The flock now departing

“The flock now departing from the tideline is bound for Beauvais. Curlew can change here for destinations in Germany and Russia”. It’s fascinating to wonder what might be happening when a flock of waders takes to the air, gains height and sets off in a particular migratory direction. With more individuals wearing tracking devices, it was only a matter of time until someone would have data that provides clues as to the association of individuals within flocks – as we see in a 2021 paper in Bird Study by Frédéric Jiguet and colleagues: Joint flight bouts but short-term association in migrating Eurasian Curlews.

Setting off on migration

When we get on a plane to a particular destination, everyone else who is on the same journey has chosen to travel at the same time and we all know where we are going. Each of us has checked that we have what we need for the journey and has a plan of what to do when we land – whether that involves a short shuttle to home or a lay-over before catching another flight.

For waders, planning must be more random? It’s presumably safer and more efficient to be part of a flock but how do you know which flock to join, who organises the schedule and is information shared? We can get some clues from observations of departing migratory flocks. In estuaries, there is often the chatter (which is hard to interpret but tells us that something is about to happen), then the first birds take to the air and start to gain height. A few birds may peel off and return to the tide-line while other birds take off and catch up with the departing flock. As the birds gain height, the direction of travel becomes clearer and more birds may decide to return to the mudflats. There is now a migratory flock of birds that are committed to flying in a particular direction. We have no idea how that direction was chosen, of course, but there is a plausible explanation as to how the flock might have formed.

This is not the last decision that members in a flock might need to make. Tired birds may need to drop out of the flock, to take a break. Perhaps some birds might realise that the direction of travel does not work for them and the flock might break up?

It can be just as chaotic when a flock reaches a destination. Watching Black-tailed Godwits arriving in South Iceland in April is fascinating; a tired flock might come in off the sea, land and start drinking, before either resting or feeding, but this is not always the case. On a clear day with fair winds, the flock may split up, with some birds keen to keep flying and others happy to stop. This reinforces the impression that a flock only maintains its integrity as long as being in a group meets the needs of the individuals it contains.

Tracking Eurasian Curlew

Understanding migration is an important element of Curlew conservation studies in France.

In their Bird Study paper, Frédéric Jiguet and colleagues describe four cases of joint migration by tagged Eurasian Curlews. Their observations were a biproduct of research aimed at a better understanding of the origins and migration patterns of Curlew that spend the winter in France. The species has been a popular target for French hunters, many of whom are keen to resume shooting, as you can read in the WaderTales blog Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew in France. It is estimated that more than 7000 Curlew were shot in France annually prior to 2008, when the first moratorium was put in place.

There is an urgent need to understand links between wintering sites and breeding sites, especially in areas where the species is in rapid decline. How important is France to the Curlew that breed in countries such as Poland and Germany? The current ban on shooting is not perfect (see paper in Forensic Science International: Animals and Environments) but it is better than nothing, given rapid declines in Curlew numbers across Europe.

In winter and spring 2020, the research team deployed 61 GPS tags on Curlews in France and Germany, hoping to learn more about breeding ecology and migratory connectivity. In a separate study, in Poland, four captive-bred juvenile curlews were tagged and released in July 2020. Between them, these tagged birds led to four cases of joint migration bouts. One case concerned two adults leaving their wintering ground for the pre-breeding migration. Two other cases were birds leaving their breeding grounds at the start of migration. The last one was of two juveniles initiating their first flights to the non-breeding grounds.

Spring migration

About 27,500 Curlew spend the winter in France (see French report produced jointly by government and shooting groups), representing about 5% of the European population. Tracking has shown that these birds breed in Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Russia (see article published by Bird Guides) but there are reports of ringed birds from many other countries, including the threatened populations in Poland and the UK.

Thousands of Curlew spend most of the year in coastal France – representing 5% of the European population.

Return migration to breeding areas takes place in early April. Frédéric Jiguet reports ‘groups of curlews rising high in the sky at sunset’ from the Moëze-Oléron and Baie de l’Aiguillon Nature Reserves in southwest France.

Back-mounted GPS tag

On 17 April 2020, two individuals wearing tracking devices left their French wintering site at sunset, between 22:37 and 22:40. They became closely associated just ten minutes prior to the start of migration, having typically stood 100 metres apart during the previous hour. They flew together for seven hours before making a stop-over north of Paris, between Creil and Beauvais, in the Thérain Valley.

  • 200185 was on its way again two hours later, flew for six hours, stopped again in the Netherlands and arrived in Norderney, an island of the Wadden Sea in northern Germany, at 18:39 on 19 April.
  • 200187 had a much longer layover in the Thérain Valley, making another evening departure at 20:05 on 18 April. It continued migrating, in stages, for more than a month, crossing the Ural Mountains and reaching the Yamalia municipality, in Asian Russia.

Two birds that had been on the same flight from southwest France ended up in very different locations and at very different times. The German Curlew reached its summer destination five weeks before the Russian bird arrived on territory, the latter having secured places on several different ‘international flights’ as it made its way east and north (see figure below).

Post-breeding migration

After breeding, adult Curlew head towards wintering sites, perhaps stopping to moult en route. Some birds do not travel far; for instance, there are colour-marked birds that winter on the Wash (eastern England) and fly just a few kilometres inland to breed. The Bird Study paper includes reports of two occasions when tagged birds have been spotted migrating together from German and French study areas. Southerly migration of all four birds commenced during the evening of 17 June 2020.

French birds: Two individuals departed simultaneously from Deux-Sèvres (central France) between 19:16 and 19:17 for a non-stop southward flight and arrived together at Ria de Treto estuary, in northern Spain on 18 June at 05:49. The two birds departed separately from this stopover site the same day (18 June).

  • 200201 departed at 18:18, for a non-stop flight to Kenitra (Morocco) where it stopped briefly, before moving a short distance north to Merja Zerga.
  • 200204 departed at 19:46 and flew to the Atlantic coast of Spain, stopping for 2.5 hours on Isla Cristina and then flying to its final destination at Ilha de Tavira, in southern Portugal.

After separation, the two birds travelled at different times but followed quite similar routes and even flew at similar altitudes.

German birds: On 17 June 2020, two individuals departed simultaneously from Dollar Bay, in the Wadden Sea National Park. 201075 began migration between 18:58 and 19:03. After five kilometres, if flew over 201072 at an altitude of about 190m. The latter bird took off and joined 201075. They then flew together for five hours, landing in the Rhine-Meuse-Delta (Netherlands).

201075 departed from the Rhine-Meuse-Delta on 20 June and, after one more stop-over, reached its final destination on the Brittany coast on the evening of the next day.

201072 was also bound for Brittany. It departed on 23 June and flew non-stop for six and a quarter hours.

Migration of juveniles

It will be hard to satellite-tag enough wild juvenile waders to pick up instances of marked individuals migrating in the same flocks. However, head-starting may give some clues as to what might happen when naïve flocks of juvenile waders start their migratory journeys, months after the parents have left them. The full story is told in the paper but a quick summary tells us that two Polish head-started Curlews were released on 1 July, departed together on 5 August and landed in the Baie de l’Aiguillon (France) on 8 August. In between times, they came close to landing in The Netherlands, flew along the English coast from Dover to Poole, flew a long way south and west around the Bay of Biscay and then northeast to the coast of France. They both spent the winter in the Baie de l’Aiguillon but not together.

Although it will be difficult to compare the migratory behaviour of wild-caught and head-started wader chicks using satellite tags, just because of probabilities and costs, researchers are building up datasets using smaller geolocators and GPS tags. Here’s hoping that we will soon know more.

Paper

The nutrient-rich mud of Ile Madame

This paper provides observations of just four instances of joint migration but each story is fascinating. They give us insights as to what might be possible as devices get smaller and when land-based tracking stations collect signals from passing birds. For the moment we can use our imagination to interpret the chattering of pre-migratory flocks of waders, the appearance of a small flock of waders at an inland spot in spring and the noisy arrival of a lone Curlew on an estuary in June.

The paper contains a lot more detail about the methods used to collect and interpret data and a discussion that sets Curlew migration within a much broader conceptual context. Here’s a link:

Joint flight bouts but short-term association in migrating Eurasian curlews.

Frédéric Jiguet, Pierrick Bocher, Helmut Kruckenberg, Steffen Kämpfer, Etienne Debenest, Romain Lorrillière, Pierre Rousseau, Maciej Szajdaand & Heinz Düttmann. Bird Study. DOI/10.1080/00063657.2021.1962805

Wintering Curlew from as far away as Russia and Sweden can be found roosting in these French saltmarshes

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

On the beach: breeding shorebirds and visiting tourists

Rising sea levels, stormier weather, coastal development and more people are putting increasing pressures upon shorebirds that nest on beaches. A paper about the breeding waders of Norfolk & Suffolk (UK) coasts illustrates the importance of understanding human behaviour when trying to maintain (or create) space for breeding plovers. This paper will be of particular interest to conservationists trying to support breeding populations of species such as Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Piping Plover and Snowy Plover.

The problems of disturbance

Around the globe, nesting plovers are being threatened by human disturbance. Local initiatives to reduce these impacts include the installation of electric fences, recruiting volunteer wardens and changing local bylaws. You can learn more about which interventions work from Conservation Evidencethere’s more about this at the end of this blog.

Panning out, to look at the bigger picture, is it possible to determine where conflicts between breeding birds and tourists are likely to occur, so that one can try to resolve the problems before they start? Can this information help to inform planning decisions?

Oystercatcher with chick

Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers

The coastline of Norfolk and Suffolk should be an ever-changing environment, dominated by sand and shingle beaches. Coastal defences artificially maintain the barrier between sea and land but sea-level rise is predicted to over-top and destroy sea walls during storm events. How will East Anglia’s beach-nesting waders cope with squeezed beaches at the same time as East Anglia is seeing increasing tourist numbers? In a 2020 paper in Global Ecology & Conservation, Jamie Tratalos and colleagues from the University of East Anglia investigated the distributions of nesting Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers around the beaches of Norfolk and Suffolk, relating settlement patterns to visitor numbers.

