Curlew Moon

In deference to the scientific papers that underpin them, stories in previous WaderTales blogs are expressed in facts and correlations, not emotions. This blog, which is in part a review of Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell, is a little more personal.

Curlew Moon – a special book

book coverCurlew Moon, is based upon Mary Colwell’s walk from the West of Ireland to the East of England, raising money for the BirdWatch Ireland, BTO, RSPB and GWCT Curlew appeals and researching material for the book. She takes the reader into the stripped-bare peat bogs of central Ireland, shares the excitement of feeling the beating heart of a newly-ringed Curlew and meets some great people who care about Curlews in their own, local patches. The book is a fascinating blend of Curlews, agricultural history, culture and poetry – written beautifully.

Global problems

blog flightCurlews are large waders that live long lives. The family to which they belong, the Numeniini, is not coping well with the speed with which the world is changing. Two species of curlew are probably extinct – functionally if not actually – and the godwit members of the family are faring little better. The blog Why are we losing our large waders? summarises an excellent review by the BTO’s James Pierce-Higgins and colleagues from thirty other organisations/institutions around the world. In it, they assess the stresses that humans are imposing upon curlews & godwits, through direct activities and the impact we all have on the climate. It’s not just our Eurasian Curlew that we need to worry about.

British breeders and foreign visitors

Mary’s walk from west to east began on 21 April 2016, so the bulk of her story focuses upon the Curlew breeding season. The book, however, starts with a couple of trips to see flocks that consist mostly of wintering birds, in Norfolk and the Moray Firth.

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The Wash estuary, the bite out of the east coast of England, between Lincolnshire and Norfolk, holds up to a quarter of a million waders in some months, with a peak annual count of 8,000 or so Curlew. Mary went to Snettisham to see some of these Curlews for herself. Most of the birds had crossed the North Sea in the autumn, from countries such as Finland, Germany and even Russia. There are British-bred birds here too but these are in a minority. The WaderTales blog Is the Curlew really near-threatened? is also rooted in Norfolk. If a Curlew can live for 32 years and there are flocks of 1000 in Norfolk, why are they red-listed as a species of conservation concern?

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Tagging a Curlew: Mary Colwell, with Ron Summers of the Highland Ringing Group

Mary’s next trip was to the Moray Firth, where she met up with members of the Highland Ringing Group. Here, Bob Swann and his colleagues caught eight Curlew, in a mixed cannon-net catch of waders and gulls. I love the way that the strange activities of these dedicated, well-trained volunteers are described! The Curlews were all fitted with geolocators, to track their movements over the next twelve months. A previous bird had revealed a fascinating journey to Sweden and back, with only 53 days on her breeding grounds. She spends by far the largest part of each year in Scotland. What will these new birds tell us about the lives of our largest waders?

Habitat and predators

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An Irish marsh, freshly prepared for the peat-cutting machines

The long walk started in Ireland, where breeding Curlew are closest to extinction. In the Irish Republic, the latest survey revealed a breeding population of 124 pairs, down from perhaps 4,000 pairs in the 1980s. I had read about the causes of the demise of the Irish Curlew but Curlew Moon helped me to understand them. I could hear the silence that made an old man cry, I could see the rows of peat-devouring machines and I could understand the impact of changing farming methods. There may have been economic benefits (for some), associated with funding from the EU and the cessation of the Northern Ireland troubles, but Curlews have not been able to keep up with the changes that prosperity has delivered.

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Curlew nest, tucked away in some long grass

The situation is not dissimilar on the other side of the Irish Sea. In a paper reviewing associations between Curlew numbers in Britain and changes that may be causing them, Sam Franks and BTO and RSPB colleagues conclude that Curlew are less numerous and have shown greater population declines in areas with more arable farming, woodland cover and higher generalist predator abundance. Putting it simply, the key thing that conservationists should focus on are “habitat restoration and reducing the negative impacts of predators”. There’s more about this in Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.

blog chickIn the book, Mary describes the disappointments experienced by the Curlew Country team in Shropshire; in the years 2015 and 2016, 32 nesting attempts yielded no fledged chicks. Foxes were the main problem – with additional pressure from other predators and farm machinery. There was better news in 2017, perhaps associated with more fox control; three chicks were raised naturally and others were head-started. By taking ten eggs at the point of laying, replacing them with dummy eggs, and switching again at the point of hatching, the team increased the total number of fledged chicks to eight. After two blank years, this was an encouraging success for the team.

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Grouse

Much has been written about grouse moors and waders. As Mary moved on towards the Staffordshire Moors and then The Peak District she knew that she would “come face-to-face with some of nature conservation’s most bitter conflicts”.

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Curlew, nesting in the short grass on a grouse moor

I shall not attempt to summarise the Curlews and Controversy chapter – read it for yourself – but Mary, who describes herself as “left-wing, vegetarian with vegan tendencies” and who has never even held a gun, found more Curlew on a grouse moor she visited in early April than anywhere on her walk.

By removing predators, burning heather to encourage new growth and keeping trees at bay, shooting estates create habitat that is good for both Red Grouse and Curlew. It also suits Hen Harriers which feed on the youngsters of both species. And that’s when the potential for conflict really starts!

One of the arguments in favour of grouse shoots is a financial one. If there is no shooting, land-owners are going to want a return on their investments and an obvious replacement is serried rows of non-native forestry. This will not only take away moorland but will also have effects beyond the woodland edges, due to the actual and perceived risks of predation.

Making space

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Mary with Neal Warnock of RSPB Northern Ireland

There are conversations to be had about how space can be made for Curlews in upland farms and moors, while enabling these areas to be farmed profitably, or at least without loss. As Mary points out, if one farmer is being compensated for managing land in ways that suit breeding waders, the chance of success becomes vanishingly small if a neighbour receives subsidies to grow carbon-capturing trees. How can we ensure that planners understand the bigger picture?

Curlews need plenty of space and three WaderTales blogs talk about how farming and habitat heterogeneity might be impacting upon their success.

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Rachel Taylor, downloading data from a tracking station

In Curlew Moon, Mary writes about a day in Migneint moor, which lies to the south of Mynydd Hiraethog (mentioned above). Here, she and Rachel Taylor of BTO Cymru went in search of tagged Curlews that are contributing to a study Rachel is running with Steve Dodd of the RSPB. Four males have revealed the scale at which the species operates – “One bird flew a staggering 21 km away to a favoured feeding spot”. A paper in Wader Study by Steven Ewing and colleagues suggests that birds are highly variable in the way they use the landscape; two of their males travelling 1.6 km each evening but one bird staying close to the nest. Curlews need more space than perhaps we appreciated.

