong effects of timing of breeding on reproductive success. What is clear is that birds that only have 2,000 km to travel are no earlier (and  on average are actually later) than birds that travel 5,000 km. Both groups spend several weeks together in Iberian rice fields, before heading north, but a difference based on wintering location is still detectable.

mapInterestingly, this pattern of timing is similar to that previously found by José Alves and colleagues for islandica Black-tailed Godwits. In islandica, there is a much smaller wintering range, from Iberia in the south to Scotland in the north. Despite the longer journey back to Iceland from Portugal, these southern birds tend to reach Iceland about five days earlier than birds wintering in England. The energetic constraints of birds wintering in (and migrating from) different parts of the range are discussed in the paper Overtaking on migration: does longer distance migration always incur a penalty? or you can read this WaderTales blog: Overtaking on Migration.

Breeding success

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Rocio Marquez-Ferrando rings an adult Black-tailed Godwit on the Dutch breeding grounds

In the limosa paper, the authors look for different measures of breeding success for Iberian and African winterers. There seems to be no link between wintering area and the quality of the territory in which birds breed, although the earlier birds may have had earlier access to better territories (see paper for details). There’s no difference in size between birds in the two groups and the daily nest survival rates were not different either. The only potential benefit for either group is that Iberian-wintering females lay slightly bigger eggs. Given that other wader studies have shown that bigger eggs turn into bigger chicks and bigger chicks are more likely to fledge, there may be a breeding advantage for birds travelling less far. This is a statistically different result (i.e. there is a measurable difference) but the magnitude is only 3% difference in egg weight, and the authors question whether this can really be significant, biologically. Is this extra mass enough to make a practical difference to the probability that these bigger eggs will turn into more, bigger or fitter youngsters?

Why are godwits now wintering in Iberia?

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Fewer and fewer Black-tailed Godwits are crossing the Sahara to countries such as Guinea Bissau

We know that individual Black-tailed Godwits, like most other waders, use the same wintering areas each year. Having once settled into a particular pattern – African or Iberian – then that’s almost certainly the pattern for life. As recently as the 1980s, 96% of the western population of limosa were flying 5,000 km each autumn. The fact that few birds used the 2,000 km option then and that an increasing number do so now may suggest that winter conditions in Iberia have become more suitable for Black-tailed Godwits. This may be a good thing because there’s a line in the paper that makes for interesting reading “the mortality rate of godwits equipped with satellite tags was highest during the crossing of the Sahara Desert”.  Perhaps it’s harder to find the resources for the journey north from countries such as Guinea Bissau? That’s going to be the subject of a future paper. Meanwhile, there’s more about the satellite-tagging project on the King of the Meadows website.

Read the full paper

RoosDoes wintering north or south of the Sahara correlate with timing and breeding performance in Black-Tailed Godwits?

Rosemarie Kentie, Rocío Marquez-Ferrando, Jordi Figuerola, Laura Gangoso, Jos C.E.W. Hooijmeijer, A. H. Jelle Loonstra, Frédéric Robin, Mathieu Sarasa, Nathan Senner, Haije Valkema, Mo A. Verhoeven and Theunis Piersma


GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

Waiting for the wind – spring flocks of Black-tailed Godwit in Scotland

When a flock of Black-tailed Godwit turns up on a Scottish island or lochside, in April or May, it’s probably a sign that the birds have aborted the Atlantic crossing to Iceland.

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On 24 February last year, on the Samouco saltpans on the Tagus estuary in Portugal, we saw an Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit wearing four colour-rings: red & lime on the left, green & green flag (RL-GGf) on the right. It had been ringed there on 10 August 2010 by José Alves so it’s not a surprise that it was in the same spot five and a half years later. In between times, on 29 April 2013, RL-GGf was one of 1520 Icelandic godwits counted on the Isle of Tiree, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, by John Bowler and Graham Todd. Having encountered strong northerlies it had been forced to delay the Atlantic crossing. If you think back to the cold spring of 2013, it is not surprising that strange things happened that year. Northerlies delayed spring arrivals of African migrants in the UK but they also blocked the departure of wintering birds that were trying to fly to Iceland, Greenland and Northern Canada.

table & legendRL-GGf is one of our favourite Black-tailed Godwits. It happens to like a small estuary called Grafarvogur in Reykjavik, which Jenny Gill (University of East Anglia) and I monitor daily in the second half of April each year. We’ve seen this bird here in the springs of 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016, on a total of 13 occasions. We have an arrival date for 2011 too, when he was spotted in Southern Iceland by Tómas Gunnarsson, our Icelandic collaborator, but there’s a gap in 2013, when we left Iceland while he was still on Tiree (see table). There are a couple of early spring records of this bird in the Netherlands, so this is where he probably spends March and early April every year, having left Portugal in February. In the last six years he has set off for Iceland in spring and only in 2013 was he seen in Scotland. He and other godwits that are forced to suspend migration are starting to give us insights into the hurdles that weather patterns can put in the way when birds are trying to travel north (Gill 2015).

Migration in a changing climate

We’ve been monitoring the spring arrival of Black-tailed Godwits in Iceland since 2000, and we’ve shown that colour-ringed birds have their own individual schedules: early birds always arrive early and late birds always arrive late. Differences in the exact date on which each individual arrives may be associated with the weather patterns each year, but individuals are remarkably consistent despite annually variable weather conditions. It therefore appears that individual godwits, like RL-GGf, have a preferred window in which to undertake the Atlantic crossing.

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Interestingly, although there is no evidence that individual birds have changed their arrival times in Iceland over the last 15 years, the arrival dates of the population are getting earlier (Gunnarsson et al. 2006). We’ve shown that this advance in migration is being driven by young birds recruiting into the breeding population on schedules which are earlier than those of previous generations (Gill et al. 2015). Ultimately, this is likely to be being driven by warmer springs and earlier nesting seasons. There’s a blog about this paper. 

Black-tailed Godwits on Tiree

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This Tiree Whooper Swan will also have been heading for Iceland

Over the years, the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides has proved to be a great place to pick up colour-ring sightings of Black-tailed Godwits. John Bowler, the local RSPB Officer, really enjoys watching out for their spring return when, as he comments, “hundreds can drop in on the loch-sides in full breeding dress”. The very first birds appear at the end of March and numbers increase into April, with often very large flocks occurring at the peak of passage in the last week of April and the first week of May. Birds are usually found on the grazed edges of machair lochs, with numbers declining through May and odd birds lingering to the middle of June. Given that between 1% and 2% of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit population wear colour-rings there is a good chance of finding a marked bird. With migration getting earlier, John’s godwit-watching season will probably get longer.

Godwits also appear on Tiree in the autumn but in smaller numbers. The first failed breeders appear in late June, followed by more adults in July and early August and then juveniles in late August through to October, with occasional stragglers in November and December. Young birds often use freshly-cut silage/hay fields on Tiree for foraging, in the same way that many will have done in Iceland as they prepared for the journey south.