Snettisham beach – sunny weather is not great for the local breeding Ringed Plovers

Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers breed on sand and shingle beaches that are also attractive to people. They are prone to disturbance, especially by dogs that are allowed to run free, as discussed by Gómez-Serrano (2021). Nests can be trampled, incubation can be interrupted and chicks can be killed. Liley and Sutherland (2006) showed that, over a 9 km stretch of Norfolk coastline, Ringed Plovers bred less successfully when exposed to disturbance by beach visitors, and population declines in this species have been linked to human disturbance (Birds in England by Brown & Grice, 2005). Human recreation has also been shown to be associated with reduced breeding success in Eurasian and other oystercatcher species (Tjørve & Tjørve, 2010), and Ens and Underhill (2014) suggest that increased human use of the coastal zone, combined with increased risk of nest flooding and loss of wetlands, may threaten the conservation of oystercatchers around the world.

Ringed Plovers can have several breeding attempts in the course of a summer

UK breeding populations of Ringed Plover have declined in recent decades, from a conservative estimate of approximately 8400 pairs in 1984 to 4070 in 2007 (Conway et al., 2019) and the species is now red-listed (see the WaderTales blog: Nine red-listed UK waders). Oystercatchers have undergone considerable Europe-wide decline in recent decades and the species has been classified as ‘Near Threatened’ globally (IUCN, 2020).

Counting birds and people

In 2003, when the study at the heart of the Tratalos paper was carried out, East Anglia’s beaches between the Wash and the River Stour held about 3% of the UK’s breeding Ringed Plovers, as well as relatively small numbers of breeding Oystercatchers. As part of a bigger climate change research programme, Tratalos et al were keen to understand what drove the distribution of Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers, in order to be able to include conservation actions in plans to manage the changing coastline of Norfolk and Suffolk, especially associated the abandonment of outer sea defences. Their research was written up in a 2020 paper in Global Ecology & Conservation.

In the study, the authors examined a 212 km stretch of coastline, mapping all breeding pairs of Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher, as well as the environmental characteristics of beaches. Data on the location of bird territories, and the habitats in which they were found, were collected by Dave Showler in the period between early April and mid-June in 2003. Details of survey methods can be found in the paper.

Map data from Bird Atlas 2007-11 (BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and SOC)

Visitor numbers to different beaches were assessed by filming from a light aircraft, flying at an altitude of 150 metres. 38,634 human visitors were mapped from three flights during sunny weekends in April, June and August, when the tide was at approximately mid phase. There were pronounced peaks in visitor numbers along the coastline, with 19 of the 1003 beach sections experiencing over 10 times the average number of visitors and 231 sections hosting none.

The key findings from surveys and analyses were:

  • Of just over one thousand 200m sections of beach surveyed, 183 beach sections contained Ringed Plover territories (266 breeding pairs) and 117 contained Oystercatcher territories (223 pairs).
  • There were more occupied territories in less-visited areas, for both species. See table relating the visitor index to occupation of sectors. An index of 0.13 means that visitor numbers were 13% of the mean across all sectors.
  • No Oystercatchers were found breeding in sectors where the visitor index was higher than 2.8. No Ringed Plovers were found in sectors where the index was above 5.5.
  • Ringed Plovers territories were more common in sections that had dunes at the back of the beach and where the beaches were broader at low tide.
  • Oystercatchers appeared to need space above the high-water mark, as well as a broad intertidal area.

The associations between territories and habitat enabled the team to predict the number of pairs of waders that might have been present in areas which were highly impacted by visitors. If visitor numbers were reduced to zero across the whole study area, breeding potential could be hugely increased.

Feeding on the mud at low tide – Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers need a broad intertidal area
  • The authors predict that there would have been an additional 90 beach sections where Ringed Plovers could potentially establish territories, suggesting that tourism and the local use of beaches has already removed 33% of Ringed Plover breeding habitat.
  • There were 96 sections where breeding Oystercatchers might have been expected to be found, so they have already lost 45% of potential habitat.

Practical considerations

These results suggest that human activity on beaches influence the location of breeding territories of Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers, with both species using territories where the number of human visitors was relatively low, when considered both at the scale of the whole Norfolk and Suffolk coast, and locally within areas of this coastline.

In the absence of people, there appear to be clear features of the areas that determine if sectors are used by both wader species for breeding. This makes it possible to predict places where increased access could cause problems so that, ideally, tourism might be encouraged in areas that are less likely to be used by breeding waders. Unfortunately, the beaches that are great for red-listed Ringed Plover – with a back-drop of sand dunes, a sandy beach to walk along at high tide and a gently-shelving intertidal area – are also ones that attract people. This makes it harder to create discrete ‘people zones’ and ‘wader zones’ than might otherwise be the case.

Access points create issues for breeding wader but the effects of most visitors are localised. Unless birdwatching or exercising a dog, the typical tourist will not stray more than 300 metres from a carpark, as indicated in the graphic above. In less-disturbed beach sections, where Oystercatchers set up territories, chicks can hide in upper-beach vegetation until parents indicate that it is safe to come out to be fed.

When Emma Coombes (Global Environmental Change, 2009) asked visitors to Norfolk’s beaches what they were looking for, there was a remarkable consistency in the responses from dog-walkers, sun-bathers and birdwatchers. They all wanted to be on remote flat, sandy beaches, with sand dunes. They would appreciate a car park and toilets too. As soon as such facilities are provided, of course, visitor numbers increase, the remoteness is lost and so are breeding waders, unless fences and wardens are introduced.

Winterton-on-Sea beach is promoted as a tourist location with access to a national nature reserve

Planners have few tools available to them, when it comes to protecting stretches of coastline. All that they can control is development (e.g. new roads, housing and tourist accommodation) and facilities such as car parks and toilets. This paper clearly shows the need to understand the local features that are needed by nesting waders and the importance of documenting current distributions, so that local and national planning authorities have the information they need when planning for the future.

Paper in Global Ecology & Conservation

Vulnerable Ringed Plover chick

Regional models of the influence of human disturbance and habitat quality on the distribution of breeding territories of common ringed plover Charadrius hiaticula and Eurasian oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus. Jamie A. Tratalos, Andy P. Jones, David A. Showler, Jennifer A. Gill, Ian J. Bateman, Robert Sugden, Andrew R. Watkinson & William J. Sutherland.

Conservation evidence

Before trying a new conservation technique on a local patch, it is worth checking out what has been tried elsewhere. A quick visit to the Conservation Evidence website and a search on ‘beaches’ and ‘bird conservation’ produced a list of 26 actions that have been written up in papers or grey literature. Although many of these interventions are more appropriate to tern conservation than shorebird conservation, a few seem to be particularly relevant to people who are considering how to help breeding Charadrius plovers. Five potential actions are assessed as ‘likely to be beneficial’

  • Use signs and access restrictions to reduce disturbance at nest sites
  • Physically protect nests with individual exclosures/barriers or provide shelters for chicks of waders
  • Protect bird nests using electric fencing
  • Physically protect nests from predators using non-electric fencing
  • Physically protect nests with individual exclosures/barriers or provide shelters for chicks of ground nesting seabirds
Dogs cannot read ‘no entry’ signs, designed to save space for breeding waders and terns

The Conservation Evidence website aims to make scientific research available to conservation practitioners. Anyone considering any of the interventions listed above can see a quick synopsis of what worked (and what didn’t work) in which circumstances. Anyone who has discovered another successful management technique is urged to write up their study – so that it can be added to the database.


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

Remote monitoring of wader habitats

In a 2021 paper in Basic and Applied Ecology, Triin Kaasiku and colleagues use radar remote sensing to assess the continued suitability of large areas of Estonia for breeding waders. Although the focus of the paper is upon the performance of an agri-environment scheme, the results are of broader relevance, as conservation biologists seek to monitor vegetation growth and the encroachment of shrubs and trees, especially associated with a warming climate, afforestation and farmland abandonment.

Ground-nesting waders

Many species of waders breed in open habitats. Dense vegetation can remove feeding and nesting areas, and shrub and tree encroachment provides shelter for predators. Previous WaderTales blogs have discussed the perceived and actual predator effects of patches of woodland on breeding Lapwing populations and the difficulty of removing trees and predators that have been planted in peatland (Trees, predators & breeding waders). At a larger scale, vegetation growth, trees and shrubs are threatening breeding areas in arctic and subarctic regions, as discussed by Tómas Gunnarsson in Losing space for breeding waders. Locally, changes to land management, such as reduced sheep grazing and the abandonment of grouse moors in the British uplands, may have unintended consequences for breeding waders, including Curlew.

In Estonia’s coastal grasslands, horses are part of the grazing regime

Maintaining Estonia’s coastal grassland

Estonia’s farmed, coastal grasslands are semi-natural habitats that are vital for a range of species, particularly breeding waders. They also act as soft barriers that dissipate wave energy along coastlines and capture carbon. Across the European Union, the importance of these areas has been recognised, resulting in agri-environment schemes (AES) that preserve farm incomes while encouraging nature-friendly management methods that are associated with lower yields. 

Redshank nest in a clump of grass

Getting the balance right is tricky – for example, too much grazing can reduce heterogeneity and impacts nesting waders (see Big Foot and the Redshank nest), but too little grazing can mean that coastal marshes become rank, as tall grasses replace low-growing plant communities and scrub and trees start to encroach. In a previous paper – Managing coastal grasslands for an endangered wader species can give positive results only when expanding the area of open landscape – Triin Kaasiku, Riinu Rannap & Tanel Kaart emphasised the importance of open, wet grasslands for breeding Dunlin.

The main objective of coastal grassland management in Estonia, in addition to supporting local farming communities, has been to preserve the breeding habitat of several threatened wader species, particularly Dunlin, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank. Nine of the eleven species that breed in these areas have declined moderately or strongly since 1980. Population changes are believed to have been largely driven by habitat loss and increased predation. These problems are recognised around the whole Baltic coast, which is also experiencing more frequent summer storms and flooding. See Dunlin: tales from the Baltic.

Remote sensing

Cute Curlew chick

The Kaasiku team used freely-available European Space Agency Sentinel-1 Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) images to assess habitat suitability of coastal grasslands, as breeding sites for waders across Estonia. Although this technique has been used before on cut grasslands, it had not been tested on less uniform grazed areas. The aims of the project were to:

  • Determine the ability of SAR satellite images to classify suitable and unsuitable areas for breeding waders.
  • Compare the habitat suitability for breeding waders under different management schemes, across over 200 km2 of Baltic coastal grassland habitat.
  • Propose methods to improve coastal grassland management.

One of the key parts of the project was to be able to ground truth the SAR data, by visiting sites being managed in different ways (or not at all) in order to collect direct measurements and make observations relating to the suitability of habitat for breeding waders. Details of the methods used are given in the paper.