The people who care

In researching for her new book, Mary Colwell seems to have learnt as much about the people who study and love Curlew as she has about these special birds.  From her close encounters with cannon-netters, using geolocators to chart Curlews’ movements, through to gamekeepers who control predators, Tom Orde-Powlett managing a grouse shoot and others who are improving breeding habitats and monitoring nesting success, she focuses upon the respect so many people have for this fast-disappearing species. At the same time, she shares her own passion for this emblematic bird, the haunting calls of which echo across too many abandoned moors.

The Book

Curlew Moon is published by William Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-824105-6

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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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Green Sandpipers and Geolocators

In a paper in the BTO journal, Ringing & Migration, Ken Smith and his collaborators review how wearing a tag, attached using a harness, affects the preening and feeding behaviour of Green Sandpipers. What did they find and where do their Hertfordshire birds spend the summer?

The lives of Green Sandpipers

Tom SpellerAccording to BirdLife International’s Data Zone page, there are between 1.2 million and 3.6 million Green Sandpipers across Europe and Asia. The breadth of this estimate reflects the difficulty of assessing the population of a species that breeds in wet forest clearings, from western Norway to about 155 degrees east in Russia. It’s hardly any easier to count them in the winter, sprinkled as there are around small pools, in ditches and along river valleys from West Africa to Japan.

The occasional pair of Green Sandpipers breed in the UK and Population Estimates of Birds in Great Britain and the United Kingdom, published in British Birds by Andy Musgrove at al suggests, that fewer than 1000 birds spend the winter here, although rather more are seen on passage between Scandinavia and Africa. In an ever-changing world, studying populations of a species that is at the edge of its range has the potential to explain patterns of loss (or gain) that are less obvious in the heart of a species’ distribution.

Why use geolocators? 

In a previous blog (Bar-tailed Godwits: migration & survival), it was shown that colour-rings, which enable individual recognition of a bird without capture, provided 30 times as much information about annual survival as a metal ring. Adding a geolocator takes you into a new data-rich environment. A geolocator is a small device that records the location of an animal. By recapturing a bird a year after ringing and downloading these data, important information about the timing of migration, the duration of stop-overs at fuelling sites and the exact breeding and/or wintering location can be ascertained.

One of the important things to appreciate about scientists who study bird migration is that they are as keen as any other birdwatcher to ensure that the tracking devices they use cause as little disturbance to the normal life of their study birds as possible.

Attaching geolocators

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Geolocator with a light-stalk

In shorebird research, the most common form of geolocator is one that is attached to a ring on the bird’s leg. For most individuals, these devices do not have any negative effects but for smaller waders there can be some problems. Shorebird ecologists from around the globe cooperated to review these issues , publishing it in Movement Ecology. It is summarised in the WaderTales blog, Are there costs to wearing a geolocator? Hopefully, anyone contemplating a new shorebird study will read these before starting. Any data that are collected are only valuable if the birds are either unaffected by the equipment and attachment methods or, if there are effects, these do not prejudice the scientific integrity of the study or the welfare of the birds.

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GPS geolocator, fitted with elastic loops to form the harness

In this study, the Green Sandpipers were fitted with leg loop harnesses, first described by Rappole and Tipton, the authors having decided that ring-mounted geolocators might be too bulky on such a small wader. These harnesses are looped around the top part of a bird’s legs so that the geolocator sits like a small rucsac on the lower back, nestled in the feathers. In the figure below, the left picture shows a tagged bird; you may just make out a slight lifting of the back feathers over the top of the geolocator light stalk. The right-hand picture has been annotated to show how the ‘rucsac’ is fitted.

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The geolocators and harnesses represented 1.4–1.6% of the body mass of the birds. In the study, two different types of device were used, light-level geolocators and GPS geolocators – see the details in the paper. The effects of tagging on behaviour patterns have been examined and written up as a paper in the BTO journal Ringing & Migration, using data collected from seven Green Sandpipers that were fitted with harnesses.

Feeding and preening behaviour

Ken Smith and his colleagues have been studying the Green Sandpipers wintering at Lemsford Springs Nature Reserve in Hertfordshire, southeast England for over thirty years. These shallow lagoons were previously managed as watercress beds. In this particular investigation, the scientists compared the behaviour patterns of individual birds fitted with geolocators, before and after tagging, with a control group of untagged birds. They were particularly interested in the proportion of time spent feeding and preening. Feeding time was thought to be an indication of normal foraging behaviour and preening would be an indication of any discomfort or unfamiliarity caused by the tags and harnesses.

lemsford

Green Sandpipers spend their time feeding, preening and roosting, with most of the feeding activity occurring in loosely defined territories. Four of the tagged birds could be viewed regularly and their activities were observed alongside seven untagged (but colour-ringed) individuals. The amount of time spent feeding increased as days lengthened in the spring and birds prepared for migration. Previous research has shown that the Green Sandpipers on this site are not constrained by feeding opportunities, except in the coldest of condition. In these latter circumstances birds will also feed at night but normally they only feed during the day.

Investigating tag effects

Picture1Lemsford is a well-watched site. Most birdwatchers couldn’t tell which birds were tagged and which ones were not. The tags were so well preened into the plumage that they were extremely difficult to see, even in high-quality photographs. The tags could only be spotted by experienced observers and tag-effects could only be established using 20,000 minutes of observations. A less-intensive study would have showed no significant effects. These bullet points summarise more detailed findings in the paper:

  • All four tagged birds that were closely observed in this study returned successfully from their breeding areas and three of the tags were retrieved. There were no apparent signs of any problems such as skin abrasion or feather wear, caused by the tags or harnesses, and the birds continued to be observed after their tags were removed. The one bird that evaded capture and whose tag was not retrieved was present throughout the second winter.
  • Within the wider group, eight out of ten birds with tags returned the next winter, which is not significantly different from the overall return rate for untagged birds.
  • Tagged birds spent a small but significantly higher percentage of their time preening than untagged birds (untagged birds 4.6%, tagged birds 6.3%). Comparing the periods immediately before and after tagging for the four tagged birds for which detailed observations were collected, there were no differences in the time spent feeding but a significantly higher proportion of the time was spent preening (rather than just resting).
  • Birds may well get used to their tags over time. Of the three tagged birds for which there was sufficient data, two showed significant declines in the proportion of time spent preening over time (15% down to 5%), whereas one was at 6% throughout.

Where do these Green Sandpipers go?

Colour-ringing at Lemsford had already shown that birds are very site-faithful during the winter, once autumn passage birds have moved through. There’s more about this in a previous paper in Bird StudyHabitat use and site fidelity of Green Sandpipers Tringa ochropus wintering in southern England.

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This map is available from the BTO website

At the time that the Migration Atlas (Movements of the Birds of Britain & Ireland) was written, using data collected between 1909 and 1997, there was only one record of a BTO-ringed bird in its breeding area. That bird was found in Sweden, and there has been one other in Finland since. Green Sandpipers are not easy birds to observe and, although the long-term colour-ringing project at Lemsford Springs has generated large numbers of local re-sightings, there have been none elsewhere. Early results from the geolocator study show that the Lemsford wintering birds breed in Norway (2), Sweden (3) and Finland (1). A paper will be produced once a larger sample of results is available for analysis; it will look at migration strategies as well as breeding locations.