Disrupted Migration

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The orange flag shows that this Black-tailed Godwit had been ringed in France

Black-tailed Godwits are very site-faithful in every season of the year. However, although 63 different colour-ringed birds have been seen in spring by John Bowler and his colleagues, only one bird has been seen in more than one spring. This low number of repeat between-year sightings on Tiree, where looking for colour-ringed birds is part of the daily routine, very much suggests that birds seen here are dropping in out of necessity, rather than using the site as an annual staging post. The journey from south England or The Netherlands to Iceland is only just over 1000 miles, which is well within the capabilities for migrating waders in non-stop flight – as long as they do not encounter adverse weather conditions (Alves et al. 2012, Alves et al. 2013).

Scottish flocks of migrating Black-tailed Godwits do not only occur on Tiree, of course. On the peak day of 29 April 2013, when 1520 birds were counted on Tiree, 891 birds were also reported at Loch Gruinart on Islay. The 2411 birds in these two flocks constituted about 5% of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit population (Gunnarsson et al. 2005). Given that there were other colour-ringed godwits reported in Motherwell and on Benbecula, just how many Icelandic godwits were in Scotland on that day?

annual colour-ringsThe lack of predictability, when it comes to the potential locations of these spring flocks, makes it difficult to monitor patterns across different years. There are simply not enough places at which there are regular counts of birds each spring and too many places where flocks could choose to stop. Fortunately, reports of colour-ringed birds provide a surrogate for flock counts.  A quick analysis of the number of colour-ringed Godwits from Icelandic, Portuguese and E England schemes, seen in Scotland between the springs of 2011 and 2016 shows that there were records in every year but with a larger number in 2015, and by far the most records in 2013. None of the birds was seen in more than one spring, emphasising the random nature of these arrivals.

air flockThe colour-ring information provided by birdwatchers is making a huge contribution to the migration studies of Black-tailed Godwits. There are now Black-tailed Godwits in Scotland in every month of the year but sightings of colour-marked individuals in April and May are particularly helpful in helping us to identify the influence of weather conditions on spring migration and the migratory routes used by birds from across the winter range. Please report any of these observations to j.gill@uea.ac.uk who will pass on records to other colour-ring administrators. Details of the godwit work and the publications to which colour-ring observations have contributed can be found in a blog called Godwits & Godwiteers 

This article first appeared in Scottish Birds, published by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club.

References:

Alves, J.A., Gunnarsson, T.G., Potts, P.M., Gélinaud, G., Sutherland, W.J. & Gill, J.A. (2012) Overtaking on migration: does longer distance migration always incur a penalty? Oikos 121: 464-470. DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2011.19678.x 

Alves, J.A., Gunnarsson, T.G., Hayhow, D.B., Potts, P.M., Sutherland, W.J. & Gill, J.A. (2013) Costs, benefits and fitness consequences of different migratory strategies. Ecology 94: 11-17. DOI: 10.1890/12-0737.1

Gill, J.A., Alves, J.A., Sutherland, W.J., Appleton, G.F., Potts, P.M. & Gunnarsson, T.G. (2014) Why is timing of bird migration advancing when individuals are not? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 281: 20132161. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2161 

Gill, J.A. (2015) Encountering extreme weather during migration: individual strategies and their consequences. Journal of Animal Ecology 84: 1141-1143DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.12412 

Gunnarsson, T.G., Gill, J.A., Potts, P.M., Atkinson, P.W., Croger, R.E., Gélinaud, G., Gardarsson, A. & Sutherland, W.J. (2005) Estimating population size in Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa islandica by colour-marking. Bird Study 52: 153-158DOI: 10.1080/00063650509461385

Gunnarsson, T.G., Gill, J.A., Atkinson, P.W., Gélinaud, G., Potts, P.M., Croger, R.E., Gudmundsson, G.A., Appleton, G.F. & Sutherland, W.J. (2006) Population-scale drivers of individual arrival times in migratory birds. Journal of Animal Ecology 75: 1119-1127. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2006.01131.x


 GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

 

Flyway from Ireland to Iceland

There are thirty WaderTales blogs so far. Here’s a selection of ten that may appeal to birdwatchers in Ireland.

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The Ireland to Iceland air link opens in February and does not close until well into May, as swans, geese, ducks, waders, gulls and passerines head north. At the end of June it opens again, with the first failed breeders returning to Ireland. Species such as Oystercatcher and Black-tailed Godwit spend much more of the year in Ireland than they do in Iceland.

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Most Oystercatchers are being ringed with two letter engraved rings, along with two colour-rings: Photo Tómas Gunnarsson

The island of Ireland holds important populations of waders in the wintertime – everything from Grey Plovers from Siberia to Turnstones from Canada – but there is  special relationship with Iceland. It’s the next stopping off point for passage Sanderling, as they fly from Africa to Greenland, and the ultimate destination for lots of wintering birds such as Redshank and Golden Plovers.

Oystercatchers lead the way

A lot of the Oystercatchers seen around Ireland’s coastline breed in Iceland, as has been shown by the Dublin Bay Birds Project. Birds start moving north very early, as shown by the appearance of four yellow-ringed Dublin Bay birds in Tiree before the end of February this year. Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers explains how a new Icelandic project is examining the costs and benefits of being a migrant. Irish reports of Icelandic colour-ringed birds are helping to provide answers – and the Dublin Bay birds are providing great additional data.

snipe-1Each autumn, Irish-breeding Snipe are joined by much larger numbers from the north and east. About a quarter of foreign-ringed snipe that have been found in the island of Ireland are of Icelandic origin, compared to just one out of 255 in England. Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland compares the migratory strategies of the two species and laments the decline of Common Snipe, as a breeding species.

whimbrel-mig-fig1Some of the last waders to use the Ireland to Iceland flyway are Whimbrels, many of which stop off in Ireland on spring migration. Whimbrels on the move summarises a paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel. Since its publication, a new paper has shown that Whimbrel are able to fly between Iceland and west Africa in one jump but that they sometimes need to stop off on the way north. See Very rapid long-distance sea crossing by a migratory bird by José Alves and colleagues.

Black tailed-Godwits

WaderTales was invented as a way of providing feedback to colour-ring readers who focused on Black-tailed Godwits. There are 10 blogs about the species, some of which may well appeal to birdwatchers who have spotted colour-ringed birds anywhere between Belfast Harbour and the Shannon Estuary.

pairs-mapWe are all aware that migration is getting earlier but how does this happen? Monitoring the annual arrival of individual colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits in Iceland may well have provided an answer. Why is spring migration getting earlier? reveals that it is new recruits into the breeding population that are setting the pace; they are reaching Iceland earlier than previous generations.

Another fascinating story that is revealed by colour-ringing is the synchronous arrival of the two members of breeding pairs of Black-tailed Godwits, even if one wintered in Ireland and the other in France. You can read more here.

Breeding Waders

WaderTales were developed in East Anglia so many of the articles about breeding waders have an English feel to them. Hopefully, some of the blogs will still appeal. Anyone trying to support breeding Lapwing populations might be interested in A helping hand for Lapwings, which also talks about Redshanks.

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There’s an Icelandic focus too and a new blog, which looks at the attitudes of farmers, will resonate with conservationists (scientists, birdwatchers and farmers) who are trying to work together to improve conditions for Irish breeding waders. As Icelandic farming expands, what are farmers prepared to do to support breeding waders, many of which are destined to spend the winter on Irish estuaries. See: Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?