Research findings

Using SAR radar images, it was possible to correctly identify 88% of suitable habitat and 74% of unsuitable habitat, using a classification boundary that was created using a test set of the data.

Grazing maintains open habitats (left and centre) and restricts reed growth (right)

With renewed confidence, the research team was able to assess whether management prescriptions are actually delivering the desired habitats – for waders and for biodiversity. Their results are encouraging – these agri-environment schemes are broadly working:

  • 43% of Estonia’s coastal grasslands are in a favourable state, in terms of vegetation height.
  • The proportion of suitable habitat is higher (60%) in areas where basic-level conservation subsidies are paid.
  • The highest proportion of suitable habitat (76%) is achieved in areas receiving a top-up conservation subsidy.
  • Long-term grazing ensures better habitat quality: in areas where a basic subsidy has been paid for at least the last five years, 65% of the habitat was classified as suitable.
  • The conclusions were tested by the breeding waders themselves – 98% of the 268 nests located by the team were found in areas classified as suitable.

Although the use of radar remote sensing provides a way of assessing the general suitability of grassland for nesting wader community, it does not provide information on the availability of species-specific microhabitats, finer-scale vegetation characteristics, or soil moisture, all of which are important to breeding waders.

Effectiveness of subsidies

Baltic Dunlin (schinzii) need help

In Estonia, the area of coastal grassland under conservation management has increased from 8,000 to 11,500 ha since the implementation of the AES scheme in 2001. Payments account for 40% of farmers’ incomes. While the payments ensure 60% of the habitat is managed suitably, the remaining 40% does not create habitat for breeding wadersthe main target of the AES for coastal grasslands. The authors suggest that two decades of minimal oversight of the outputs of the scheme has led to sub-optimal delivery. This is unsurprising, given the cost of field visits to farms. Perhaps satellite imagery will help in the future, especially if used five years after the onset of conservation management, when the cumulative effects can be detected.  These assessments will also enable top-up payments to be focused upon areas where 75% of the shoreline is free of high vegetation.

The authors note that the current subsidies are not associated with prescribed stocking rates and suggest that this issue needs to be addressed. Using the right levels of grazing at the right time of year in the right places can make a big difference to breeding waders, as mentioned earlier and discussed in Dunlin – tales from the Baltic and the UK-focused blogs Big Foot and the Redshank nest and Redshank – the ‘warden of the marsh. T

Nest-trampling rates seem low in Estonian coastal grazing habitat, suggesting that there may be scope to increase grazing pressure, especially if cattle are only released onto coastal grasslands in late May.

A broader context

Ruff nest in Estonia

While fencing out predators might be a good way to support breeding waders nesting at high densities in nature reserves or on intensively managed sites, landscape-level support is going to be needed if we are to conserve thinly distributed European species such as Curlew, Dunlin and Golden Plover. Across Europe, prescriptions are in place to adjust grazing levels so as to suit breeding waders but it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of these measures or even to judge whether management is taking place at the right scale and intensity. Triin Kaasiku and collegaues have demonstrated that remote sensing can be a cost-effective way to monitor the delivery of conservation measures indirectly, although they point out that this does not replace detailed monitoring of bird communities. This work has broader applicability, as we seek to measure global-scale habitat changes that will affect increasingly beleaguered wader populations, nesting in some of the most remote parts of the globe.

The paper at the heart of this blog is:

Radar remote sensing as a novel tool to assess the performance of an agri-environment scheme in coastal grasslands. Triin Kaasiku, Jaan Praks, Kaidi Jakobson & Riinu Rannap. Basic and Applied Ecology. July 2021.


WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton (@GrahamFAppleton) to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on published papers, with the aim of making shorebird science available to a broader audience. A catalogue of blogs is available HERE.

 

Flying high with Great Snipe

As tagging devices get smaller and more sophisticated, they are revealing even more wonders of shorebird migration. We already know that Great Snipe are amazing – flying up to 7,000 km non-stop – but a 2021 paper by Åke Lindström and colleagues describes a striking daily cycle of altitude change during their long migratory journeys.

In their new paper in Current Biology, Åke Lindström and colleagues have used activity and air pressure data from multisensor dataloggers to show that Great Snipes repeatedly changed altitudes around dawn and dusk, between average cruising heights about 2,000 m (above sea level) at night and around 4,000 m during daytime. Most birds regularly flew at 6,000 m and one bird reached 8,700 m, an altitude that is just 150m short of clearing the top of Mount Everest! The same daily cycle was apparent everywhere – independently of climate zone, habitat and the height of the land being overflown. Wherever they are, as morning breaks migrating Great Snipes gain altitude – but why?  

Great Snipe

Great Snipe spend the winter in Africa, between 20 degrees south and 15 degrees north of the equator, heading north in spring to breeding areas in Scandinavia and northern Europe, as far east as 95°E (which is the same longitude as Myanmar).

The first paper to reveal the remarkable migration of Swedish Great Snipe appeared in Biology Letters in 2011, when Raymond Klaassen, Åke Lindström and colleagues revealed the tracks from three birds carrying geolocators. During these journeys, these individuals made long and fast autumn movements, covering between 4300 and 6800 km in two to four days and overflying suitable stopover sites that were used in spring. Ground speeds of 15 to 27 m/s are equivalent to between 54 and 97 km/h (33 to 60 miles per hour).

In 2016, using 19 tracks from four years of captures and recaptures, the same team published a paper in the Journal of Avian Biology. About half of the birds flew directly from the breeding grounds to sub-Saharan Africa, the others making a few shorter flights down through Scandinavia before embarking on a long trans-Sahara flight. Birds took advantage of wet seasonal conditions in this Sahel region for three weeks before moving south to the Congo Basin. Spring migration consists of a rapid movement across the Sahara, only a little shorter than the very long non-stop autumn fights, followed by slower movements through Eastern Europe. Birds arrived back on breeding areas in mid-May.

Great Snipes spend about eight months of the year in sub-Saharan Africa. In a 2017 paper in Wader Study, Edouard Debayle, Åke Lindström and colleagues analysed the moult and fattening patterns of over 3,000 hunted birds, to try to learn more about the phenology of migration. They discovered that:

  • Adult males arrived in Africa from mid-August, having started and suspended the moult of the main flight feathers before arrival.
  • Females on average arrived somewhat later and were about one month behind in the progress of flight feather moult.
  • The adults of both sexes resumed primary and secondary moult immediately upon arrival and typically completed it by the end of November, in males, and the end of December in females. Juvenile Great Snipes arrived later than adults and did not moult their flight feathers in the first autumn/winter.
  • Males apparently departed northwards between late March and late April, and the females about two weeks later. There is information about rates of fat deposition in the paper.
Great Snipe watches on as team members set a mist net

Flying high

Processing the catch

Several factors could influence the flight altitude of migratory birds. For example, how high is the land over which birds fly, what are the best temperatures and humidity conditions for efficient flight, at what height can a bird find the most helpful winds, can a bird use navigation landmarks and how can predation best be avoided?

Recent tracking of migratory birds of a range of species has shown that individuals change flight altitude more commonly and dramatically than previously thought but why? In their paper in Current Biology, Åke Lindström and colleagues reveal information from 25 tracked Great Snipe journeys and discuss the reasons that may lie between the patterns that they see.

Methods

Information about behaviour and flights was collected from multisensor dataloggers, consisting of an accelerometer for activity measurements, a barometric pressure sensor with internal temperature sensor, a light-level sensor, a real-time clock, and memory. The dataloggers weighed 1.4–1.7 g (about 1 % of a bird’s total body mass) and were attached to a plastic ring on the bird’s tibia.

In total, 107 dataloggers were put on Great Snipes between 2015 and 2019. Of these, 36 birds were retrapped one, two or three years later (but four birds had lost their loggers). This is an overall recapture rate of 34%, which is similar to the figure for ringed birds. In total, 25 out of the 32 retrieved loggers had functioned for some time, and 16 carried information on flight altitude for at least one of the long flights.

The methods section provides full details of how geolocator data were interpreted and altitudes were calculated and adjusted. Information on air temperatures at different altitudes and the topological features on flight paths provided a background against which to try to understand migration patterns.

How high?

The new data from a small number of multisensor data-loggers greatly enriched the migration story of Swedish Great Snipe, as revealed byÅke Lindström and colleagues. The key results in the Current Biology paper are:

Breeding habitat in Sweden

Flight duration: There were three long flights, two legs on the way south and one on the way north. As noted earlier, northerly migration slowed once birds landed in Europe.

  • On average, male Great Snipe left Sweden on 24th August and flew across Europe and the Sahara for 73.4 hours, before landing in the Sahel.
  • The mean departure date from the Sahel was 24th September. An average of 23.2 hours later a bird would land in the Congo basin.
  • Northerly flights commenced on 18th April, lasting an average of 82.4 hours and concluding in Europe.

Cyclic flight altitudes: There was an overall strong and consistent daily cycle in the altitudes used by the Great Snipes, in all three long flights. After a night at moderate to high altitudes the birds ascended to very high altitudes in early morning, stayed at these levels during the day, and descended again in late afternoon. They then repeated this cycle for one or two more days.

  • The mean individual daytime flight altitude in the first Autumn flight was on average 4,549 m, compared to 2,126 m at night.
  • For the In-Africa autumn flights, comparative figures were 3,874 m in daytime and 1,860 m at night.
  • For the Spring flights, comparative figures were 4,114 m in daytime and 1,612 m at night.

These altitudes were estimated from air pressure readings and may be underestimates. For comparison, the highest point in the Alps is 4807 m.

Peak altitudes: Some Great Snipes occasionally flew extremely high and then always during daytime. Three birds in Autumn and two birds in Spring reached 7,000 m or more. Migratory waders are able to carry out flapping flight at such high altitudes due to several physiological adaptations of the heart, lungs and muscles. The single highest altitude estimate of 8,077 m was reached in Autumn. If air pressure is accounted for this bird may have been flying above 8,000 m for five hours, perhaps reaching an altitude of 8,700 m, and coping with an air temperature of -21.3 °C. Putting this in a local context for readers: Mount Everest is 8848m high and the high points in other regions of the world are: Africa (5895 m Kilimanjaro), South America Aconcagua 6959 m, North America Denali 6190 m and New Zealand Mt Cook 3754 m.

Ambient temperature, wind condition and humidity appeared not to influence the differences in day and night altitudes chosen by Great Snipes.