There is a WaderTales blog that summarises migration of over 40 wader species to, from and through Britain & Ireland: Which wader, when and why?

This paper

Neil Beadle - twoAlthough this study has involved small numbers of tagged and untagged birds, it has shown a consistent pattern of increase in the proportion of time spent preening by birds after tagging, with some evidence that this subsequently decreases over time. There is no evidence of an adverse impact on return rates of tagged birds from one winter to the next, although with such small sample sizes only a major change would have been detectable.

This paper is published in the BTO journal, Ringing & Migration:

The effects of leg-loop harnesses and geolocators on the diurnal activity patterns of Green Sandpipers in winter Ken W. Smith, Barry E. Trevis and Mike Reed


 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

 

 

Just one Black-tailed Godwit

When you receive a list of sightings of a colour-ringed bird that you have reported to a scheme organiser, it can hide a wealth of information. Here’s one such bird.

Blue Red – Yellow Green-flag

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BR-YGf photographed in Caithness (north of Scotland) in the spring of 2017

There are some colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits that have generated two hundred or more sightings at well-watched locations but BR-YGf is more typical. When seen in Cambridgeshire on 26 March, that was only the 12th observation in the database.

The Black-tailed Godwit that was soon to become BR-YGf was wintering in Portugal when caught in a mist net, by José Alves and a team of other ringers, just before dawn on 25 October 2014. It was given a unique set of three colour-rings and a flag that would enable it to be identified in the field by birdwatchers. Measurements of wing length and bill length, taken at the time, meant that it could be identified as a male, using criteria described in this paper in Bird Study.

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Wader-ringing team in Portugal

Colour-ringing of Black-tailed Godwits started in Portugal in 2006, when José was working on a PhD at the University of East Anglia, in which he studied the ecology of Black-tailed Godwits wintering on the Tagus and Sado Estuaries of Portugal. Colour-ringing has continued since, contributing to coordinated studies of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits in Spain, Portugal, France, the UK, Ireland and, of course, Iceland.

Breeding in Iceland

Almost all of the islandica Black-tailed Godwits breed in Iceland, with small numbers on the Faeroes, a handful on the Lofoten Islands of Norway and an occasional breeding pair on a Scottish island. Jenny Gill and I saw BR-YGf in the west of Iceland in April 2016, as we checked for marked birds in a flock of 1100 birds, many of which were new arrivals. He was feeding in a newly-ploughed cereal field, that had been previously spread with pig-muck from the neighbouring industrial-scale piggery. We managed to look at 800 pairs of legs in that flock; there was another green-flagged bird from Portugal, two orange-flags from France, a bird from Ireland and three from England.

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The history of BR-YGf since he started wearing coloured rings in 2014

We have been checking flocks of Black-tailed Godwits arriving in Iceland for many years. One of the most significant recent outputs is a paper that explains that young birds, recruiting into the population, are driving the advancing arrival of the species into Iceland in spring. The results are summarised in this blog: Why is spring migration getting earlier?

Autumn moult

Most of the Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits that winter in Portugal stop off to moult en route in autumn. We see some of these birds in the UK but BR-YGf is one that, from the sightings in September 2016, probably moults into winter plumage in France. Moulting is an energetically expensive process; birds that are mid-moult don’t usually migrate so these autumn staging sites are very important to the flocks that use them. When first caught in Portugal, in late October 2014, BR-YGf was in full winter plumage, probably having recently arrived from France.

Spring overtake

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The Samouco salt-pans, where BR-YGf was ringed, with Lisbon in the background

Portugal is a warm place to spend the winter, with relatively long days and plenty of food – very different from the east coast of England, for instance. The only down-side is that Portugal is a long way from Iceland, which you might think leads to later return in the spring. Most Portuguese birds get around this problem by migrating in two legs, the first of which takes them to either the Netherlands or the British Isles. This blog explains this migratory strategy: Overtaking on migration.

BR-YGf has been spotted in two springs since ringing. On 14 March 2016 he was seen at Old Hall Marshes in Essex by Steve Hunting and on 26 March 2018 he was seen by the Project Godwit team on the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire. Mark Whiffin and colleagues were looking for limosa subspecies godwits, newly returned from Africa to breed, but their birds were outnumbered by large flocks of islandica, fattening up for the trip north. There’s more about the differences between the two subspecies in Godwits in, godwits out: springtime on the Washes with some hints on distinguishing which is which.

Portuguese birds, on an earlier migratory schedule, tend to be further ahead in terms of moult, standing out in their red finery against the greyer local birds, some of which will travel to Iceland up to four weeks later. You can read more about the spring moult in this WaderTales blog: Spring moult in Black-tailed Godwits. Did you know that waders smell different in summer plumage?

Why Caithness?

BR-YGf has been following a well-used migration route: breed in Iceland, moult in France, winter in Portugal, spring in England, back to Iceland and repeat, for perhaps twenty or more years. What was he doing in Caithness, in the very far north of Scotland on 22 April 2017?

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Although the average timing of arrival of individual godwits in Iceland has not changed, the small amount of annual variation in their timings may be related to the weather they encounter en route. In the spring of 2017, we were in Iceland waiting for birds to turn up. The weather was lovely – if cold – but northerly winds appeared to bring a brief halt to most migration. In our two-week stay we saw only 28 colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits; not quite as bad as the spring of 2013, when winter returned to Europe in April, but close.

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In some years, Black-tailed Godwits, and other waders making the trip to Iceland, may get part way across the Atlantic and have to turn back or they may reach the north of Scotland or the Western Isles and stop. Colour-ring sightings alert colour-ring coordinators to these events, as presented in the blog: Waiting for the wind.

Thank you

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Looking for Black-tailed Godwits in Moita (Portugal) – José Alves, Jenny Gill and me

Thousands of birdwatchers have contributed to the studies of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits. Every sighting is valuable, especially repeat records from the same site. This WaderTales blog tells the stories of some of the birdwatchers who contribute their sightings to these projects: Godwits and Godwiteers.

It’s great to see old friends, when out ‘godwitting’. Jenny Gill and I have seen BR-YGf in Portugal (2016 & 2017) and in Iceland (2016). We recognised him but he probably will not have recognised us.

Please report any colour-ringed Black-tailed Godwits to j.gill@uea.ac.uk and she will forward them to the appropriate coordinator as necessary. Thank you!


 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

 

Measuring shorebird survival

BlogRPOver the last fifty years, a range of methods have been used to estimate the annual survival rates of waders/shorebirds. These estimates are based on many hours of patient catching and colour-ring reading, making each one too valuable to discard. How can estimates generated in different ways be combined and what can these estimates tell us about the way in which survival rates vary between species and in different parts of the world?