Ireland – a special place for Curlews

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Curlews fly vast distances to spend the winter on the estuaries of Britain & Ireland (© Graham Catley)

Is the Curlew really near-threatened? considers the plight of breeding Curlew. It’s easy to understand why BirdWatch Ireland, RSPB, BTO and GWCT  are focusing on this species How long will it be until breeding Curlew are lost from Ireland, completely?

The threat to the Curlew is real, especially when set in an international context. Two species of curlew are probably already extinct and other members of the Numeniini (curlews, godwits and Upland Sandpiper) are facing a similar set of problems to those that probably caused the demise of the Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew. Why are we losing our large waders? outlines the background to a global problem.

Conservation issues

Hundreds of  birdwatchers take part in the Irish Wetland Bird Survey (Republic) and the Wetland Bird Survey (Northern Ireland). These counts identify and monitor key sites for wintering waders – and wildfowl. Whilst mud  and sand-flats are, of course, important to waders, so are roost sites. A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. It has been estimated that the cost of flying to and from roosts might account for up to 14% of a bird’s daily energy expenditure. That’s something to think about next time you see a dog chasing off a flock of roosting waders.

Further reading

b-stubble-godwitsHopefully, this summary  gives a flavour of some of the issues being faced by Irish waders and the research to which they are contributing. There are already 30 blogs in the WaderTales series, with one or two new blogs being produced each month. If you want to know how volcanoes affect breeding waders in Iceland, why Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings or if there are costs to carrying a geolocator have a look here.


GFA in IcelandGraham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Why are we losing our large waders?

A review of the global threats to the world’s Numeniini (curlews, godwits & Upland Sandpiper) has just been published. It does not make for good reading.

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Icelandic Whimbrel in the warm conditions of The Guinea-Bissau

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Eskimo Curlews were migrating the full length of the two American continents 150 years ago – but the species is now probably extinct. The Slender-billed Curlew, its old-world cousin, is elusive at best and extinct at worst. According to the most recent global figures (as reported to the Convention on Migratory Species 11th Conference of the Parties, details below), there are estimated to be only 10,000 remaining Bristle-thighed Curlews, 32,000 Far Eastern Curlews and 77,000 Hudsonian Godwits. Why are we losing our large waders?

b-curlewThe perilous plight of members of the curlew family has been highlighted in WaderTales before (see Is the Eurasian Curlew really near-threatened and Dutch Black-tailed Godwit numbers down by nearly 75% for instance). Now, a group of wader/shorebird experts have analysed the wider conservation concerns for this group of large, long-lived waders. In a new review in Bird Conservation International, scientists ask if there are shared threats to the Numeniini (the Upland Sandpiper, eight curlews and four godwits). Can their findings help to explain why so many of these 13 species are at risk or, in the case of the Eskimo Curlew and Slender-billed Curlew, probably already extinct?

The Numeniini

categories2The Numeniini waders span the globe. In the table alongside you can see that the conservation status of the group covers the full range of possible levels, from Eskimo Curlew, the last definite report of which was in 1963, to six species that are listed as being of ‘least concern’ (IUCN criteria). Even these six species are far from safe, according to a new review undertaken by 35 authors, supported by expert opinion from a further 80 shorebird ecologists. The drivers that have led to the declines of several endangered and vulnerable species are already affecting others that are currently categorised as being of ‘least concern’. There’s more about these important caveats further down this blog.

The crisis for the Numeniini is worrying wader biologists, ornithologists and ecologists – and some governments. They are working together to share information, identify gaps in knowledge, drive forward new research and to push for conservation activities that can reduce the pressures on these species, and others that share the same habitats. A key output is a newly-published paper, led by the British Trust for Ornithology’s James Pearce-Higgins but with authors from almost 30 organisations across five continents, who collated knowledge from over 100 experts:

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There is already a great deal of concerted international action to save Numeniini species. This flyer was produced by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership

A global threats overview for Numeniini populations: synthesising expert knowledge for a group of declining migratory birds. Bird Conservation International. ISSN 0959-2709

The authors are: JAMES W. PEARCE-HIGGINS, DANIEL J. BROWN, DAVID J. T. DOUGLAS, JOSÉ A. ALVES, MARIAGRAZIA BELLIO, PIERRICK BOCHER, GRAEME M BUCHANAN, ROB P CLAY, JESSE CONKLIN, NICOLA CROCKFORD, PETER DANN, JAANUS ELTS, CHRISTIAN FRIIS, RICHARD A. FULLER, JENNIFER A. GILL, KEN GOSBELL, JAMES A. JOHNSON, ROCIO MARQUEZ-FERRANDO, JOSE A. MASERO, DAVID S. MELVILLE, SPIKE MILLINGTON, CLIVE MINTON, TAEJ MUNDKUR, ERICA NOL, HANNES PEHLAK, THEUNIS PIERSMA, FRÉDÉRIC ROBIN, DANNY I. ROGERS, DANIEL R. RUTHRAUFF, NATHAN R. SENNER, JUNID N. SHAH, ROB D. SHELDON, SERGEJ A. SOLOVIEV, PAVEL S. TOMKOVICH and YVONNE I. VERKUIL

A model for collaborative conservation research

Identifying the causes of the problems of the Numeniini is not easy. Species such as the Little Curlew breed in some of the most remote areas of the world, whilst the wintering areas of Bristle-thighed Curlews are spread across the Pacific islands. Understanding the full annual cycle requires international cooperation, willingly provided by scientists and volunteer ornithologists who share a common concern about these species.

iwsgOne of the key elements of the paper-production process was a workshop at the 2013 International Wader Study Group conference in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. This was led by Nicola Crockford, Principal Policy Officer at RSPB, James Pearce-Higgins (BTO), Daniel Brown (RSPB), David Douglas (RSPB) and Jennifer Gill (University of East Anglia). It was preceded by a questionnaire survey of experts throughout the world, conducted by Daniel Brown and funded by RSPB. This two-stage process brought together information relating to population trends, demographic parameters (e.g. nesting success and survival rates) and actual/potential conservation threats.

cop11James, Dan and David refined the summary, bringing it together as a ‘Conservation Statements for Numeniini Species’ which was presented to the 11th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Migratory Species in Quito, Ecuador in 2014 (CMS COP11). This report, authored by Daniel Brown, Nicola Crockford and Robert Sheldon and published on behalf of BirdLife International and the International Wader Study Group is available here.

In the figure below you can see a snapshot of the range of information that is available in the Conservation Statements, in this case for Black-tailed Godwit . In particular, this COP11 document provided background information for two species for which CMS Concerted and Cooperative Actions were being proposed – Far Eastern Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwit. It also painted a backdrop to the CMS Programme of Work on Migratory Birds and Flyways.

cop-for-blackwit

The new BCI paper aims to highlight the crises facing the Numeniini, to outline the suite of threats to the group and to promote this collaborative form of expert-led synthesis. It contains details as to how the questionnaire and workshop sessions were organised – information that will hopefully be of use to scientists studying other groups and taxa.