Discussing the results

Great Snipe with a datalogger

The daily pattern of altitude changes for Great Snipes was very similar between Autumn, In-Africa and Spring flights, suggesting a common cause that is largely independent of climate zone (temperate or tropical), topography and landscape overflown (forest, savanna, farmland, desert or water). Altitude changes have been reported for other waders, such as Black-tailed Godwits, that have been linked to both ambient temperatures and finding more beneficial winds.

The authors discuss the possibility that landmarks are easier to see from a higher altitude when flying in daylight and suggest that predator avoidance may also account for higher day-time elevations. It would be interesting to know if a daily cycle is apparent in long flights over areas largely lacking bird predators, such as vast oceans.

There is no daily cycle in ambient air temperature or wind conditions at high altitudes that could explain the overall regular pattern of flight altitude selection found in Great Snipes but the authors discuss the theory that the warming effect of solar radiation may be countered by flying through colder, higher air. The temperatures at these heights would be too cold at night.

There are still few papers that provide altitude data for long-distance migrating birds but all of them report altitude changes and have revealed some surprisingly high flight altitudes. With more studies we may well find that migration is even more impressive than we already thought!

Paper

The full methods, results and discussion can be read in the paper in Current Biology.

Extreme altitude changes between night and day during marathon flights of Great Snipes Gallinago media: Åke Lindström, Thomas Alerstam, Arne Andersson, Johan Bäckman, Peter Bahlenberg, Roeland Bom, Robert Ekblom, Raymond H. G. Klaassen, Michał Korniluk, Sissel Sjöberg & Julia K. M. Weber.


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

Dunlin: tales from the Baltic

Veli-Matti Pakanen, Kari Koivula  and colleagues have been studying Finnish Dunlin for nearly twenty years. These are schinzii birds that breed in coastal grazing meadows around the Baltic Sea. Several papers have been published, as you will see below, some of which are based on information collected using geolocators attached to leg-flags. Dunlin numbers in coastal Finland are dropping quickly, so this research is important to the conservation of the species. In a 2020 paper, Veli-Matti and colleagues ask whether intensive geolocator-based studies are having a negative effect on individual birds in this already-declining study population.

Global Dunlin

Up to ten races of Dunlin have been identified, which together encircle the globe. Most Dunlin spend the non-breeding season in the northern hemisphere and all migrate north in spring. The breeding and wintering ranges of the various races are summarised at the end of this blog. Here, the focus is on Baltic schinzii Dunlin, a small part of a race that largely winters in coastal North Africa and breeds in southern Scandinavia, Northern Europe, the British Isles, Iceland and southern Greenland.

According to Wetlands International, there were between 4.3 and 6.8 million Dunlin worldwide in 2015, with about one million breeding birds within Europe (BirdLife International). Whilst it is acknowledged that numbers are declining, the large range of the species means that it is still considered to be of ‘least concern’.

Different populations are faring differently. In his description of the changing Dunlin distribution in European Breeding Bird Atlas 2, John Calladine points out that there have been major losses across Europe, including Britain & Ireland, and that Baltic populations ‘are now considered threatened’. The Baltic schinzii population was most recently estimated as between 500 and 640 pairs – less than a fifth of the estimate in the 1980s. John highlights gaps in knowledge that research by the team in Finland and other groups elsewhere are helping to fill.

Migration and survival of schinzii

Dunlin that visit the UK are mostly of the schinzii and alpina races, as indicated in this map. There has been a noticable drop in the number of schinzii birds stopping off in July.

In pre-geolocator days, Ole Thorup and colleagues analysed recovery information available for Dunlin breeding around the Baltic, using 40 years of ringing data from Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. At that stage there were only six mid-winter recoveries in N and NW Africa. The analysis emphasised the importance of wintering and stop-over sites in the Baltic, the Wadden Sea, SE and S England, the Atlantic seaboard of France, and the Iberian Peninsula. Paper in Ardea (2009).

Pakanen et al investigated changes in the survival rates of schinzii Dunlin nesting in Denmark, based on ringing and recaptures of a marked population. They found that annual apparent survival rates dropped from 0.817 to 0.650 between 1990 and 2006, equivalent to a doubling of the chance of dying in any given year. Paper in Bird Study (2016). The importance of monitoring survival rates is discussed in the WaderTales blog: Measuring shorebird survival.

Nests in these flat coastal marshes along the Baltic coast are increasingly susceptible to summer flooding

The use of geolocators enabled Veli-Matti Pakanen to add more detail to the migration story in the 2018 paper, Migration strategies of the Baltic dunlin: rapid jump migration in the autumn but slower skipping type spring migration. He and his colleagues showed that autumn migration is faster than spring migration, characterised by fewer stationary periods, shorter total stopping time and faster flight. The Wadden Sea was found to be an important autumn staging area for all of the tagged birds. Some birds stopped once more before reaching Mauritania. On spring migration, more sites were visited on the way north. The important conservation message from the paper is that Baltic Dunlin may be especially vulnerable to rapid environmental changes at their staging and wintering areas. (In Travel advice for Sanderling there is a suggestion that annual survival is relatively low for birds that winter in Mauritania).

In a 2015 paper in Ornis Fennica, Pakanen et al reported on the results of a single-year analysis of survival rates, concluding that there were no strong effects of leg-flagged geolocators on return rates or reproduction in schinzii Dunlin. However, they did suggest that “long term evaluations that capture the full suite of environmental conditions and assess impact on brood care are needed”. This is a question which leads us neatly on to the 2020 paper: Survival probability in a small shorebird decreases with the time an individual carries a tracking device.

Long-term tracking of individuals

To understand the range of pressures that migratory birds face, one needs to know where individuals spend their time, as was demonstrated in Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Track & Trace and Teenage Waders. Waders of a range of species have been wearing geolocators for ten or more years now, either the same devices on birds which have evaded capture, or a series of tags, when data have been downloaded and replacement tags fitted. These long-term surveys are developing our understanding of the repeatability of migratory behaviour and how birds deal with variable weather patterns, but is there a long-term cost to the individual birds that are tasked with finding out this important information?

This Dunlin wore a ring-mounted geolocator for one year, to collect movement data

Effects of tracking devices on survival are generally considered to be small. However, most studies to date have focused on birds that were caught in one breeding season and recaptured in the following season, to retrieve the geolocator and download the data. In their 2020 paper, Veli-Matti Pakanen and colleagues were able to investigate the possible accumulation of negative effects when individuals have carried the tracking devices for longer periods. Survival rates for tagged birds were compared with 338 colour-ringed birds that were followed for all or part of the period 2002 to 2018.

In the summers of 2013 & 2014, fifty-three adult schinzii Dunlin were fitted with leg-flag mounted geolocators, with a mass equivalent to 1.5 – 2.0% of body-mass. Of these birds, 17 tags were retrieved after one year and 9 after two years. Other marked birds could not be caught and carried their tags for longer periods (2 to 4 years). The research team found that Dunlin carrying a geolocator had reduced chances of survival. Their models suggest that annual survival of colour-ringed males was 0.813. For a bird that carried a geolocator for a year, annual survival probability declined to 0.748 and to 0.581 for birds that carried the geolocator for at least 2 years. Their data suggest that the reduction in survival rates was greater for females than males, even though females are larger than males.

Summer flooding of coastal breeding area is becoming an increasing problem, and likely to get worse with sea-level rise and more chaotic weather patterns

In a thorough Discussion, the authors consider reasons why tags on small waders may be reducing survival, either through ongoing stresses, impacting on things such as feeding efficiency and the energy needed during migration, or because the extra burden means that tagged birds find it harder to cope with occasional periods of tough environmental conditions. They comment on the condition of the skin under removed geolocators – something that other researchers night want to look out for.

As anyone studying breeding waders will know, nest-trapping to retrieve tags is not easy, especially if adults lose their clutches when incubation has only just started, due to flooding, predation etc. Birds may end up carrying tags for longer than intended. The authors “recommend that the detrimental effects of tagging may be avoided by developing attachment methods that are automatically released after one year, e.g. biodegradable materials”.

Balancing costs and benefits

The results from the Pakanen study of long-term survival suggest that requiring a small wader to carry a geolocator for several years may have an impact on survival. As in all mark-recapture studies, researchers are urged to assess the costs to the individual when seeking to understand what might be affecting the viability of a population.

Four previous WaderTales blogs have discussed tag effects:

Details of the Dunlin tagging effects study:

Survival probability in a small shorebird decreases with the time an individual carries a tracking device.

Veli-Matti Pakanen, Nelli Rönkä, Thomson Robert Leslie, Donald Blomqvist, Kari Koivula. Journal of Avian Biology (2020): https://doi.org/10.1111/jav.02555

Four other papers relating to this Finnish Dunlin study

Grazing by cattle is an important management tool in coastal meadows. Pakanen et al studied the impact of trampling on artificial nests and concluded that even recommended stocking rates were too high for chick numbers that could deliver a sustainable population. Paper in Biodiversity and Conservation (2011). (Redshank on British estuaries are similarly vulnerable to trampling – see Big Foot and the Redshank Nest).  

In a follow-up paper in 2016, Pakanen et al concluded that Dunlin populations could be sustained in grazed coastal meadows as long as there was no active grazing before 19 June. Meadows with grazing cattle attracted breeding birds but there was insufficient breeding success for sustainability. Paper in Ecology & Evolution (2016).

If these schinzii Dunlin chicks return to breed they are likely to try to nest nearby; something that needs to be considered when considering conservation measures

Dunlin are strongly philopatric, with both male and female chicks recruiting to suitable habitat close to natal sites. In a paper in Ibis (2017), Pakanen et al show that natal dispersal of Dunlin is strongly linked to the size of their natal site and how isolated the site is. They suggest that inbreeding may be avoided by creating a network of suitably sized patches (20–100 ha sites), no more than 20 km apart from each other. These may work as stepping stones for recruiting individuals. These results are corroborated by a 2021 microsatellite study in BMC Ecology and Evolution which shows genetic differentiation and isolation by distance within the Baltic Dunlin population.

Up to ten races

In western Europe we see three races of Dunlin – alpina, arctica and schinzii. Wintering birds are almost exclusively of the alpina race, which head north and east to northern Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia in spring. The other northern race is arctica, a very small Dunlin that breeds in low numbers in NE Greenland and possibly Spitzbergen. Schinzii has a very large breeding range, spanning the Baltic, southern Scandinavia, Northern Europe, the British Isles, Iceland and SE Greenland. There is huge variation in the timing of breeding of schinzii, as birds do not return to breeding sites in SE Greenland until the end of May, at the same time as schinzii Dunlin being studied by Veli-Matti Pakanen and colleagues in Finland will have their first young chicks.