Survival rates are important

As revealed in this previous WaderTales blog, Waders are Long-lived Birds, larger species survive for 30 years or more and even smaller species, such as Ringed Plover (right), manage 20 years. With relatively low annual breeding productivity, maintaining a high survival probability of typically between 70% and 90% per annum is essential for population stability. If the annual survival figure for adults drops, as discussed in this blog, Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea, this can have rapid and serious consequences for population levels.

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Different survival measurements

Cups, ounces and grams; Celsius, Fahrenheit and gas mark; if we all used the same measurements and systems when cooking, life would be much simpler. It turns out the same is true when measuring annual survival rates for waders/shorebirds.

Measures of annual survival rates can be hard to obtain because large-scale, long-term tracking of individuals is not easy and the resulting data contain many inherent biases. There are many different ways to estimate survival rates.

BlogKnotReturn rates: the proportion of marked individuals that are recaptured/resighted in subsequent years. Any bird that changes its location before the next resighting period will reduce the estimate of annual survival for the study population, even though it may still be alive.

Mark-recapture models: a range of different methods are available that allow the researcher to account for the effort that goes into looking for marked birds. Effectively this apportions the probability of missing a marked bird and the bird not being alive.

Dead recovery models: survival rate is inferred from the number of dead, ringed birds that are recovered. At its simplest, this does not take account of the number of birds ringed.

Complex modelling: used to separate apparent survival estimates into ‘true’ survival and site-fidelity, using live encounters and resighting/recovery rates. This helps to take account of the probability of birds leaving monitored sites.

Tracking studies: Survival estimates from radio-telemetry tracking studies are only available for a very limited number of shorebird species and for short periods. These measures were not included in this study.

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Wouldn’t it be great if someone pulled together all of the available estimates of survival, produced by different methods? That’s what Verónica Méndez has done, with José Alves (University of Aveiro, Portugal), Jennifer Gill (University of East Anglia, UK) & Tómas Gunnarsson (University of Iceland) in Patterns and processes in shorebird survival rates: a global review, published in IBIS. (Click on the title to link to the paper).

In the paper, the authors  have reviewed published estimates of annual adult survival rates in shorebird species across the globe, and construct models to explore the phylogenetic, geographic, seasonal and sex-based variation in survival rates. The supplementary material includes an appendix detailing all of the available published estimates.

Key findings

Using models of 295 survival estimates from 56 species, Verónica and her colleagues showed that:

  • BlogGraphAs expected, survival rates for larger-bodied species are higher than for smaller species.
  • Survival rates calculated from return rates of marked individuals are significantly lower than estimates from mark-recapture models.
  • Annual survival tends to be slightly higher when estimated in wintering populations, but the difference from breeding season estimates was not significant.
  • As has been shown in many individual studies, female shorebirds often have lower survival rates than males, although this difference can be exaggerated if survival estimates are based on return rates and females are less site-faithful.
  • Survival rates vary across flyways, largely as a consequence of differences in the groups of shorebirds that have been studied and the analytical methods used.
  • BlogSpotSandPublished estimates from the Americas and from smaller shorebirds (Actitis, Calidris and Charadrius spp) tend to be underestimated.
  • By incorporating the analytical method used to generate each estimate within the models, the authors show that it is possible to ‘correct’ survival estimates, according to method used and genus, for a total of 52 species of 15 genera.

What about Slender-billed Curlew?

I asked Verónica whether it might be possible to estimate the annual survival rate for an adult Slender-billed Curlew. If there is a relict population somewhere then that’s a figure that’s going to be important to scientists who are trying to find them. Verónica said that these methods won’t provide a species-specific estimate but, given that the survival rate for the Numenius family is 0.71 ± 0.045 (standard error), the predicted survival should be somewhere within the range 0.62 to 0.79. If Slender-billed Curlews are no longer breeding successfully then half of any remaining adults will be disappearing every couple of years. That’s a sobering thought.

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Conservation Imperative

BlogTTDelawareA large number of the world’s shorebird populations are in decline and reduced annual survival rates seem to be a cause for concern in some parts of the world. Although it is impressive that the research team were able to find 295 survival estimates for this paper, I reckon that the data exist to calculate a whole lot more. Each of these extra results might not produce a novel paper but it would be great to see them published somewhere, as brief notes in the journal Wader Study for instance. That way, they will be available as bench-marks, next time researchers are worried about what appears to be a lowered level of annual survival. Meanwhile, here’s hoping that colour-ring readers will continue to provide sightings of birds for decades to come – there’s no substitute for long-term data-sets.

IBIS imageThis is an IBIS Open Access Review

Méndez, V., Alves, J. A., Gill, J. A. and Gunnarsson, T. G. (2018), Patterns and processes in shorebird survival rates: a global review. Ibis. doi:10.1111/ibi.12586

Verónica Mendez has written a blog about the methods used in her paper for the BOU blog series.


 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

 

Scottish Wader Woes

The latest report on Scotland’s terrestrial bird species, covering the period 1994-2016, does not make easy reading for wader lovers. All but one species is contributing negatively to the upland bird indicator, with declines of over 40% for breeding Lapwing, Curlew, Dotterel, Oystercatcher and Golden Plover. In this short blog, there are links to information that helps to explain what might be going wrong for Scotland’s waders.

The full report is available on the SNH website (https://www.nature.scot/information-library-data-and-research/official-statistics/official-statistics-terrestrial-breeding-birds)

One species has been increasing – Snipe up 22%

snipe abundance changeThe one spot of good news is that breeding Snipe numbers in Scotland have risen over the period 1994 to 2016. This is particularly encouraging, given declines in much of the rest of Britain and Ireland, as you can see in the map alongside and read in this WaderTales blog Snipe and Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland.

In the map, produced for Bird Atlas 2007-11 (BTO, BirdWatch Ireland & SOC), pink colours show abundance increases and grey areas show decreases.

Lapwing declines largest – down 63%

GHH pictureWhen a widespread species such as Lapwing is in decline this is bad news. Subtle difference in the way that lowland valleys are farmed may be part of the problem, as illustrated in this WaderTales blog based on work by Mike Bell, written up with the help of John Calladine, of BTO Scotland: 25 years of wader declines.

Curlew down 62%

Blog Jill PThe Curlew is causing huge concerns in Ireland and Wales, where conservationists are contemplating its disappearance as a breeding species. Scotland holds much larger numbers but a decline of nearly two-thirds suggests that there are major problems here as well.

Two WaderTales blogs tell the Curlew story. Is the Curlew really near-threatened explains why we should be so worried about what is happening and Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan summarises a BTO-led paper from Sam Franks and colleagues which attempts to explain the patterns we are seeing in the species’ decline.