Findings of the review

In order to help inform conservation management and policy responses, James Pearce- Higgins and his collaborators have reviewed the threats that members of the Numeniini face across migratory flyways. They show that most threats are increasing in intensity. This is particularly the case in non-breeding areas, where habitat loss (resulting from residential and commercial development), aquaculture, mining, transport, disturbance, problematic invasive species, pollution and climate change were regarded as having the greatest detrimental impact. Fewer threats (mining, disturbance, problematic non-native species and climate change) were identified as widely affecting breeding areas.

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An endangered Far Eastern Curlew in Australia

Numeniini populations face the greatest number of non-breeding threats in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, especially those associated with coastal reclamation. Related threats were also identified across the Central and Atlantic Americas, and East Atlantic flyways. Threats on the breeding grounds were greatest in Central and Atlantic Americas, East Atlantic and West Asian flyways. Based on these threats, several key actions were proposed:

Three priority actions for monitoring and research:

  • To monitor breeding population trends (which for species breeding in remote areas may best be achieved through surveys at key non-breeding sites).
  • To deploy tracking technologies to identify migratory connectivity.
  • To monitor land-cover change across breeding and non-breeding areas.
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The East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership is a key focus for conservation action

Two priority actions focus on conservation and policy responses:

  • To identify and effectively protect key non-breeding sites across all flyways (particularly in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway).
  • To implement successful conservation interventions at a sufficient scale across human-dominated landscapes for species’ recovery to be achieved.

If implemented urgently, these measures, in combination, have the potential to alter the current population declines of many Numeniini species.

What is in the BCI paper?

As well as outlining a methodology which may well provide a template for the conservation of other groups of threatened species, the paper contains a comprehensive assessment of the global and local threats faced by the Numeniini. The discussion is the largest section – covering disturbance, development, pollution, terrestrial land-use change & predation, climate change impacts & mitigation, and hunting & harvesting. It provides an opportunity to assess the scientific evidence that supports expert opinion and usefully acknowledges some key gaps worthy of further investigation (e.g. drivers of change in the Central Asian Flyway and uncertainty over the population-level impacts of disturbance).

To summarise in a few bullet points:

  • b-davemelville

    Bar-tailed Godwits in the Yellow Sea. Another large slice of mudflat disappears as a new sea-wall is built. Read more here.

    37 populations of curlews, whimbrels, godwits and upland sandpiper are assessed.

  • Of the 13 species, seven are of conservation concern (from near-threatened to possibly extinct).
  • Most of the threats identified by the expert panel are considered to be increasing in intensity, especially in non-breeding areas.
  • A greater range of threats was reported in non-breeding areas than breeding areas.
  • Numeniini using the East Asian-Australasian Flyway face the greatest number of non-breeding range threats that were identified.
  • The greatest threat, particularly in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, appears to be the large-scale development of key passage and non-breeding sites in coastal zones.

Quite why population declines are so common and severe in the Numeniini group is not yet clear but their large body size, low breeding rate and a consequent reliance on high annual survival rates may make them particularly vulnerable to changes in land use and habitat availability across their migratory ranges. The authors hope that this publication will provide a platform for the necessary research and monitoring, to identify and address specific threats, and that continued international collaboration will help this process.

Least Concern? Not really?

The phrase ‘Least Concern’ may be misleading. Although half of the species covered in this review (6 out of 13) are still classified by IUCN/BirdLife as being of ‘Least Concern’ there are important caveats for these species within the COP11 report. Bar-tailed Godwit was classified as ‘Least Concern’ until a few months ago, when a major, sudden drop in adult survival for two populations (menzbieri & baueri) using the East-Asian Australian Flyway was reported. The current list of ‘Least Concern’ species is:

Upland Sandpiper – Declining nesting success is being recorded.

Whimbrel – Up to nine subspecies have been described, four of which are declining in number. Demographic trends are completely unknown for five subspecies.

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Little Curlew – Population is only 180,000 and numbers may be declining.

Long-billed Curlew – Numbers appear to be stable (only 160,000) but there have been previous extinctions in 7 US states and large parts of Canada. New climate change predictions suggest major threat to breeding population.

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Satellite-tracking is being used to establish migration routes and stop-over areas for several members of the Numeniini. This is a Marbled Godwit.

Marbled Godwit – Only an estimated 174,000 individuals remain. Two of the three breeding populations are made up of only 2,000 individuals each.

Hudsonian Godwit – Only an estimated 77,000 remain, with a decline in the major Canadian population, where there has been reduced nesting & fledging success.

These caveats suggest that none of the 13 species of Numeniini can be considered to be safe. The fact that the threats to the six species of ‘Least Concern’ are the same ones that have driven the other seven species further up the ‘endangered’ scale – and even to extinction – is extremely worrying.

You can read the full paper here:

A global threats overview for Numeniini populations: synthesising expert knowledge for a group of declining migratory birds. James W Pearce-Higgins et al. Bird Conservation International. ISSN 0959-2709


GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?

When working with Icelandic farmers to conserve internationally important wader populations, a shared understanding of beneficial practises may be more important than financial incentives.

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Species like Snipe, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwits have been squeezed out of lowland areas of countries such as the UK and the Netherlands by centuries of drainage, increasingly homogeneous landscapes and the introduction of quick-growing grassland monocultures. Adults have lost nesting sites, chicks have fewer feeding opportunities and pre-fledged youngsters fall victim to farm machinery. Do the same fates await waders in Iceland or might it be possible to work with farmers to leave space for birds?

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Pools, set within semi-natural lightly-grazed fields, are important

As part of her PhD at the University of Iceland, in collaboration with the Universities of East Anglia (UK) and Aveiro (Portugal), Lilja Jóhannesdóttir asked farmers what they think about having birds on their land, what their plans are for their farms, whether they might be willing to leave some pools and focus farming activities in areas less important for birds, and if farm subsidies might encourage them to be more proactive conservationists. The sometimes surprising results of this questionnaire have been published in Ecology & Society.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and agricultural expansion in the subarctic environment of Iceland. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill  and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. Ecology and Society 22(1):16.

The Waders of Iceland

tableIn a recent report prepared by AEWA (Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds), in response to concerns about the effects of afforestation on Iceland’s waterbirds, Dave Pritchard & Colin Galbraith say “Iceland is second only to Russia in its importance as a breeding ground for migratory waterbirds in the AEWA region. It supports the most important breeding populations in Europe for six species of waders, and is the second most important country for three.”

Data in the table alongside have been extracted from Annex 4 of their report, which was discussed at the 12th Standing Committee of AEWA in Jan/Feb 2017. Iceland is home to c 75% of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel, over half of the area’s breeding Dunlin and perhaps half of its Golden Plover. The importance of Iceland has increased with the collapse of wader populations in other countries.

Waders on farmland

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Spring flock of Black-tailed Godwit feeding in a stubble field

Farmed landscapes in Iceland provide opportunities for waders. In the spring, newly-arrived flocks of Golden Plover spread out over hayfields, Black-tailed Godwits target the previous year’s barley stubbles and parties of feeding waders can be seen in sedge pools on farms. During the breeding season, the application of fertilisers, especially in areas where volcanic ash deposition is low, increases soil productivity and wader densities, as was shown in this blog about regional productivity. Come the autumn, hayfields attract flocks of birds fattening up for migration. Despite drainage of an estimated 55% to 75% of wetlands in Iceland in the last seventy years, the country is still a great place for waders.