Further east, centralis Dunlin replace alpina. Many of these birds use the Central Asian Flyway. Further east still, we find sakhalina that use the East Asian/Australasian Flyway (EAA). Two other subspecies have been identified breeding within the EAA Flyway, the more southerly kistchinski birds and actites, which breeds furthest south, on the Russian island of Sakhalin, on a similar latitude to the UK.

It is generally accepted that there are three Dunlin subspecies in North America. In autumn, arcticola head west from northern Alaska and NW Canada and follow the EAA Flyway, pacifica fly south along the Pacific coast from SW Alaska and hudsonia migrate from central northern Canada using the Atlantic Americas Flyway.


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

More Curlew chicks needed

There are three ways to increase the number of Eurasian Curlew in the UK; boost chick production across the breeding range, find ways to ensure more chicks recruit to the breeding population and/or maximise the lifespan of breeding birds. In a paper in Biological Conservation, Aonghais Cook and colleagues show that, while continued protection of wintering sites is really important, there appears to be little scope for conservation action that can further increase annual survival rates. The focus for conservationists has to be on increasing chick productivity and recruitment.

Curlew in Britain and Ireland

The once-common breeding Curlew is becoming harder to find in many areas. We know that productivity is generally low but could reduced annual survival rates also be contributing to the speed of disappearance? Here’s a quick summary of the story so far.

  • The Eurasian Curlew is designated as ‘near threatened’, as discussed in this WaderTales blog.
  • A 2017 paper by Sam Franks and BTO/RSPB colleagues described the main factors associated with the species’ decline in Great Britain. This work is summarised in a WaderTales blog called Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.
  • Estimated breeding population declines since 1995 are 69% in Wales, 59% in Scotland and 31% in England (Breeding Bird Survey). This is not as bad as in Ireland, where 96% were lost between the 1980s and 2015-2017. See Ireland’s Curlew Crisis.
  • Huge numbers of Curlew cross the North Sea at the end of the summer, particularly from Finland. Recent population estimates show that British wintering numbers dropped by 14% in just eight years, with an Irish decline of 13% in five years. See two reviews of wader population estimates, based upon waterbirds papers in British Birds and Irish Birds.

Survival of adult Curlews

As discussed in Measuring shorebird survival, a change in adult survival rates can have a huge effect on shorebird populations. If a species’ annual survival rate drops from 90% to 80% then numbers can half in just six years. We have seen these sorts of dramatic declines in populations of waders that travel between Russia/Alaska and Australia. There’s more about this in Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea.

There are several factors that could be affecting survival rates of British-wintering Curlew:

  • Warmer winters might be expected to lead to increased survival rates.
  • The shooting ban, introduced in 1982 in response to declining Curlew numbers, was specifically designed to increase survival rates.
  • As local wintering populations have dropped, competition for resources could have dropped, potentially leading to increased survival rates.

In their paper about survival rates of Curlew in North Wales, published in Bird Study in 2013, Rachel Taylor and Steve Dodd detected an increase in apparent survival from 86.9% to 90.5% that coincided with the cessation of hunting. They also found that mechanical cockle harvesting in the mid-1990s occurred at the same time as a reduction in apparent survival rate of Curlew from 95% to 81%, indicating the potential for management changes to have huge, unintended consequences for wintering Curlew.

Amassing the data

The research team analysed recoveries of Curlew marked as chicks and adults in the breeding and winter periods, in order to estimate annual survival and the proportion of birds available to recruit into the breeding population.

Thanks to the efforts of skilled, volunteer ringers, two large data-sets were available, collected during the period 1970 to 2018:

  • A total of 1293 adult birds, 144 juveniles and 14,277 chicks were ringed in their breeding grounds across Great Britain.
  • During the winter period, 4403 Curlew were caught and ringed in five key sites – the Severn Estuary, the Tees Estuary, the Wash, Traeth Lavan and the Moray Firth (see map). Supplementary colour-ring sightings were available for the Wash, Tees and Severn.

Full details of how data were used and how models were developed are provided in the paper.

How well do Curlew survive?

Analysis of breeding season data for the period 1970 to 2018 indicates that the average annual survival was 89.8% (confidence interval 0.871–0.920) for adults and 32.6% (0.278–0.378) for first-years. The period of steepest population decline, between 1983 to 1991, coincided with lower survival in both age classes. Encouragingly, since 1996, survival has increased to 92.2% (0.886–0.948) for adults and 39.0% (0.304–0.484) for first-years.

The British and Irish wintering population of Curlew is drawn from a vast area, with birds arriving from as far as Russia and lots of birds from Finland. In a recent breeding wader report covering the Fennoscandia region, no overall change in Curlew numbers was detected, with declines in Norway and Sweden balanced by increases in Finland (see Fennoscandian Wader Factory). From 1970 to 2018, survival rates of UK wintering Curlew averaged 88.4% (0.875–0.893), consistent with survival rates of the British breeding population (above).

Survival varied over time and between the five study sites but has been generally greater than 90% in recent years. Increases in survival were recorded on the Severn Estuary and The Wash.

Curlew struggle in winters with large number of frost-days and survival rates drop significantly, both in that winter and over the subsequent year

Survival was lower in winters with a greater number of days of air frost, an effect exacerbated in successive cold winters. Cold weather may have contributed to low survival in the 1980s, a pattern also evident in the analysis of breeding season data.

Resources may limit numbers. The study suggests that, for four out of five sites, survival was lower in years in which the number of Curlew on a site was higher.

Nationally, the research team found no strong evidence that the hunting ban had increased survival rates. However, there appeared to be local effects on The Severn Estuary and on the Wash. It is unfortunate that national bag data are not available to indicate whether Curlew hunting was particularly prevalent in these two estuaries in the period prior to 1982.

What does this all mean for Curlew conservation?

Birdwatchers are helping to monitor annual survival rates by reporting sightings of colour-marked birds

Since 1996, the mean annual adult survival rate of the British Curlew breeding population has been about 92%. Despite this high number, the Breeding Bird Survey tell us that there has been an observed decline in breeding numbers of 3% per year. Demographic modelling suggests that four breeding pairs must be producing an average of only one chick per year between them. This low figure may come as no surprise to Curlew fans.

To achieve sustainability, the authors conclude that the current figure of 0.25 chicks per pair needs to rise to 0.43 chicks per pair. There are estimated to be 58,000 pairs of Curlew in Great Britain (paper in British Birds). Currently they might be producing about 14,500 chicks each year, on average, and they need to produce nearly 25,000 chicks. British Curlew need to fledge 10,000 more youngsters – every year – just to arrest the decline in numbers.

Personal reflections

Currently, annual survival rates of adults are consistently high but a couple of cold winters, changes to shellfish policy, tidal barrage developments, inappropriately-sited wind turbines and unrestricted disturbance could all have serious negative effects. It is important that we continue to protect the UK’s estuaries and the grassland feeding and roost sites that fall outside their boundaries.

Many Curlew spend significant amounts of time on farmland and recreational land that is not protected in the same way as estuarine habitats

There are a couple of gaps in our knowledge about Curlew demography. When do Curlews first breed and what are survival rates during the ‘teenage’ pre-breeding years? A working hypothesis would be that most breed at age two, with possibly some earlier and probably some later. More colour-ringing of chicks will hopefully provide better data on recruitment age and teenage survival rates. This issue was discussed in Teenage waders. In the meantime, perhaps more thought needs to be applied to avoiding disturbance of non-breeding flocks during the summer holiday season?

It is going to be important to understand how quickly juveniles recruit to breeding populations

It almost goes without saying – Curlews need to produce more chicks. Local conservation initiatives, whether by tenant farmers or dukes with vast estates, will help but raising 10,000 more chicks per year will likely require changes in land management policies. Can agri-environment initiatives be refined to deliver more Curlew? How do we integrate tree-planting and upland conservation priorities? Where should wind turbines be sited? And so much more!

Paper

In their summary of their paper, Aonghais Cook et al concluded that “In addition to increasing productivity, effective conservation strategies will need to maintain high levels of survival, which requires an improved understanding of population connectivity and demographic variation throughout the annual cycle.”

The full paper can be read here:

Temperature and density influence survival in a rapidly declining migratory shorebird.

Aonghais Cook, Niall Burton, Stephen Dodd, Simon Foster, Robert Pell, Robin Ward, Lucy Wright & Robert Robinson. Biological Conservation


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

Subspecies, connectivity and conservation in shorebirds

Rufa’ Red Knot in Delaware Bay

For waders such as Red Knot (Knot), conservation designations such as ‘near-threatened’ or ‘endangered’ are based upon declines and vulnerability of populations that breed in defined areas. What happens when populations mix when they are on migration or in their non-breeding areas? How do we define conservation priorities of mixed flocks? Camila Gherardi-Fuentes, Jorge Ruiz and Juan Navedo invited us to think about this issue in a 2021 Red Knot paper in Bird Conservation International.

Conservation challenges posed by overlapping subspecies

It would be convenient if subspecies of waders kept themselves to themselves but they don’t. In spring, islandica Black-tailed Godwits join limosa in Portuguese and Spanish rice fields. Icelandic populations have been increasing for a century but the Dutch population of limosa dropped by 75% between the 1970s and the period 2007-15 (as described in this blog). Which subspecies should take precedence when assigning conservation importance to a spring flock on the Tagus, or to an autumn flock in France, for that matter? These questions are not abstract; they are relevant to a decision to site a new airport for Lisbon in the estuary and to discussions about the sustainability of autumn hunting on the French coast.

Further south, in the Banc d’Arguin of Mauritania, what is the conservation importance of Dunlin? Birds from Iceland outnumber those that breed around the Baltic coast. There is no suggestion that Icelandic schinzii Dunlin are in trouble, with between 200,000 and 300,000 pairs and no indication of range change, but the Baltic schinzii population was most recently estimated as between 500 and 640 pairs – less than a fifth of the estimate in the 1980s. Does the plight of Baltic (and Irish and UK) schinzii Dunlin confer a ‘threatened’ label on the whole wintering population of the Banc d’Arguin?

Untangling Red Knot in Chile

In their paper, Insights into migratory connectivity and conservation concerns of Red Knots in the austral Pacific coast of the Americas, Camila Gherardi-Fuentes, Jorge Ruiz and Juan G Navedo present the first detailed population morphometrics of Red Knot on the southern Pacific coast of South America, during the non-breeding season, along with information about resightings of these birds throughout the Americas.