Dotterel down 60%

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Alistair Baxter

Most of the information about Scotland’s breeding birds comes from annual data collected by volunteers contributing to the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), organised by the BTO, in partnership with JNCC and RSPB. Dotterel is different; here the counts are dependent on dedicated surveys of Scotland’s high-mountain plateaus. Concern for the species is very much linked to climate change but this blog, based on a paper by the RSPB’s Daniel Hayhow and colleagues, shows that there may well be other reasons for the species decline: UK Dotterel numbers have fallen by 57%. The figure for the decline may be slightly out-of-date but the blog isn’t.

TGG OycOystercatcher down 44%

In England, the latest BBS report shows an increase of 50% in Oystercatcher numbers but, in Scotland, where there are far more breeding pairs, the species is in decline. Oystercatchers: from shingle beaches to roof-tops looks at the history of the species’ spread from the shoreline, into the hills and onto roofs and considers the role of predation in recent declines.

Golden Plover down 43%

As noted in the press release about the new report ‘The golden plover population has declined by 43% since 1994 and stands at its lowest point since the BBS survey began. Declines may be linked to climate change, in part due to impacts on the abundance of craneflies during the breeding season’. There are two interesting papers about this by James Pearce-Higgins and colleagues.

golden ploverPearce-Higgins, J.W., Yalden, D.W. & Whittingham, M.J. 2005. Warmer springs advance the breeding phenology of golden plovers Pluvialis apricaria and their prey (Tipulidae). Oecologia 143: 470–476.

Pearce-Higgins, J.W., Dennis, P., Whittingham, M.J. & Yalden, D.W. 2010 Impacts of climate on prey abundance account for fluctuations in a population of a northern wader at the southern edge of its range. Global Change Biology 16: 12–23.

Common Sandpiper down 39%

The Breeding Bird Survey does not properly capture trends for species found mostly along rivers. Data for Common Sandpiper are derived from the BTO Waterways Bird Survey and the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey.

Why no Redshank?

Unfortunately, breeding Redshank are now patchily distributed across Scotland, with too few being picked up by BBS surveyors to make a contribution to Scottish population indices. Across the UK, the latest published BBS decline is 38%. UK graphs for Oystercatcher, Redshank and Curlew are shown below.

UK BBS


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

 

Well-travelled Ringed Plovers

Waders breeding in Chukotka, in the north-east corner of Russia, have a long way to travel at the end of the summer, in search of suitable habitats in which to spend the non-breeding season. A new study, using geolocators, shows that Ringed Plovers from this area fly between 8,900 and 12,100 km each autumn and in a very different direction to most other shorebirds that breed in the same area.

RP no geolocatorThis blog is based on a new paper in Wader Study, written by a team led by Pavel Tomkovich of the Moscow Zoological Museum. Their study describes the seasonal movements of tundrae Ringed Plovers from the easternmost edge of the subspecies’ distribution.

Pavel and his colleagues work in the south-eastern part of Chukotka, the region of Russia that is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Arctic Ocean to the north. The data used in the paper were collected from five males that carried geolocators on their journeys to and from their wintering locations. Incredibly, during the mid-winter period, the birds were scattered from the Persian Gulf to the Nile Delta and south to Somalia, all of which are a very long way from Chukotka.

Range and distribution

RP snowy welcoms.jpg

Scene awaiting Ringed Plovers arrive in Chukotka in spring

Ringed Plovers breed over much of the Arctic region, from Greenland (and the eastern fringe of the northern Canadian islands), eastwards through northern Norway and right the way across Russia to the far eastern corner of Chukotka. The missing piece of the Arctic, between Newfoundland in eastern Canada and the western islands of Alaska, is the home of the very similar Semipalmated Plover. Additionally, there is a latitudinal spread in Ringed Plovers, with pairs in Europe breeding from Iceland throught to France.

Ringed Plovers breeding in the west

TTFReaders in Britain & Ireland will see Ringed Plovers in every month of the year. A colour-ringing study in Norfolk showed that many marked birds remained near their breeding sites for the whole year, while others migrated in a variety of directions in the autumn, exemplified by individuals flying south to France, north to Scotland and west to Ireland. In the spring, we see a strong passage of birds that have been wintering in countries in western Africa and southern Europe. They are on their way to breeding areas in Canada, Greenland and Iceland, in the west, and (to a lesser extent) Scandinavia in the north.

Ringed Plovers breeding in the north and east

Ringed Plovers breeding along the Arctic coastal fringe of Russia were believed to winter in eastern and southern Africa, right down to the southern tip of the continent. This new study, written up in Wader Study, the journal of the International Wader Study Group, is the first to reveal the migration routes of birds from the very far east of the range. The results are amazing, as illustrated by the map below which shows the movements of one male bird that wore a geolocator for a year. During that time he flew north-west to the Arctic coast of Siberia, south-west and south to Somalia, returning home through Siberia in the spring by a more southerly, inland route. His annual migrations totalled 25,000 km.

Global map

The migration route of one Ringed Plover. Map provided by Ron Porter

In the paper, the authors map and discuss the journeys of this Ringed Plover and four other males, in great detail. The ultimate winter destination of the birds that are not shown in this blog were the Nile Delta, the Persian Gulf (2) and the Red Sea. Unlike some other wader species, the migration strategy of Ringed Plovers is to use a wide range of suitable wetlands (often small and temporary) for only brief stops. It is unusual to see large flocks; the only important staging area to be identified so far, across the whole of Asia, is in north-central Kazakhstan.

Global perspective

global illustrationChukotka attracts birds from across the world. As well as Ringed Plover that fly here to breed from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, there are Knot from Australia and New Zealand, Semipalmated Sandpipers from South or Central America and Spoon-billed Sandpipers from anywhere from India to China – just to select three species that share the tundra with Ringed Plovers. The diagram alongside hints at the many different directions in which birds depart at the end of the breeding season. It’s really quite amazing!

RP three spcies

The Chukotka melting-pot: Knot from Australasia, Semipalmated Sandpiper from the Americas and Spoon-billed Sandpiper from Asia.

Historical perspective

Most Chukotka waders follow the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and it may seem surprising that Ringed Plovers are so different. The authors suggest that bird migration routes repeat the direction of expansion of a species’ historical breeding range, which will have changed markedly since the last Ice Age. In the late Pleistocene, Ringed Plovers may have had a largely Western Palaearctic breeding distribution with migration south to Africa each autumn. As the ice melted, and large areas of suitable habitat became available, the breeding distribution may have expanded eastwards, with these eastern breeders continuing to winter in Africa but travelling a lot further in autumn and spring.

Read the full paper here

RP geolocatorTranscontinental pathways and seasonal movements of an Asian migrant, the Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula tundrae. Pavel S. Tomkovich, Ron Porter, Egor Y. Loktionov & Evgeny E. Syroechkovskiy. Wader Study 124(3)

Further Reading in WaderTales

If you would like to learn more about migration to, from and through Britain & Ireland, have a look at Which wader, when and why?