The amount of intensively-farmed land in Iceland is increasing, to some extent driven by rapid recent increases in the number of tourists, who consume milk products and meat. This can be seen in the ongoing development of hayfields, to feed cattle, and barley production, for pig-feed. There is concern that these developments will impact upon wader numbers, through the reduction in the amount of semi-natural habitat, especially in the lowlands, loss of pools and reduced landscape heterogeneity. On top of these changes, warmer temperatures allow earlier cuts of silage which increases the risk of killing wader chicks that nest within these fields.

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More and more semi-natural land is being lost to grass monocultures

Lilja Jóhannesdóttir’s PhD is focused on how birds use the gradient of habitats that comprise farmland in lowland Iceland – from more intensively farmed fields through to lightly-grazed, semi-natural habitats. The paper that forms the focus of this blog looks at farmers’ attitudes to the birds that share Iceland’s farms and their plans for the future. It then attempts to reveal the willingness and capacity of landowners to engage with conservation management practises.

The questionnaire

To understand the views of Icelandic farmers toward bird conservation, given the current potential for agricultural expansion, Lilja interviewed 62 farmers across Iceland, using a structured questionnaire. Some of the key findings are:

  • Over 60% of farmers are likely or very likely to increase their area of cultivated land
  • Over 90% of farmers think it is important or very important to have rich birdlife on their estates
  • About 60% would consider modifying grazing regimes to help birds
  • More than 80% would be unlikely or highly unlikely to consider changing the timing of harvesting operations.
  • More than 80% would be happy to consider keeping pools intact
  • Information on conservation needs are more likely to change attitudes than financial incentives

The information collected in the questionnaires was analysed by region and by the age of the interviewee but no strong patterns emerged. Older farmers seem to appreciate birdlife more than their younger colleagues but are no more likely to change their behaviours to support conservation objectives. The detailed figures are reported in the paper.

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Creating new hayfield to produce cattle-food is at the expense of areas of semi-natural land

The majority of the Icelandic farmers who took part in the survey plan to expand their agricultural land in the next five years, and this is likely to be driven further by increasing demands for farming products. This implies that conversion of semi-natural land into farmland is likely to greatly increase in the near future, with potentially severe and widespread impacts on the internationally important bird populations that currently breed in these areas. Such expansion could put Iceland on a similar trajectory to many other countries that have experienced substantial biodiversity declines on the back of agricultural intensification and expansion. On the positive side, Icelandic farmers like wildlife and the results suggest that if they are better informed about the consequences of their actions they might well try to modify plans in ways that reduce negative impacts. The possibility of financial incentives to off-set potential losses did not seem to influence farmers’ views, but the authors suggest that this might be because there is no tradition for farmers to receive subsidies for conservation action.

b-horsesA clear finding of the study is that farmers are unlikely to change the timing of agricultural operations in order to help birds. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a country with a very short growing season and where periods of settled weather are rare. With relatively few consecutive dry days, opportunities to mow and turn silage or hay crops just have to be taken. The timing of farming operations, such as harvesting/mowing, can be crucial for breeding waders because they can result in the destruction of nests, chicks, and adults during the breeding season. For example, advances in timing of mowing of hayfields in the Netherlands has meant that this now coincides more frequently with wader nesting and chick rearing, causing unsuccessful breeding attempts and leading to lower recruitment. There is more about the Dutch experience in this Ibis paper.

If Icelandic farmers are unlikely to delay operations, perhaps other strategies, such as mowing fields from the centre – as used in the Outer Hebrides to reduce Corncrake losses – might be more acceptable to farmers who are so constrained by the weather? Read more about the Corncrake issue here. 

The Future

b-whimbrelAs a signatory to international agreements on the conservation of birds and wetlands (Ramsar Convention, Bern Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity and African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement), the Icelandic government is required to take action to protect the internationally important bird populations breeding in the country. Given that there is no strong tradition of using planning laws or centralised agricultural policy to influence farmers’ decisions, working with individual farmers might be the best way to deliver conservation objectives.

Farmers’ views on the importance of having rich birdlife on their land and their willingness to participate in bird conservation provide a potential platform to work with landowners to design conservation management strategies – and to do this before further substantial changes in the extent of agriculture take place in this subarctic landscape. With three-quarters of Europe’s breeding Whimbrel and about half of the Golden Plover and Dunlin dependent upon decisions made in Iceland, there is a lot at stake.

Reconciling biodiversity conservation and agricultural expansion in the subarctic environment of Iceland. Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill  and Tómas G. Gunnarsson. Ecology and Society 22(1):16.

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 GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

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Black-tailed Godwit pairs – the importance of synchrony

How long does a godwit wait around to see if last year’s mate will turn up?

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Newly-arrived Black-tailed Godwits. Time for a wash & brush up and then off to territory?

Colour-ringing enabled Tómas Gunnarsson to follow the lives of pairs of Black-tailed Godwits nesting near his parents’ home in Iceland. In this world, that is ruled by timing and opportunity, the pairings, divorces and re-pairings could form the plot for a TV soap-opera. The studies turned into a fascinating Nature paper that was written up in The Telegraph newspaper. The two main characters were christened Gretar and Sigga  by the journalist but they’re more commonly known as RY-RO and RO-RO.

A tale of two godwits

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How long should this godwit wait for its mate?

2002: Colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits RY-RO (red yellow – red orange) and RO-RO bred successfully in Laugaras, in the inland part of Iceland’s Southern Lowlands. Come the autumn, they left Iceland. The female (RO-RO) probably spent the winter in Portugal, although she was only seen there in later years, and the male (RY-RO) opted for the somewhat colder conditions of eastern England.

2003: Next spring, RO-RO arrived on territory on 6 May, before her mate. She cannot have known whether he was late or dead when she made the decision to move in with a new male, who was later colour-ringed as OR-OO.  When RY-RO arrived back a week later, on 13 May, he had to find himself a new female (GG-YO), who had been paired to a different male in 2002.

2004: Come the spring of 2004, RO-RO and RY-RO arrived at the same time and got back together.

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Tómas Gunnarsson with one of the colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits

This is only one story but it seems to illustrate that there are good reasons to nest with a partner that is well known to you. This could help to illustrate why individual godwits are generally very good at timing their arrival back on territory, to synchronise with their partners, as revealed in this Nature paper, published in 2005.

Gunnarsson, T.G., Gill, J.A., Sigurbjörnsson, Þ. & Sutherland W.J. (2004) Arrival synchrony in migratory birds. Nature, 431, 646-646. DOI: 10.1038/431646a

In the paper the authors described the return of pairs of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits to Laugaras in the spring of 2003. Godwits generally arrive in Iceland over a one-month period, between mid-April and the middle of May.

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Each line joins the wintering locations of a pair of godwits

On average, previously paired males and females in the study arrived within 3.1 days of one another, despite the fact that males and females from the same pair had spent the winter on average about 1000 km apart and that there is no evidence that any pairs had met at passage sites prior to crossing the Atlantic. Arrival synchrony seems to be related to mate retention, as the only divorces occurred in two of the three pairs that arrived more than eight days apart.

Synchrony in timing of arrival on the breeding grounds may be important for retaining a mate from the previous year and avoiding a costly divorce – but how it is achieved is a mystery.