Globally, Red Knot Calidris canutus is one of the most extensively studied shorebird species and is considered as ‘Near Threatened’ at the global level (BirdLife International 2018). It is currently accepted that three subspecies are found in the Americas. The general migratory patterns are as follows but the authors of the new paper present evidence of a more complicated picture.

  • roselaari Knot breed in Alaska and Wrangel island (Russia) and migrate along the Pacific coast to spend the non-breeding season mainly in Mexico. The total population is estimated to be 17,000 birds.
  • rufa Knot breed in northern Canada and migrate down the eastern seaboard of the Americas, some travelling as far as Tierra del Fuego. The total population is estimated to be 42,000 birds. This subspecies has been designated as ‘threatened’ in the USA, where there has been an increase in the pressure upon spring staging sites. There is a WaderTales blog about the vulnerability of this subspecies, based upon work in Delaware Bay.
  • islandica Knot breed in NE Canada and Greenland and spend the winter in western Europe. Two WaderTales blogs about changing numbers of shorebirds in Great Britain and Ireland discuss declining numbers of islandica Knot.

Colour-ringing and geolocator studies that track individual birds are providing new evidence that complicates the above pattern, with some rufa Knot spending the non-breeding season on the Pacific coast of South America (Navedo, J.G. & Gutiérrez, J.S. 2019) and some roselaari wintering in Texas. Migration is even more complex, with one roselaari bird flying from Chile to Texas and then switching back west to head to Alaska (see map right). There is more about this on the Wader Study website.

The Red Knot of Chile

The team from the Bird Ecology Lab in Chile have been studying the shorebirds of the Chiloé Archipelago (42˚S, Chile) for several years. This archipelago is a Site of Hemispheric Importance for the conservation of migratory shorebirds, due to its large numbers of Hudsonian Godwit (WaderTales blog Teenage Waders) and Whimbrel.

Red Knot regularly winter in this area, with at least 150 occurring in two well-studied bays of the main island. Although it might be assumed that these birds would be roselaari, there have been colour-ring sightings of a small number of birds that had been marked with lime and green flags within the rufa flyway. With conservation of two subspecies in mind, the research team were keen to know more about the natal origins of the Chiloé Red Knot.

42 Red Knot were caught on Chiloé main island between 2017 and 2020. As well as being aged, ringed, colour-ringed with red flags, measured and weighed, blood samples were taken, in order to determine gender. The biometrics of this small sample of birds combined with sightings of red-flagged Knot has revealed a remarkable amount of information:

  • As in other Red Knot populations, males were smaller than females in all measurements (see paper for details).
  • Measurements suggest that the Chiloé population includes rufa Red Knot.
  • Weights of birds were higher at the end of April than at the start of March, suggesting an increase in body mass of between 2.9 and 3.6 grammes per day; figures that are comparable to other studies of Knot.
  • In spring, marked birds were reported in Peru, the Gulf of Mexico, Minnesota and Manitoba. These last two sightings are on the Mid-Continental Flyway, which is used by waders heading for both Alaska and Northern Canada, as might be expected of roselaari and rufa Red Knot, respectively.
  • The red-flagged birds pictured shown here were photographed by Peter Bergeson (above right) and Jean Hall (below) in South Carolina and Florida, respectively) clearly suggesting that they are rufa Red Knot.

Conservation implications

Chiloé is an important non-breeding area, where Red Knot fuel up for non-stop 8,000 km flights to the Gulf of Mexico, one of the longest migration legs for the species. Now that Gherardi-Fuentes et al have shown that these flocks include ‘Endangered’ rufa, it makes sense to provide some designated protection to the Chiloé Archipelago population of Red Knot. You can download the current Conservation Plan for Migratory Shorebirds in Chiloé.

This relatively small-scale study of Red Knot has emphasised two important points about shorebird conservation.

  • The protection of sites that hold important populations of key species provides benefits for other waders that use similar habitats. In this case, sites designated for Hudsonian Godwits and Whimbrel are being used by two subspecies of Red Knot, at least one of which is ‘threatened’.
  • Waders from one breeding population use a range of sites when migrating and during the ‘wintering’ period. Given that it is hard to know all of the possible sites that link to one breeding area, it is pragmatic to protect as many different sites as possible, across a broad range of countries. There is more about this in Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Track & Trace.
Caulín Bay in Chiloé

Paper

It is interesting that we are still discovering important information about the origins of population of Red Knot, a species that has been at the heart of shorebird research for decades. Will genetic techniques and tracking reveal more surprises? And, more intriguing, how much more is still to be discovered about less well-studied species?

Here’s a link to the paper in Bird Conservation International:

Insights into migratory connectivity and conservation concerns of Red Knots Calidris canutus in the austral Pacific coast of the Americas. Camila Gherardi-Fuentes, Jorge Ruiz and Juan G Navedo (2021).


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

In amongst the tidewrack

Double-banded Plover

Tidewrack has an image problem. Who wants to see a dark line of seaweed on a beach of white sand or to smell rotting beds of kelp in enclosed bays? Shorebird conservationists may understand the feeding opportunities that are provided by fresh and older seaweed but, for tourist boards, tidewrack is something that needs to be cleared away.

It turns out that tidewrack is not just a biodiverse habitat; the mere presence of seaweed creates spaces in which waders can roost and find shelter. In a paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Timothy Davis & Gunnar Keppel get down to Turnstone-level, to investigate the important microhabitats within different forms of beach-cast wrack.

An Australian autumn

Readers in the northern hemisphere may well have seen wintering waders sheltering in the lee of clumps of tidewrack, as a gale blows snow and sand across a beach. At Danger Point, about half-way between Melbourne and Adelaide on the coast of Australia, conditions are somewhat different, with December and January temperatures topping 30°C, conditions in which waders must try to avoid over-heating. By April, when the Davis & Keppel study was carried out, conditions were autumnal, with cool mornings. Three of the species that might be seen on a European beach were present – Turnstone, Sanderling and Bar-tailed Godwit – but with the addition of Curlew Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints, that were about to depart for Siberia, and Double-banded Plovers that breed in New Zealand.

Which looks best – a barren beach or one strewn with seaweed?

What might waders be looking for?

Red-necked Stints

The research team was interested in the range of microclimates available on beaches with beach-cast wrack, to investigate the link between microclimates and microhabitats and how they are used  by waders. They expected to find warmer temperatures and higher humidity on aged wrack, due to advanced decomposition, and ameliorated conditions where wrack deposits provided shelter from prevailing winds. They predicted that waders would use microclimates that could reduce energy loss.

Observations

Data on temperature and humidity were collected by creating miniature Stevenson Screens – hollow white practice golf balls with iButtons inside them, attached to short bamboo canes, so as to be 10 cm above the substrate surface. If interested in conducting this sort of study, it would be sensible to read the methods section of the paper. Sample points were on bare sand, in areas with fresh wrack deposited on the sand and in beds of old tidewrack. Based on surrounding features and observations of prevailing winds, sample points were classified as sheltered or exposed.

Instantaneous scan sampling was used to classify migratory shorebird behaviour for the entire Danger Point study area (i.e., the area over which the microsensors were placed) at 15 min intervals on four days during April, as birds were preparing to migrate. Birds were classified as roosting (loafing, sleeping or preening) or as foraging on one of the three substrate types.

Variability of microclimate

As expected, there were significant differences among the three substrates (sand, fresh wrack and aged wrack) for mean, maximum and minimum temperature and absolute humidity. The temperature above the surface of aged wrack was consistently higher than elsewhere, with one notable exception: in the early mornings, when newly deposited seaweed retained some of the heat from the warmer ocean, temperatures were warmer on fresh wrack than on sand and aged wrack. For aged wrack, humidity was highest above deeper beds.

Curlew Sandpipers on the tide-edge

Bird Behaviour

Six species of wader were studied and included in ‘all waders’ counts but there were insufficient sightings of Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling for separate analyses. The main focus was upon Red-necked Stint (64.0% of observations) and Double-banded Plover (31.4%).

Double-banded Plover sheltered by tidewrack
  • Roosting birds were recorded on aged wrack 16 times more frequently than sand, and three times more than on fresh wrack.
  • Foraging birds were observed more than four times as often on aged wrack, when compared to fresh wrack or sand.
  • However, roosting on fresh wrack was more frequent in cooler, early-morning temperatures, for all waders and for the Double-banded Plover, when considered separately. Neither temperature nor absolute humidity were significant predictors of the proportion of Red-necked Stints roosting in areas with fresh wrack.
  • Foraging by waders (in general) and Double-banded Plover (in particular) was also more common within fresh deposits of wrack when temperatures were low and particularly if humidity was high. For Red-necked Stint, temperature alone predicted whether they were more likely to feed on fresh wrack, rather than aged wrack.

The importance of microhabitats

The authors show that sandy beaches with beach-cast wrack provide a complex mosaic of microclimates/habitats across differing substrates. Birds seem to exploit the microclimatic variation by using microhabitats that minimise energy expenditure, as both foraging and roosting were most likely to occur on the substrate providing the warmest, most energy-efficient conditions at the time.

There is well-documented evidence that food availability increases as seaweed decays, because wrack-beds provide homes for invertebrates, particularly developing larvae. This explains a predominance of foraging on aged wrack, which is likely to provide the best feeding opportunities. The key finding in this study is that tidewrack on sandy beaches provides important additional benefits for waders, by providing shelter and warmth. This may be particularly important when birds are fattening up for the next leg of a migratory journey. It is particularly interesting that, early in the morning, Double-banded Plovers and Red-necked Stints foraged within fresh wrack, the warmest available substrate at that time. Perhaps the effect of microclimate (temperature, humidity & shelter) might be usefully studied in other circumstances in which waders feed and roost?

The bigger picture

Turnstone, Sanderling, Purple Sandpipers and Dunlin on an Icelandic beach, having just crossed the Atlantic

When considering the role that coastal ecosystems play in the lives of waders, the main conservation focus has been on estuaries, as for instance discussed in Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea. The open coastline is under threat too, squeezed by rising sea levels, battered by more frequent storms, polluted by plastic etc. In some areas, waders that use these habitats outside the breeding season are also prone to human (and canine) disturbance, as described in this Turnstone study.