RP lesser sandplover

Lesser Sandplover is one of the Chukotka species that migrates via the Yellow Sea

Geolocators are providing new and important information about migration but they need to be used safely. There’s a review here that will be of interest to anyone who is thinking of attaching devices to birds: Are there costs to wearing a geolocator?

There is a lot of concern about species such as Knot and Spoon-billed Sandpiper that breed in Chukotka and rely upon resources in The Yellow Sea. Read more in Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea.

 

RP habitat


 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

 

 

Waders are long-lived birds!

The BTO longevity record for a wader is held by an Oystercatcher that was ringed as a chick by Adrian Blackburn in Lincolnshire (east coast of England) on 14 June 1970 and last caught by the Wash Wader Ringing Group on 16 July 2010, in virtually the same bit of the county. The time between ringing and last capture was 40 years 1 month and 2 days. Perhaps the bird is still alive?

Redshank

Will this Redshank live for another 10, 20 or 30 years?

Just to put records for British & Irish waders into context, the record for seabirds was set by a Manx Shearwater, at 50 years 11 months and 21 days, for waterfowl it’s a Pink-footed Goose (28 years 7 months and 7 days) and the longevity record for a passerine was set by a Rook (22 years 11 months 0 days).

This blog summarises records from the BTO Ringing Scheme between 1909 and 2016. These longevity records might be useful for a bird club quiz but they tell us very little about the health of wader populations. The real thing that is of interest is survival rates. Measuring the proportion of adult birds that survive through until the next year turns out to be exceptionally important to our understanding of wader conservation. There will be more about this later.

Records from the BTO scheme

Table2The list of records alongside is taken from the Online Ringing Report, produced by the British Trust for Ornithology. (The link to the longevity records can be found at the bottom of the web-page). The report covers all birds ringed and/or reported in Britain & Ireland up until the end of 2016. I aim to update this blog shortly after each new annual report is published.

For each species, longevity is defined as the time between ringing and the most recent report of that bird. For a chick, this figure is virtually equivalent to age but a bird first ringed when already an adult may be many years older than the longevity figure. The third column is the number of birds ringed for each species (up to the end of 2016). Records for species of which fewer than 3000 individuals have been ringed are given in italics, to indicate that the small sample size might be affecting the longevity record. With fewer birds being handled, the chance of catching a bird that is going to live a long time is low, as is the chance of it being caught again many years later.

In common with most groups of birds, the longest-lived ones are the biggest. Only Oystercatchers, Curlews and Bar-tailed Godwits have so far broken the 30-year barrier. At the other end of the scale, for smaller species, only the Ringed Plover has reached 20 years.

_DSC4194b

Grit wears even the hardest of metal rings (Richard Chandler)

With the passage of time, two things get older, the bird and its ring (or three things, if you think about the age of the ringers). Early rings were made of alloys of aluminium and these deteriorated quite rapidly, especially in salt water. Many of these rings will have given up long before the birds that were ringed. The widespread introduction of harder alloys in the 1970s has helped to increase longevity records.

Species such as Turnstone still wear out their rings and the oldest Oystercatchers are often birds that have carried two or more rings during the course of their lives. Such replacements only take place in areas where long-term studies are taking place, as was the case for the 40-year-old Oystercatcher mentioned above. It was first ringed as SS58540 but also known as FC15938 and FP99170.

FrenchAnother factor affecting our ability to appreciate just how long a wader can live is the use of colour-rings. The record-breaking Black-tailed Godwit is currently EF90838. This bird was hatched from an egg in Iceland in 1977 and received a metal ring on 24 October that autumn, at Butley in Suffolk. Many east-coast Black-tailed Godwits moult on the Wash (between Lincolnshire and Norfolk) and this bird was caught there in 1993. Already 16 years-old, it received two colour-rings that identified it as a bird taking part in a new Wash-based study, but not as an individual. In 1996, it was caught on the Wash again and given an individual set of rings. It was never caught again but was seen many, many times – most recently on 12 April 2001 by the late John Parslow.

Getting old

oldestThe annual renewal of a wader’s feathers enables an unringed individual wader to hide its age. The picture alongside was taken by Allison Kew, of the Wash Wader Ringing Group. This ringed Oystercatcher was well into its thirties at the time – older than any of the people in the photograph.

If still alive then a bird will migrate and attempt to breed in the same way as in the previous year, repeating the process for decades. Senescence probably kicks in eventually; there is some evidence of lower annual survival and reduced breeding success at the upper end of a species’ life-span. Long-term colour-ringing will enable this topic to be explored further in due course.

Survival

As mentioned earlier, although the longevity of a species might tell us something about annual survival rates, in that birds with high longevity almost certainly have the highest survival rates, being able to measure the proportion of adult birds that survive from one year through to the next is far more valuable.

Blog adultWaders adopt a ‘high-survival and low breeding-output’ strategy. Most waders have an annual survival rate of between 70% and 90%. This means that a pair of Lapwings, for instance, only needs to raise an average of 0.7 chicks per year to maintain a stable population. Unfortunately, this is not easy to achieve, as you can read here.

The occasional good breeding season can give a real boost to population levels, as we saw for Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits in the summer of 2017, as you can read here.

By collecting records of colour-ringed birds it is possible to measure the annual survival rates of wader populations, as explained here in this blog about Bar-tailed Godwits.

great knotWhen survival rates drop, the effect on population levels is immediate and dramatic, as discussed in this blog about the waders that use the Yellow Sea. Populations of Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot and Great Knot that winter in Australia and New Zealand were particularly badly affected by habitat removal, leading to a sudden drop in survival rates and rapid declines in numbers.

There is a global review of survival rates in this paper: Méndez, V., Alves, J. A., Gill, J. A. and Gunnarsson, T. G. (2018), Patterns and processes in shorebird survival rates: a global review. Ibis. doi:10.1111/ibi.12586. The paper is summarised in this WaderTales blog: Measuring shorebird survival.

Please help to measure survival rates

The chance of finding a ringed bird that breaks a current longevity record is tiny but every birdwatcher who reports a colour-ringed wader is helping to monitor survival rates. If you have ever done so – thank you.

 


 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

 

 

 

 

 

WaderTales blogs in 2017

19 WaderTales blogs were published in 2017, celebrating waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on newly published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience. Click on a link in bold to read an individual blog. 

Wader/Shorebird science and conservationringed-plover

Black-tailed GodwitsDSCN1827

b-dunlinIceland-based research

Blog adultBreeding Lapwings

Upland CurlewsRC single bird muddy edge

There are nearly 30 other WaderTales blogs. Here’s the full list. 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.