Warmer springs

Tómas Gunnarsson and his father, Gunnar Tómasson, have been studying the timings of spring arrival in south Iceland of a range of species since 1988. In a 2011 paper in Bird Study they estimated that the timing of arrival of the first black-tailed godwit moved earlier by about 5.5 days per decade over that period. Here’s a link to the paper.

graphAs this advance in spring timing of migration was already happening when Tómas was making observations of the paired birds in Laugaras in 2003, we were all interested to see whether the schedules of marked birds would advance in similar ways. Interestingly, we have been able to show that the timing of arrival of individual Black-tailed Godwits is actually not changing at all. There is year-to-year variation in the dates on which individuals arrive, but no trend. Instead it is new recruits into the population that are driving the earlier migration. There’s a blog about this here.

Whilst there are processes in play that mean new recruits are migrating earlier than their predecessors, there must also be reasons why time-fidelity is important for individual birds. Perhaps synchrony increases the probability that individuals will be able to nest with the same mate in subsequent years? This is hinted at by the fact that godwits have been observed to re-pair with previous partners if opportunities present themselves.

Potential benefits of re-pairing with the same mate

For Black-tailed Godwits, not enough is known about the benefits of retaining the same mate. Given that divorce events are rare, it would be hard to measure any consequences for productivity – even if the nests were easy to find and youngsters easy to track – neither of which is the case. For the moment, all that is available is evidence of divorce and the possibility that females will not wait for males that are late.

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Nests are well hidden

Black-tailed Godwits are long-lived birds, with breeding territories in which resources are generally predictably distributed, and a pair is likely to be familiar with local predator densities and distributions. Whilst one member of the pair is incubating the eggs, the other spends a lot of time looking out for potential predators, and this mutual protection may well confer benefits for the adults and the eggs. Perhaps knowing the behaviour of one’s partner is important during the incubation period?

The complexities of incubating eggs

If the daily routines associated with parental change-overs at the nest become established over time, might this be an important driver towards fidelity? Fast forward to a paper on shorebird incubation patterns, published in Nature in 2016 by Martin Bulla et al, which might provide some clues:

Unexpected diversity in socially synchronised rhythms of shorebirds Nature 540,109–113 (01 December 2016) doi:10.1038/nature20563

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This actogram from the Bulla Nature paper creates some wonderful patterns

This paper is the result of a collaboration between Martin Bulla and 75 of his wader biologist colleagues, all happy to share data on nest incubation patterns which Martin then analysed. This resulted in an amazing data-set of 729 nests from 91 populations of 32 shorebird species, from which Martin was able to report remarkable within- and between-species differences in nest incubation rhythms.

This study suggests that energetic demands are not an important ecological driver of incubation bout length, but instead that pairs have developed idiosyncratic incubation patterns, possibly as an anti-predation strategy. Effectively, risk of predation, rather than risk of starvation, may have a key role in determining some of the variation in incubation rhythms. This means that species that hide their nests (and themselves) incubate for longer and change places less frequently.

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Incubating Ringed Plovers change places frequently

Ringed Plovers, for instance, walk away from their eggs when a potential predator approaches and change places on the nest frequently. A male or female Redshank, on the other hand, will sit tight and brood for about six hours before exchanging with its partner. While partner A is hunkered down on the nest, partner B leaves the area, so as not to draw any attention to the pre-packaged protein that partner A is sitting on. If B is only going to return when A is ready for a surreptitious change-over then the activities of the two need to be well synchronised.

As the authors point out in the paper, although the context for this comparative study was diversity in biparental incubation, it is possible that diverse behavioural rhythms may also arise in other social settings (for example, in the context of mating interactions or vigilance behaviour during group foraging). These are other circumstances in which it may well be beneficial to know one’s partner.

What does this mean for RY-RO and RO-RO?

Perhaps fidelity and synchronicity are really important to Black-tailed Godwits? If only their nests were easier to find and nest success was easier to measure! For the moment, all that we know is that pairs of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits are remarkably synchronous in their arrival times on breeding territory, and something important must have driven the evolution of such a finely tuned migratory strategy.


GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

Dutch Black-tailed Godwit numbers down by nearly 75%

Colour-rings and radio-tracking are helping to chart the ongoing decline of the Dutch Black-tailed Godwit population.

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A Portuguese rice field, full of limosa Black-tailed Godwits; most are Dutch breeders

The Black-tailed Godwit is the national bird of the Netherlands, the country in which the vast majority of the West European limosa race breed. These Dutch birds are an important part of the country’s cultural heritage and are of major international significance. Large amounts of money have gone into supporting the species, and the meadows that they share with others such as Redshank and Snipe, but efforts so far have failed to reverse a Black-tailed Godwit decline that has been going on since at least the 1970s. This negative situation is in stark contrast to the increases seen in the islandica subspecies that breeds in Iceland and winters in countries between Scotland and Spain. (There’s a comparison of the two subspecies in this WaderTales blog)

Counting Black-tailed Godwits

vero-pretty-flockIt is often easier to measure changes in numbers of waders on the wintering grounds, when birds are in flocks, than when pairs are thinly spread across their breeding ranges. For Dutch Black-tailed Godwits, most of which spend the winter in African countries, south and west of the Sahara, however, the best opportunity to monitor population trends occurs in Spain and Portugal in February, when the birds are on their way back to breed.

Each year a small group of ornithologists visit key sites in Extremadura, the Doñana Wetlands and the rice fields of the Tagus Estuary, to count flocks of birds and to look for colour-ringed birds. They’re able to use these counts and sightings of colour-ringed birds to assess what has happened to numbers in the previous twelve months.

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grutto met ringen (ringed Black-tailed Godwit)

In three of the years since 2007 they’ve witnessed increases but in most years the numbers have gone down. As February 2017 approaches, what will this year’s score be? How many of last year’s birds will have died and how many chicks hatched in 2015 and 2016 will be making the migratory journey north for the first time?

When assessing how many breeding godwits there are in the Netherlands the researchers collect and use the following information:

  • Counts of birds seen in flocks in Spain and Portugal.
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    It’s not always easy to see the colour-rings in rice fields

    Counts of colour-ringed birds. There’s a great one-line comment in the newly-published paper that forms the basis of this blog: ‘In total, we checked 420,206 godwits for colour-rings at Spanish and Portuguese staging sites’. That’s a lot of legs – and a huge effort.

  • An assessment of the proportion of islandica Black-tailed godwits in the flocks, so that they can be removed from the estimation process. This proportion had been established previously but were also monitored using sightings of colour-ringed birds of the islandica and limosa subspecies, and by taking account of the proportion of each population that wears rings.
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    Rosemarie Kentie in the rice fields of the Tagus estuary (Portugal)

    An estimate of the number of the birds that will be flying north to the Netherlands, as opposed to other countries. Limosa Black-tailed Godwits that pass through Iberia are on their way to a range of countries, stretching from the tiny population that breed in the UK, in the Ouse and Nene Washes, across to Germany in the east. This proportion was calculated by monitoring the movements of satellite-tagged individuals.