Alongside more general habitat degradation, there are specific threats to tidewrack habitats along the coastline. This starts offshore, with the harvesting of stands of growing kelp, and continues when fresh tide-wrack is collected or cleared from shorelines. In 2018, it is estimated that 15,000,000 tonnes of brown algae were removed, globally. Traditionally, rotted tidewrack has been used as a fertiliser on nearby fields but most of the current output is collected when fresh and used to produce alginates, for food manufacture and biomedical purposes. Increasingly, attention is turning to use in biofuels, which has the potential to greatly increase the demand for seaweed.

Ringed Plovers in amongst seaweed on a Northumberland beach (UK)

Whilst the food, biomedical and energy industries see value in tidewrack, the tourist industry appears to see it as an untidy nuisance that spoils the image of a pristine beach. Who knows how much tidewrack is removed from beaches during daily grooming sessions or dug out of wader-rich corners before the start of the tourist season? If the image of what constitutes a welcoming beach is to be changed then perhaps there needs to be a focus on the interest that seaweed adds to a tideline walk – as visitors collect shells and look for amber, sea-coal and egg-cases. Is this naïve; have cotton buds, bottles and plastic sullied the image of tidewrack? Should we share more photographs of Sanderling chasing through seaweed-flecked spume and flocks of waders ‘chilling’ on banks of beautifully lit seaweed, instead of the barren white beaches that are used in holiday adverts?

As Timothy Davis and Gunnar Keppel conclude: “Beach-cast wrack created a complex mosaic of unique microclimates varying in space and time, which seemingly allowed shorebirds to minimize energy expenditure, by selecting the thermally most favourable habitats for roosting and foraging. Removal of beach-cast wrack therefore reduces habitat quality and increases energy expenditure and resources in shorebirds and may contribute to the observed decline of migratory shorebird species globally. Management of coastal ecosystems and shorebirds therefore needs to maintain fine-scale environmental heterogeneity.”

Paper

Fine-scale environmental heterogeneity is important for conservation management: beach-cast wrack creates important microhabitats for thermoregulation in shorebirds. Timothy John Davis & Gunnar Keppel. Journal of Applied Ecology. April 2021


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

Waders on the coast

The UK’s coastline is of international importance because of the numbers of waders that it supports. In winter it accommodates over a third of Europe’s wintering Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit and Knot, as well as an increasing number of Sanderling.

Wintering waders on the UK’s estuaries are counted every month but those on the 17,000 km of open coast are only counted once a decade. There are good reasons for this disparity, given the much higher development pressures on estuaries and the need for regular monitoring of sites that are designated and protected. However, this does mean that we have very little information about wintering Purple Sandpipers, the vast majority of which are not covered by monthly Wetland Bird Surveys (WeBS). Over three-quarters of the UK’s Ringed Plovers are missed too, along with over half of the Sanderling and Turnstones and nearly half of the Curlew.

The last Non-estuarine Waterbird Survey took place during the winter of 2015/16, as discussed in the WaderTales blog NEWS and Oystercatchers. Jenny Gill and I undertook counts on Great Cumbrae and along stretches of the Clyde coast, in Scotland, an area we had also covered for the 2007/08 survey. We were concerned to count only 84 waders in 2015, compared to 206 in 2006. Details are in the table alongside. We hoped that 900 other people, walking along a total of 9000 km of the UK’s coastline, had been more successful!

The paper summarising NEWS results for the whole of the UK and making comparisons with previous surveys in 1997/98 and 2006/07 was not published until 2021. In the intervening period, the counts were included in two papers about wintering populations of waterbirds in Great Britain and Ireland, that were discussed in Do population estimates matter? and Ireland’s wintering waders. This blog draws heavily on a Twitter thread from the Wetland Bird Survey and the BTO’s press release. The new paper is published in Bird Study.

The big picture

In December 2015 and January 2016, NEWS III volunteers walked along amazing, long, white beaches, surveyed rocky headlands and scrambled the lengths of boulder-strewn coves. Not every kilometre of the coast could be visited but the fact that 50% coverage was achieved meant that estimates could be made of the whole coastline of the United Kingdom, together with the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles.

In terms of absolute numbers, Scotland has consistently supported the majority of the population across all non-estuarine waterbird surveys for Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Purple Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Redshank and Turnstone. Although this is likely to reflect the relative length of the coastline for Scotland (12,714 km) compared to England (2,705 km), Wales (1,185 km) and Northern Ireland (328 km), Purple Sandpiper, Curlew, Redshank and Turnstone still appear to show a bias towards Scotland.

Using the information collected during the survey, BTO scientists were able to extrapolate estimates of the numbers of open-coast waders in the different countries of the UK and its island dependencies (see table below). The results are published in the journal Bird Study and summarised in the table below.

To evaluate the potential importance of the open coast, NEWS estimates for Great Britain in 2015/16 were compared to average population estimates. For eight species, the open coastline accounts for over 20% of the winter population. The figure of 113% for Purple Sandpipers suggests that more birds may have been present on the coasts of the UK in 2015/16 than in an average year or that the population estimate needs to be revisited. There are no Lapwings or Golden Plover in the table below, as there is no recent, reliable estimate of the national wintering population for either species. The Greenshank line is in italics as the sample size is small.

Ten species are considered in detail in the following sections. The maps were downloaded from the BTO website on 20 March 2021 (https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/ringing/publications/online-ringing-reports). Comparisons are made between results from the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) and the Non-estuarine Waterbirds Survey (NEWS).

Oystercatcher

26% use open coasts. 21% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 22%).

In December 2015, as we walked around the coast of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde, pairs of Oystercatchers were already staking out their territories, probably not having travelled anywhere since the previous summer or perhaps even in the last twenty years! Wintering flocks that we saw may well have included breeding birds from inland sites in Scotland, from Iceland and from Norway, together with juveniles and non-breeding sub-adults. NEWS III found that densities of coastal Oystercatchers were highest in Wales but that this is the area in which there had been the biggest declines. Breeding numbers have fallen rapidly in Scotland, as you can read in Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-top.

Lapwing and Golden Plover

There was a 68% drop in Lapwing figures between 1997/98 and 2015/16 and a 59% drop in Golden Plover. NEWS and WeBS counts of Lapwing and Golden Plover are difficult to interpret because birds move readily between the coast and inland fields, in response to local conditions such as lying snow and the wetness of fields. This is further complicated in more prolonged freezing conditions, when flocks of Lapwing fly west and south in search of feeding opportunities.

Grey Plover

3% use open coasts. 71% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 41%).

The Grey Plovers that we see around the coasts of the UK in December and January breed in Siberia. It has been suggested that one of the reasons for the decline in numbers in Britain & Ireland may be related to new generations of youngsters settling in winter locations on the continental side of the North Sea – a strategy that may now work better, given that winters are not as harsh. It is interesting that losses on open coasts, which many would consider sub-optimal habitats, have been more marked than on estuaries. There’s a WaderTales blog about Grey Plovers.

Ringed Plover

82% use open coasts. 21% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 47%).

Ringed Plovers are red-listed in the UK because of the decline in winter numbers and the importance of these islands of the hiaticula race. In NEWS III, the vast majority of UK birds were found in Scotland (see earlier table) but densities were highest around the coast of England.  Colour-ring studies in Norfolk showed that breeding individuals can adopt a range of migration plans – some marked birds never left the county and others had winter homes as far away as France, Scotland and Ireland. This dispersal is pretty typical of hiaticula race Ringed Plovers that nest in western Europe and southern Scandinavia. Other races travel very long distances (Well-travelled Ringed Plovers).

Curlew

42% use open coasts. 40% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 26%).

Large numbers of Curlew arrive in the UK in the autumn, with a strong link between Finland and the estuaries of England and Wales. It is estimated that 20% of Europe’s Curlew winter within the British Isles and any change in numbers has significance for a species that is already listed as near-threatened by BirdLife International. The decline in numbers on open coasts has been greater than that seen in estuaries; it has been suggested that this may relate to the breeding origins of birds using different habitats.

Bar-tailed Godwit

15% use open coasts. 33% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 21%).

Unlike Black-tailed Godwits, which seek out the gloopiest of mud, Bar-tailed Godwits are perfectly at home on sandy shorelines. Wintering birds are of the race lapponica; these breed in Northern Scandinavia, Finland and western Russia (more here). NEWS III tells us that there has been a larger decline in numbers in coastal areas than on estuaries, perhaps related to the relative suitability of the two habitat types.

Turnstone

68% use open coasts. 29% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 29%).

Almost all of the UK’s wintering Turnstones are thought to be birds that breed in Greenland and Canada. Declines are consistent between NEWS and WeBS. A Northumberland study has shown that, as numbers have dropped, so birds have withdrawn into areas that are less disturbed by people and dogs (See Disturbed Turnstones). About three-quarters of the UK’s open-coast Turnstones are found in Scotland but they are more thinly spread here than in England.

Sanderling

69% use open coasts. 26% NEWS increase since 1997/98. (WeBS increase 8%).

As discussed in Travel advice for Sanderling, the UK is a pretty good place to spend the winter. Whether the same would have been true for previous generations of Sanderling, that were faced with much colder winters, is open to conjecture. Since 1997/98, the densities of Sanderling in Wales have increased by 712%, by 462% in Scotland and by 85% in England. How long will it be until Sanderling flocks successfully over-winter in Iceland?

Dunlin

6% use open coasts. 51% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 38%).

Three races of Dunlin can be seen in the UK (as you can read in Which wader, when and why?). Wintering Dunlin are birds of the alpina race, arriving in the UK from Siberia, NW Russia, northern Finland and northern Scandinavia in the late summer. Open coasts around the UK are estimated to accommodate fewer than 20,000 Dunlin. To put this into context, there are six estuaries that each hold more than this total during the winter period.

Purple Sandpiper

Almost all on open coasts. 19% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 34%).

The rocky coasts of the UK are home to Purple Sandpipers from the Arctic, with a suggestion that North Sea coasts south of Aberdeen mainly play host to birds from Spitsbergen and northern Scandinavia, with Greenland and Canadian birds more likely to be found further north and on the Atlantic coast. Coastal numbers have declined by 19%. The Highland Ringing Group has shown that the number of young Purple Sandpipers has been declining on the Moray Firth, suggesting a period of relatively poor breeding success for birds migrating from the northwest.

Redshank

22% use open coasts. 42% NEWS decline since 1997/98. (WeBS decline 21%).