Sheep numbers and Welsh Curlew

Blog Jill PThis new paper from Ian Johnstone and RSPB colleagues, in The BTO journal Bird Study, provides some interesting evidence as to how the distribution of breeding Curlew in Mynydd Hiraethog (North Wales) relates to habitat. Amongst other things, they conclude that the amount of sheep grazing is critical to the future recovery of the species in this area.

Correlates of Distribution and nesting success in a Welsh upland Eurasian Curlew population by Ian Johnstone, Dave Elliot, Chris Mellenchip & Will Peach. Bird Study https://doi.org/10.1080/00063657.2017.1411466

The bigger picture

old blogsInternationally, the Eurasian Curlew is designated as near-threatened because of the rapid declines in numbers across the species’ range. Irish conservationists are worried that the species may soon disappear as a breeding species and Welsh birds may not be many years behind, if the current population trajectory continues. For more background see this WaderTales blog: Is the Curlew really near-threatened?

While conservation measures such as ‘habitat improvement’ and ‘predator control’ are already being used in specific recovery projects it is still important for scientists to use current evidence to tease apart the factors that may be affecting the distribution and breeding success of Curlews. An earlier WaderTales blog, summarising a paper by Sam Franks and colleagues from BTO and RSPB, concludes that habitat changes and predator impacts have combined to cause declines and lists some of the specific factors involved. Across Great Britain, they found that semi-natural grasslands support the highest densities of Curlew and population declines were highest in areas with more crows and foxes. See this WaderTales blog: Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.

The Curlews of Mynydd Hiraethog

H site

Looking down from the moorland of Hiraethog into intensively manged farmland in the valley

Mynnydd Hiraethog is a discrete 150 km2 upland block of high grass and heather moorland with adjacent lower, enclosed and largely agriculturally improved farmland. The area is managed for livestock farming and forestry and nearly half of the moorland was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1989 because of the importance of its upland habitats for birds. The mountains of North Wales have long been grazed by sheep, with peak densities occurring in the Hiraethog region in about 1999. Agreements with farmers have reduced stocking levels, in order to enable overgrazed habitats to recover.

This study focuses upon the relationship between habitat variables and Curlew numbers in a landscape containing agriculturally improved farmland and moorland that was partly protected and subject to grazing reductions for nature conservation. Thirty, random 1 km squares, stratified by historical population trend, were surveyed for Curlew density and nesting-success. Habitat-related and predation-related variables such as ground cover, plant communities and crow numbers were collected to test for associations between Curlew distributions and environmental variables.

Blog BelseyCurlew numbers in the study area declined by 29% between 1994 and 2008, which is much lower than the decline of 46% across the whole of Wales in the same period (Breeding Bird Survey). By studying a mix of squares in which Curlew numbers had increased, remained stable and declined, the researchers were able to maximise the power of the tests. As expected from previous studies, densities in the moorland edge were higher than in improved farmland (there’s plenty of detail in the paper). There were fewer Curlews in areas with higher vegetation density, with 78% of pairs in survey squares with below-average ground cover. In dense cover, prey may be harder to detect and access.

By focusing on key plant species that are associated with particular habitat types, the team were able to identify links with Curlew abundance and nesting success. As predicted, they found that breeding abundance was positively related to the presence of mat-grass Nardus stricta, which grows as tussocks and is associated with rough grazing. Nesting success was higher in areas with more cover of deer-grass Trichophorum germanicum, a sedge that is found in bogs and on wet moorland. Blanket mires are known to support populations of surface invertebrates, which are particularly important to chicks.

GT predatedWoodland may provide look-out perches and nesting habitat for avian predators and den-sites for foxes and other studies have shown that waders are less numerous close to woodland, either because of a direct predation effects or because waders avoid areas of perceived danger (as discussed in this WaderTales Blog – Mastering Lapwing Conservation). There was only weak evidence of reduced Curlew abundance in areas with more woodland in the Hiraethog area. Fox and crow control takes place across the whole area (for livestock protection) so there was insufficient variation to look at any effects that predator numbers may have on distribution or breeding success.

What next for Curlews?

On Hiraethog, much of the rough grazing, characterised by Nardus stricta, and mire, characterised by Tricophorum germanicum, is contained within the SSSI, and the RSPB authors affirm that these habitats should continue to receive protection from developments such as agricultural intensification and tree planting.

Curlews preferentially occupy locations within the moorland/farmland edge. Historically there has been concern over impacts on upland breeding waders of high sheep grazing pressure but more recently worries have been expressed over under-grazing of some upland habitats in Wales. In Hiraethog, the fact that fewer breeding Curlews were found in areas of dense vegetation is consistent with under-grazing having potentially contributed to a decline in habitat suitability.

somewhere else

Welsh moorland, with blanket bog in the foreground and a mosaic of grassland in the background

There was a 46% drop in sheep numbers in Hiraethog between 1995 and 2009, according to figures from Natural Resources Wales, in order that priority habitats would recover from historical overgrazing. This reduction in grazing pressure has probably resulted in increased vegetation density and reduced sward suitability for Curlew. Vegetation density was higher inside the SSSI than in comparable habitats outside, particularly for habitats preferred by Curlew such as heath and rough grazing.

The authors recommend that management of the SSSI for Curlew should include increases in livestock grazing of appropriate type and intensity.  These should be targeted at rough grazing and mire, in areas that have a history of Curlew occupation and that have high current vegetation density. It is hoped that modest and localised increases in grazing pressure can reduce vegetation density without negatively impacting on protected habitats. If successful, and implemented in an experimental manner, then similar treatments may well be trialled elsewhere.

The full paper can be accessed here

Correlates of Distribution and nesting success in a Welsh upland Eurasian Curlew population by Ian Johnstone, Dave Elliot, Chris Mellenchip & Will Peach. Bird Study https://doi.org/10.1080/00063657.2017.1411466


 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

 

 

 

Farming for waders in Iceland

Across the world, agriculture is one of the primary threats to biodiversity, as we tear up natural environments to create more space to feed an ever-growing and increasingly meat-hungry human population. Agricultural land can, however, also provide key resources for many species whose behaviours align with the rhythms of the farming year.

blog cows

In Iceland, farming areas support large and important populations of several wader species, including 75% of Europe’s Whimbrel and over half of Europe’s Dunlin. As the country welcomes more tourists and expands the range of crops grown for food and fuel, what might be the implications for iconic species such as Whimbrel, Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwit?

This paper by Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, of the University of Iceland, and colleagues there and at the universities of Aveiro (Portugal) and East Anglia (UK), investigates the use of farmland by waders living in a semi-natural landscape.