The results have just been published in a new paper, which also presents annual survival rates, obtained using colour-ring sightings. There is a full explanation of the methodology in the paper. You can also see maps from the satellite-tagging project on the King of the Meadows website.

postEstimating the size of the Dutch breeding population of Continental Black-tailed Godwits from 2007–2015 using resighting data from spring staging sites. Ardea 114: 213–225. doi:10.5253/arde.v104i3.a7

The authors are Rosemarie Kentie, Nathan R. Senner, Jos C.E.W. Hooijmeijer, Rocío Márquez-Ferrando, Jordi Figuerola, José A. Masero, Mo A. Verhoeven & Theunis Piersma.

Latest findings

Over the eight years of the survey work, the average decline in numbers of limosa Black-tailed Godwits has been 3.7% per year. Numbers appeared to go up between 2009 and 2011, when the calculated survival rate of young birds was high, but the magnitude of this perceived recovery may have been artificially elevated by an increase in the number of Icelandic birds. From WeBS counts in the United Kingdom, the number of islandica birds is continuing to rise.

Since 2011, the estimated annual decrease has been 6.3% per year. Such large declines can only occur if there is both low recruitment and reduced adult survival.

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Agricultural intensification has seriously affected Dutch Black-tailed Godwits

The estimated breeding population in the Netherlands in 2015 was 33,000 pairs, representing a drop of nearly 75% since 1967. However, the agricultural grasslands of the Netherlands are still the single most important stronghold for breeding limosa  Black-tailed Godwits using the East Atlantic flyway.

The authors finish with a sad conclusion. “Although enormous amounts of money and effort have been expended to conserve continental godwits, our findings make clear that these have been ineffective or insufficient.”

One wonders how much worse the situation would have been without Dutch and European support for Meadow Birds and the ‘King of the Meadows’ in particular?


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Estimating the size of the Dutch breeding population of Continental Black-tailed Godwits from 2007–2015 using resighting data from spring staging sites.  

The authors are Rosemarie Kentie, Nathan R. Senner, Jos C.E.W. Hooijmeijer, Rocío Márquez-Ferrando, Jordi Figuerola, José A. Masero, Mo A. Verhoeven & Theunis Piersma.


 GFA in Iceland

WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research.  Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.

@grahamfappleton

Wales: a special place for waders

From winter beaches to summer moorland and woodland, Wales provides essential habitats for waders. 

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There are thirty WaderTales blogs so far. Here’s a selection of ten that may well appeal to birdwatchers in Wales.

Winter beaches & estuaries

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Most Oystercatchers are being ringed with two letter engraved rings, along with two colour-rings: Photo Tómas Gunnarsson

Wales holds important populations of waders in the wintertime – everything from Bar-tailed Godwits from Siberia to Turnstones from Canada. Some of the Oystercatchers seen in sites such as the Burry Inlet or the Menai Strait are from Iceland, where they can be found alongside Redshanks and Golden Plover that have also arrived from the north. They emphasise the close links between Wales and Iceland when it come to birdlife.  Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers explains how a new project is examining the costs and benefits of being a migrant. Welsh reports of Icelandic colour-ringed birds are helping to provide answers.

snipe-1Interestingly, while there are similar links between Ireland and Iceland, the migratory provenance of Welsh Snipe may be very different to that of Irish ones. A quarter of foreign-ringed Snipe reported in Ireland have been found to be wearing Icelandic rings but, so far, no Reykjavik-ringed Snipe have been spotted in Wales. Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland compares the migratory strategies of the two species and laments the decline of Common Snipe, as a breeding species.

Protecting key wintering sites is a high priority when it comes to wader conservation. A new BTO and WWT project aims to provide better information as to how species as diverse as Dunlin and Shelduck make use of the Severn Estuary. This is important work, with major relevance to discussions as to how power might be generated within the estuary. Tracking waders on the Severn urges birdwatchers to look for colour-marked birds. Initial results, shared at the recent International Wader Study Group conference, indicate that the home range of a Redshank is ten times as big as originally thought. It will be interesting to see what else this study reveals.

horse-and-flockHundreds of Welsh birdwatchers take part in the Wetland Bird Survey and the intensive work involved in periodic Low Tide Counts. These identify and monitor key sites and establish the most important feeding sites within estuaries. Whilst mud  and sand-flats are, of course, important to waders, so are roost sites. A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. I had not realised that it has been estimated that the cost of flying to and from roosts might account for up to 14% of a bird’s daily energy expenditure. That’s something to think about next time you see a dog chasing off a flock of roosting waders.

Passing through

whimbrel-mig-fig1There is exciting work going on in Wales to understand why so many Whimbrel spend time in the country in the spring. Whimbrels on the move summarises a recent paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel. Since its publication, a new paper has shown that Whimbrel are able to fly between Iceland and west Africa in one jump but that they sometimes need to stop off on the way north. See Very rapid long-distance sea crossing by a migratory bird by José Alves and colleagues.

Breeding Waders

Wales provides homes to many breeding waders, from Ringed Plover on the coast, via Little Ringed Plover and Commons Sandpiper along rivers and into the moorland for Curlew and Dunlin, passing a forest with Woodcock en route. And that’s only giving a mention to half of the country’s breeding wader species.

CattleStarting on salt-marsh, Big-foot and the Redshank nest investigates appropriate cattle stocking levels for successful Redshank breeding. Although the work was undertaken in northwest England, there is no reason to believe that Welsh cattle area any less careful as to where they put their feet. There are several other blogs about Lapwings and Redshank on the WaderTales site.

We are all aware of the issues facing upland waders. The next blog was written to promote a survey in England, looking at the distribution of waders along the moorland/farmland interface, but the stories will have resonance with Welsh birdwatchers. All downhill for upland waders outlines changes to breeding numbers and distributions of waders breeding in England’s uplands.

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Curlews fly vast distances to spend the winter on the estuaries of Britain & Ireland (© Graham Catley)

Is the Curlew really near-threatened? considers the plight of breeding Curlew. It’s easy to understand why RSPB, BTO, GWCT and BirdWatch Ireland are focusing on this species How long will it be until breeding Curlew are lost from Wales, completely?

Predation is acknowledged as a major issue for Curlew but is this going to be a problem for Oystercatchers too? Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-tops reveals a significant decline of the species in Scotland, mediated to some extent by range expansion in three dimensions. There’s a specific mention of the Burry Inlet control programme of the 1970s.

The strangest Welsh wader has to be the Woodcock – probing about in winter fields and nesting in forestry plantations. Conserving British-breeding Woodcock focuses on worrying results from the latest GWCT/BTO survey and work to reduce losses during the shooting season.

Further reading

Hopefully, this summary  gives a flavour of some of the issues being faced by Welsh waders and the research to which they are contributing. There are already 30 blogs in the WaderTales series, with one or two new blogs being produced each month. If you want to know how volcanoes affect breeding waders in Iceland, why Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings or if there are costs to carrying a geolocator have a look here.


GFA in IcelandGraham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

Can habitat management rescue Lapwing populations?

Can a mosaic of habitats boost hatching success in grassland-breeding Lapwings?

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Lapwings are becoming more and more restricted in their distribution within the United Kingdom, with an increasing proportion dependent on a small number of lowland wet grassland sites, particularly nature reserves. Working in this habitat, a team from the RSPB and the University of East Anglia has been trying to work out if it is possible to substantially improve Lapwing productivity without using intensive, costly predator management, in the form of permanent electric fences.