Perhaps surprisingly, few Redshank cross the North Sea to spend the winter in the UK. Winter flocks are largely made up of home-grown birds and migrants from Iceland. The recent decline in Redshank numbers is thought to be a reflection of changing numbers of British and Irish breeders, although there are no monitoring schemes to provide information about Icelandic birds. Since 1997/98, the number of Redshank on open coasts has dropped by 42% but almost all of the losses have occurred in the period since 2007/08 (37% decline between 2007/08 and 2015/16). Redshank is currently amber-listed in the UK, reflecting falling breeding numbers, but ‘promotion’ to the red list cannot be far off. There is a WaderTales blog about the rapid decline in the number of Redshank breeding on salt-marshes: Redshank – the warden of the marshes.

Summary

The Non-estuarine Waterbird Survey 2015/16 revealed that there have been major declines in abundance of four species since NEWS II in 2007/08, only eight years previously: Lapwing (down 57%), Curlew (down 31%), Redshank (down 37%) and Turnstone (down 32%). Lapwing and Curlew are both red-listed in the UK. The only species to increase is Sanderling (up by 79%).

Given the magnitude of the changes revealed in NEWS III, it is unfortunate that this labour-intensive survey can only be carried out every eight to ten years. Ideally, it might be possible to survey at least a sample of sites on an annual basis. It is certainly to be hoped that funding can be found for NEWS IV within the next few years, and that volunteers will once more be prepared to count waterbirds on beautiful, if exposed, stretches of coastline.

The results of NEWS III are published in a paper in Bird Study:

Wader populations on the United Kingdom’s open coast: results of the 2015/16 Non-Estuarine Waterbird Survey (NEWS-III) and a review of population trends. Humphreys, E.M., Austin, G.E., Frost, T.M., Mellan, H.J., Boersch-Supan, P., Burton, N.H.K. and Balmer, D.E.


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

Grassland management for Stone-curlew

Detailed studies of a small number of Stone-curlews, breeding in Breckland in the east of England, give some clues as to how to provide the right habitat mix for these big-eyed, nocturnal waders. Increasing structural diversity, by ploughing and/or harrowing areas of grassland, can create an attractive network of nesting and foraging sites for breeding and non-breeding adults.

In a 2021 paper in Animal Conservation, Rob Hawkes and colleagues from the University of East Anglia, RSPB and Natural England give us insights into the daily lives of Stone-curlews nesting in the dry grasslands of East Anglia. By fitting five individuals with GPS tags and following their movements they were able to establish which habitats are used at different stages of the breeding season.

The Stone-curlew is the only migratory member of the thick-knee family. England is at the north-western limit of a breeding range that stretches east to the steppes of Kazakhstan, with birds wintering in southern Europe, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian sub-continent. Most English birds spend the winter months in Spain, Portugal, Morocco or Algeria but a small number are known to cross the Sahara. Stone-curlews return to East Anglia in March and April.

Unmodified grassland in the Brecks of East Anglia provides limited feeding opportunities for Stone-curlews
Creating heterogeneity within areas of grassland by ploughing and/or harrowing patches

During the twentieth century, numbers of Stone-curlew across Europe fell significantly, as mechanized farming expanded. The East Anglian population had dropped to fewer than 100 pairs by 1985 and it took huge conservation efforts to increase this to 200 pairs. Breeding birds are now typically to be found in sparsely-vegetated ground, often in spring-sown crops, on dry heathland or in semi-natural grassland areas, including those used for military training. Preferred food items, such as earthworms, soil-surface invertebrates, slugs and snails, are easier to find in areas of bare and broken ground than in thick grass, so grazing is an important part of conservation action on heaths and in grassland areas.

Each of these square treatments covers a hectare

The UK’s migratory Stone-curlew population has received a huge amount of conservation support, on the back of detailed studies of the species’ breeding ecology (Green et al. 2000).  Tremendous efforts have been made to maximise chick production in farmland, with conservation staff and volunteers working with farmers to monitor breeding pairs, so that they can protect nests and chicks during crop-management operations. In the long term, however, such interventions are too labour-intensive to be sustainable. Can equivalent benefits accrue if more Stone-curlews nest successfully in semi-natural grassland, where the costs of conservation subsidies are lower than in intensively farmed arable cropland?

The study that is reported in the 2021 paper in Animal Conservation took place in an extensive area of semi-natural grassland (nearly 40 km2) that is surrounded by a mosaic of arable farmland. The aim was to understand whether ploughing or harrowing patches of grassland can provide suitable foraging areas, and which other habitats are important.    

Tracking Stone-curlews

GPS tag attached to the back of a Stone Curlew

Stone-curlews are predominantly nocturnal feeders so some form of remote tracking device was needed to understand their movements. GPS loggers were fitted to five adult Stone-curlews during the breeding season. Individuals were caught at night using small, beetle-baited, elastic-powered clap-nets or in the daytime using nest-traps. Each individual was fitted with a 5.2 g solar-powered nanoFix Geo PathTrack GPS tag and an external whip antenna. GPS data were downloaded to a remote base station through a radio connection. Tagged birds were visited at least once a week to establish whether they were still nesting, if they had chicks or had finished breeding.

Where did they go?

One, two and three hectare plots of disturbed ground had already been created within Breckland’s grassland and heathland areas, prior to this study, as described in the paper and discussed in the blog Curlews and foxes in East Anglia. It was already clear that these plots were favoured as nesting sites but does disturbed ground also provide additional feeding opportunities for adult birds – including pairs nesting nearby on arable fields?

Using a telescope to point the base station ‘reader’ at a bird wearing a GPS logger

Three male and two female Stone-curlews were tracked for more than nine weeks (67 to 102 days), yielding 510 GPS fixes during nesting and 1371 post-breeding. There were some fixes in the pre-nesting phase and also during the chick-rearing phase but too few to be considered for analysis. Analytical methods are detailed in the paper.

During the nesting period, what was presumed to be the off-duty bird of each pair was found within 1 km of the nest on 90% of fixes. The mean distance from the nest during daytime feeding was about 100 m but, at night, tagged birds travelled five times as far, on average. They travelled furthest when heading for pig-fields and manure heaps.

  • Relative to closed, undisturbed grassland, nesting Stone-curlews were two- to three-times as likely to forage on disturbed-grassland during night and day, but especially during the day.
  • Night and day, ‘sugar beet or maize’ fields were used more than unmodified-grassland but similar to disturbed-grassland.
  • Nocturnally, Stone-curlews were ten-times as likely to use ‘pig fields or manure heaps’, when compared to undisturbed grassland.
  • The furthest distance travelled was just over 4 km, which is further than previously thought.
Stone-curlews will fly a long way to feed in pig fields

In the post-breeding period, tagged birds travelled up to 13 km to forage, with 90% of nocturnal foraging locations found to be within 5 km of day-time roosting sites.

  • Tagged birds were approximately 15-times as likely to use either disturbed-grassland or arable fallows when compared to undisturbed grassland.
  • Use of the category ‘pig fields or manure heaps’ was nearly as strong (factor c. 10), in comparison to undisturbed grassland.
  • Open crops in the categories ‘sugar beet or maize’ and ‘vegetable or root crops’ were also used more than undisturbed-grassland (factor c. 2).

Conservation messages

In England, there has been a long-term focus on trying to maximise Stone-curlew productivity within arable farmland, especially in East Anglia but also in Wessex. As suggested earlier, this is expensive – foregone production requires high subsidies and interventions by conservation staff are time-consuming. A French study, written up in Ibis by Gaget et al., seriously questions the viability of Stone-curlew populations within intensively managed arable farmland, even with conservation support. Given these problems, should conservation efforts focus on supporting and building up grassland populations?

In a previous tracking study, thirty years previously, Green at al. found that short semi-natural grassland provided suitable foraging habitat for Stone-curlews. Much has changed in Breckland in the intervening period, with the collapse of the rabbit population and an increase in the amount of outdoor pig-rearing. As the short swards of rabbit-grazed grassland have disappeared, Stone-curlews seem to have increasingly taken advantage of alternative opportunities offered in pig fields.

Previous attempts to replicate the grazing efforts of rabbits have involved increasing livestock numbers but this study shows that physical ground-disturbance interventions immediately and effectively create alternative foraging habitat. The authors suggest that multiple areas of disturbed-ground, close to the edge of large grassland blocks, can provide a network of nesting and foraging habitats, whilst allowing access to a mixture of feeding opportunities in the surrounding arable farmland. Of course, nobody is suggesting that intensive outdoor pig-rearing is a positive addition to the habitat mix, as it involves nutrient run-off, ammonia leakage into fragile plant-rich heathland, and pelleted feed attracts corvids (which are known to predate eggs).

The effect of creating ploughed or harrowed plots is almost immediate, in terms of prey availability. In more detailed studies of the effectiveness of slightly different ground-disturbance options, the research team found a strong selection preference only one year after the treatments were first implemented. In the longer term, these areas may become increasingly important, if young birds recruit to the local population and seek out these features. The researchers suggest that a bespoke, ground-disturbance agri-environment option might open up new breeding opportunities within semi-natural grasslands that are currently dominated by tall, closed swords. 

In England, conservation of dry grasslands and heathlands has tended to focus on the preservation of charismatic plant communities, an approach that may have been too gentle and conservative for other taxa. Whilst this study demonstrates that adding pockets of disturbed ground appears to benefit Stone-curlews, previous studies, conducted by this research team, showed benefits for Woodlark (Hawkes et al. 2019), Eurasian Curlew (Zielonka et al. 2019, summarised in Curlews and foxes in East Anglia), and rare, scarce or threatened dry-grassland invertebrates (Hawkes et al. 2019). Similar disturbance techniques have been shown to potentially benefit other grassland-breeding waders, such as Mountain Plovers (Augustine & Skagen 2014) and Upland Sandpipers (Sandercock et al. 2015) in North America, and Sociable Lapwings in Kazakhstan (Kamp et al. 2009).

Paper

This is a summary of a 2021 paper in Animal Conservation:

Effects of experimental land management on habitat use by Eurasian Stone-curlews. Robert W Hawkes, Jennifer Smart, Andy Brown, Rhys E Green, Helen Jones & Paul M Dolman.

Each summer, farmers, volunteers and conservation staff work together to monitor and protect nesting Stone-curlews on farmland, grasslands and heaths in eastern and southern England. Thanks to all of these people, the number of pairs of Stone-curlew in England is holding steady, at over 300 pairs. Progress was reviewed at a conference in 2017, as you can read in this layman’s report and this technical report. More guidance for landowners can be found here.


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

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