Paper details: Use of agricultural land by breeding waders in low intensity farming landscapes Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill, & Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson Animal Conservation. doi:10.1111/acv.12390

A dynamic landscape

blog snipe postIn Iceland, volcanic activity poses serious short-term threats to agriculture, especially in areas close to the mid-Atlantic ridge, which runs through the island from south-west to north-east. Threats from volcanoes include ash-fall, lava, flooding of glacial rivers and earthquakes but, on the plus side, nutritional inputs from volcanoes have beneficial effects on soil fertility in these central areas. Over time, and with the assistance of wind and water, many of these nutrients collect in the lowlands of the country – the areas that now form the main agricultural areas, especially in the warmer south.

The distribution of breeding waders varies across lowland Iceland. A survey carried out between 2001 and 2003 showed that wader densities were greater in areas of the country that had been subject to higher rates of volcanic ash deposition with, for instance, three times as many waders in the south as in the west. See How volcanic eruptions help waders. As was shown in the paper at the heart of that blog, the nutrient signal associated with ash-fall breaks down in farmland. Here, perhaps as a consequence of the application of natural and artificial fertilisers over decades or even centuries, there is no association between ash-fall and wader density. Across the whole country, irrespective of the proximity of volcanoes, nutrient-rich agricultural land attracts waders – but which wader species and across which farmland habitats?

Waders and agriculture

In a previous paper, Lilja Jóhannesdóttir showed that over 90% of Icelandic farmers think it is important or very important to have rich birdlife on their estates, but that farmers also expect to increase the area of farmed land in the coming years. There’s more about this in the WaderTales blog: Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation? It is important to understand the ways that waders currently use farmland, in the hope that nesting waders can continue to be accommodated within the future farming landscape of Iceland.

blog oyc bare

Perhaps Oystercatchers think that the fields have been ploughed especially for them?

Agriculture in Iceland is still relatively low in intensity and extent, and internationally important populations of several breeding bird species are abundant in farmed regions. Only about 2% of land is cultivated (about 7% of lowland areas), of which about 85% is hayfields (grass fields managed to produce crops of grass for storage as winter feed) and 15% consists of arable fields (mostly barley). This is similar to areas such as Norway, northern Canada and northern and western areas of the British Isles but contrasts sharply with the US and many countries in the EU which, on average, have 20% or more of their land under cultivation.

In these high-latitude landscapes, agricultural land can potentially provide resources that help to support wader species. To address these issues, Lilja conducted surveys of bird abundance on 64 farms in northern, western and southern areas of Iceland that vary in underlying soil productivity, and quantified:

  • Levels of breeding bird use of farmed land managed at three differing intensities, ranging from cultivated fields to semi-natural land
  • Changes in patterns of bird use of farmed land throughout the breeding season.

Farm survey

In Iceland, there are still large patches of natural or semi-natural habitats; they surround the hay-fields and arable fields that are at the heart of many farms. This arrangement creates gradients of agricultural intensity from the farm into the surrounding natural land, tapering from intensive management to moderate and light management.

BLOG gradient

The three intensity levels within Icelandic farmland can be roughly described as follows:

  • Intensive: Hayfields (85%) and arable fields (15%) fields. Most hayfields are mown twice per year and ploughed and reseeded every few years.
  • Moderate: Old hayfields that are rarely or never mown but are used for grazing, or fertilized grasslands used for livestock grazing.
  • Light: Semi-natural or natural areas under low intensity grazing, usually by sheep or horses, or with no agricultural influence, ranging from sparsely vegetated habitats to habitats with abundant vegetation (where grasses and bushes dominate the vegetation) and with a broad wetness gradient.

Fields corresponding to these three categories were surveyed on the 64 farms, firstly during the egg-laying and incubation period and then later, to coincided with chick rearing.

blog 3 habitats

Gradient of management from intensive (left) to wet semi-natural (right)

Where were the waders?

blog RK on postLarge numbers of waders were encountered in all transects in all parts of Iceland, with Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank contributing most records. There were also important numbers of Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Dunlin, Snipe and Whimbrel. Overall, wader densities on farms did not vary significantly between regions or between early and late visits but there were some subtle differences:

  • Wader density varied significantly along the management gradient, with lower densities tending to occur in more intensively managed areas, particularly in the early (nest-laying and incubation) season.
  • Intensively managed fields in the west (where underlying soil productivity is lower) had higher densities of waders than in the north and south of the country.
  • There were seasonal declines in wader density on all three management types in the south, but seasonal increases on intensive and moderate management in the west and in fields under moderate management in the north.
  • There were some differences between species in these patterns (more details in paper).

blog redshank westOne of the interesting differences in the west was the redistribution of Redshank as the season progressed. There were three times as many pairs of Redshank in cultivated land during the chick-rearing period than during incubation, suggesting that adults may be moving broods into cultivated land. Resources for chicks may well be relatively more abundant or accessible in these areas, given the relatively low levels of nutrients in areas that are a long way from the active volcano belt. There’s also a suggestion that drainage ditches around cultivated fields in the west may provide important resources for Snipe.

What about the future?

blog distributions

Wader densities during the early (red) and later (blue) part of the breeding season (Modified from the paper in Journal of Animal Conservation)

Although the density of birds in Iceland’s agricultural landscapes tends to be higher in lightly managed than intensively managed agricultural land, densities in the areas under the most intense agricultural management are still high, suggesting that agricultural habitats provide important resources within these landscapes (see figure alongside). These density estimates (between 100 and 200 waders/km2) are typically much higher than those recorded in other countries in which these species breed.

Farmers in Iceland expect to expand their cultivated land in the coming years in response to increasing demand for agricultural production (Do Iceland’s farmers care about wader conservation?), and evidence from other countries throughout the world has shown how rapidly biodiversity can be lost in response to agricultural expansion and intensification. Protecting these landscapes from further development is crucial to the species that they support.

The authors suggest ways in which farming practises might change wader distributions in Iceland. Here are a few of the interesting points that they make:

  • When wader-rich semi-natural land is replaced by arable farming and intensively-managed hayfields, this is likely to reduce overall wader densities.
  • Losing wet features, which provide insect food for waders, may well have impacts for chick growth. Here’s a WaderTales blog that discusses the importance of wet features to Lapwings in the UK.
  • In other countries, early grass mowing is a direct threat to nests and chicks. Clutch and brood losses are already being observed in Iceland and, with warmer springs encouraging earlier grass growth, this could become more of a problem.
  • The conversion of less-intensively managed areas into farmland is likely to have most effect on Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel, which tend to occur in their highest densities in the least intensively managed lowland areas.

blog walk WhimbrelIt is estimated that between 4 and 5 million waders leave Iceland each autumn, for Europe, Africa and the South Pacific (Red-necked Phalarope). Iceland’s farmland supports many of these birds and this study highlights the need to protect them from the agricultural developments that have led to widespread wader losses throughout most of the world.

You can read the paper here

Use of agricultural land by breeding waders in low-intensity farming landscapes Lilja Jóhannesdóttir, José A. Alves, Jennifer A. Gill, & Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson. Animal Conservation. doi:10.1111/acv.12390

blog oycs & chick

 


 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