Background

graphThe RSPB has been monitoring breeding waders on their Berney Marshes reserve in Norfolk for over 20 years. Even with fox control, a wader-friendly grazing regime and sensitive regulation of water levels, Lapwing nesting success on this site is still below 0.6-0.8 chicks per pairs in most years, which is the estimated range required for population stability (Macdonald & Bolton 2008a). Predation is the main issue that is still limiting productivity.

Previous work has shown that:

  • Providing areas of tall, dense grass (often along field verges) can encourage populations of small mammals, which are the main prey of most wader nest predators (Laidlaw et al 2012).
  • The lay-out of wet features can influence Lapwing nesting densities (Eglington et al 2008).
  • Nest survival is higher when Lapwing densities are higher (Macdonald & Bolton 2008b).

The team believe that these three factors – small mammal distribution, surface water and Lapwing nesting density – are very likely to influence the behaviour and distribution of red foxes, the key predator in this study area.

There is more background information in the WaderTales blog entitled A Helping Hand for Lapwings and in a perspectives article in Wader Study by Jen Smart.

ditchIn a recent RSPB/UEA project, Dr Becky Laidlaw has investigated these relationships further and has then used the trends that have been established to model different potential management scenarios. What could happen if nesting densities, wetness and the proximity of verges with small mammals could all be varied in the best ways possible? Is there a theoretical scenario in which productivity is high enough to fuel population growth?

The paper is published as: Scenarios of habitat management options to reduce predator impacts on nesting waders. Rebecca A. Laidlaw, Jennifer Smart, Mark A. Smart and Jennifer A. Gill 2016 Journal of Applied Ecology doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12838

The right habitat mix?

Using relationships established from previous studies and collating seven years of information on over 1400 individual nesting attempts, Dr Becky Laidlaw and her colleagues from UEA and RSPB saw that, not only was nesting success being influenced by wetness and the proximity of tall grass, there were some subtleties relating to the way that habitats are distributed. Might it be possible to  redesign the site so as to create a patchwork that could achieve the required productivity levels? Becky had two variables to play with – verges and wet features.

Verges influence predation rates, with Lapwing nests further from tall vegetation areas having a higher likelihood of being predated. This makes sense if foxes are concentrating on catching small mammals in areas with high mammal densities, and are more likely to ignore eggs that are laid in short grass close to mammal-rich verges.

proper-wet

There are plenty of wet features at Berney. The River Yare is in the foreground.

Water also influences wader nest predation rates. This is not surprising; if you are a fox, it is probably going to be harder to search for nests in a wet field with lots of pools and ditches than in a dry field. Interestingly, the study found that nests in the centre of dry fields were more at risk than those at the centre of wet fields. In a wet field, it’s riskier to nest along the edge, whilst in a dry field the risk increases the further the nest is from the edge.

wet-v-dry-graph

Part of a figure in Scenarios of habitat management options to reduce predator impacts, published in Journal of Applied Ecology by Laidlaw et al (Journal of Applied Ecology, 2016)

chicks

The team want to see more Lapwing chicks. These are newly-hatched.

The study confirmed that isolated Lapwing nests are more at risk of predation, potentially because single pairs don’t benefit from the mobbing defensive behaviour provided by having plenty of nesting neighbours. They found a similar pattern with Redshank nest predation risk; these scarcer breeding waders appear to be protected by the presence of more Lapwing.

Scenario modelling

Becky then worked with Mark Smart, the RSPB manager with responsibility for Berney Marshes, to model some potential future management scenarios for the site. They worked out where it would be feasible to add or remove verges and increase or decrease surface wetness within fields. Becky then used existing relationships to predict what changes in nest predation rates might be expected. Were there management options that could significantly increase survival rates of nests?

ralphBecky compared the different modelled management scenarios with the long term average nest predation rate for the site. She found a significant (roughly 20%) reduction in nest predation could potentially be achieved with the addition of tall vegetation, but only for nests close to field edges in areas of high Lapwing nest density. Importantly, this sort of decrease in nest predation levels could potentially increase the number of chicks hatching by around 100 each year, but such management relies upon areas of sufficiently high Lapwing breeding density being available.

The influence of nesting density

The aim of this applied research was to find a way to manage breeding habitat for Lapwing that could be rolled out to areas of conservation-sensitive farming outside nature reserves. Given the subtleties of creating the right patchwork of wet features and long grass at Berney, it’s going to be tricky to get similar benefits on other sites. If habitat management alone is not enough, even when used alongside fox control, then what else can be done?

Becky has a possible answer. “The breeding density measure we are using is the number of active nests within 100 metres of a nest. It may therefore be important not only for nests to be clustered in fields with appropriate conditions, but also that they are at the same stage at the same time. Synchronous nesting is something that we think might be very important.”

fenceFrom data collected on RSPB reserves with and without electric fences (which exclude foxes), it is clear that fencing greatly increases the synchrony of nesting attempts (because most of the early nesting attempts are successful). Given that the density of active nests has a major effect on nest survival rates, increasing the number of nests active at the same time may well provide a greater level of protection, through the mobbing behaviour of Lapwing, and therefore lead to greater hatching success.

As part of a new piece of research (funded by NERC, a UK government research council), Becky and the UEA/RSPB team are going to test whether the provision of temporary electric fences for just the early part of the breeding season can provide sufficient protection to increase hatching success, as a consequence of nests being more synchronous. If early-reared chicks are more likely to fledge than late-reared chicks, there also may be additional knock-on benefits post-hatching and through to the recruitment stage.

Becky is hopeful. “We understand how wader predation rates are influenced by the proximity to verges, the accessibility issues caused by water and the mobbing, defensive behaviour of waders. We are now interested in determining the best way to use this information in management. With the new work with fences we’re going to be specifically exploring the importance of synchrony to both nest success and productivity”.

Scenarios of habitat management options to reduce predator impacts on nesting waders. Rebecca A. Laidlaw, Jennifer Smart, Mark A. Smart and Jennifer A. Gill 2016 Journal of Applied Ecology doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12838

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GFA in IcelandGraham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

 

WaderTales: a taste of Scotland

Here are four uniquely-Scottish WaderTales blogs to read:

scottish-wadertalesEstablishing breeding requirements of Whimbrel  focuses on the different habitat needs of adults and chicks in Shetland.

Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-tops details significant declines in Scotland, at least partly explained by predation. An increasing number have now taken to nesting on roofs.

UK Dotterel numbers have fallen by 57% presents the results of an RSPB survey that was published in Bird Study.

Prickly problems for waders explains how SNH are trying to deal with introduced Hedgehogs in the Outer Hebrides, where they are a major problem for breeding waders.

And here are another six which may well appeal to Scottish birdwatchers:

  • NEWS and Oystercatchers focuses on the waders that  winter on coasts, instead of estuaries. It was written to promote the 205/16 coastal survey run by BTO.
  • A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. What are waders looking for?

There are 30 WaderTales blogs. The intention is to add one or two new blogs each month. You can sign up to receive an e-mail notification when a new one is published.


GFA in IcelandGraham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.