From winter beaches to summer moorland and woodland, Wales provides essential habitats for waders.
There are over one hundred WaderTales blogs so far. Here’s a selection that may well appeal to birdwatchers in Wales.
Winter beaches & estuaries
Wales holds important populations of waders in the wintertime – everything from Bar-tailed Godwits from Siberia to Turnstones from Canada. Some of the Oystercatchers seen in sites such as the Burry Inlet or the Menai Strait are from Iceland, where they can be found alongside Redshanks and Golden Plover that have also arrived from the north. They emphasise the close links between Wales and Iceland when it come to birdlife.
Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers explains how a new project is examining the costs and benefits of being a migrant. Welsh reports of Icelandic colour-ringed birds are helping to provide answers. Here’s a blog about the first paper: Which Oystercatchers cross the Atlantic?
Interestingly, while there are similar links between Ireland and Iceland, the migratory provenance of Welsh Snipe may be very different to that of Irish ones. A quarter of foreign-ringed Snipe reported in Ireland have been found to be wearing Icelandic rings but, so far, no Reykjavik-ringed Snipe have been spotted in Wales. Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland compares the migratory strategies of the two species and laments the decline of Common Snipe, as a breeding species.
You may be lucky enough to have Greenshanks wintering on a local Welsh estuary. These birds are likely to be from the Scottish breeding population, as you can read here: Migration of Scottish Greenshank.
Protecting key wintering sites is a high priority when it comes to wader conservation. A recent BTO and WWT project aims to provide better information as to how species as diverse as Dunlin and Shelduck make use of the Severn Estuary. This is important work, with major relevance to discussions as to how power might be generated within the estuary. Tracking waders on the Severn urges birdwatchers to look for colour-marked birds. Initial results, shared at a recent International Wader Study Group conference, indicate that the home range of a Redshank is ten times as big as originally thought. It will be interesting to see what else this study reveals.
Hundreds of Welsh birdwatchers take part in the Wetland Bird Survey and the intensive work involved in periodic Low Tide Counts. These identify and monitor key sites and establish the most important feeding sites within estuaries. Whilst mud and sand-flats are, of course, important to waders, so are roost sites. A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. I had not realised that it has been estimated that the cost of flying to and from roosts might account for up to 14% of a bird’s daily energy expenditure. That’s something to think about next time you see a dog chasing off a flock of roosting waders. A second WaderTales blog focuses upon how disturbance affects wintering Turnstone.
This blog reveals the latest trends in numbers of Britain’s wintering waders: Do population estimates matter? Most species are less numerous but the Black-tailed Godwit bucks the trend. Warmer British winters may be providing easier conditions for these smart waders but this paper shows how spring conditions in Iceland are driving the trend: From local warming to range expansion.
There is exciting work going on in Wales, to understand why so many Whimbrel spend time in the country in the spring. Whimbrels on the move summarises a paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel. Since its publication, a new paper has shown that Whimbrel are able to fly between Iceland and west Africa in one jump but that they usually need to stop off on the way north. See Iceland to Africa non-stop.
Some waders are more mobile than others. Although both Grey Plover and Knot are ‘winter visitors’, ringing has shown that they move around the estuaries bordering the Irish Sea, during the period from October to April. Colour-ringing studies aim to help us to understand the importance of this network of sites to Knot from Canada and Greenland and Grey Plover from Siberia. Welsh birdwatchers can help by reporting birds wearing lettered flags on their legs.
Each spring, Welsh beaches see influxes of Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Turnstone and Dunlin, as birds pass through on their way from Africa to Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Some of the smart summer-plumage Sanderling could have travelled from South Africa, Senegal or Portugal but others spend the winter in Wales. This fascinating paper gives Travel advice to Sanderling.
Some lucky Welsh birdwatchers might come across a trip of Dotterel in spring as they stop off in places like the Great Orme or on an inland hill-top. Some will be heading for Scotland and others may make it all the way to Norway. Numbers are declining – is this climate related? Read more in Scotland’s Dotterel: still hanging on.
There’s a blog on the subject of wader migration if you want a quick summary for 40 or more species: Which wader, when and why?
Wales provides homes to many breeding waders, from Ringed Plover on the coast, via Little Ringed Plover and Commons Sandpiper along rivers and into the moorland for Curlew and Dunlin, passing a forest with Woodcock en route. And that’s only giving a mention to half of the country’s breeding wader species.
Starting on salt-marsh, Big-foot and the Redshank nest investigates appropriate cattle stocking levels for successful Redshank breeding. Although the work was undertaken in northwest England, there is no reason to believe that Welsh cattle are any less careful as to where they put their feet. This paper shows that salt-marsh Redshank are in trouble: Redshank -the warden of the marshes.
We are all aware of the issues facing farmland waders. The next blog is about research in Scotland but the story it tells, of declining numbers of species such as Redshank and Lapwing, could ave been written about Wales. Here, you can read how farming has changed and the impacts that this has had upon breeding waders: 25 years of wader declines.
Spring sees the return of Common Sandpipers from Africa, to nest along Welsh rivers and around reservoirs. Not-so-Common Sandpipers describes the migration and decline of this much-loved species.
Is the Curlew really near-threatened? considers the plight of breeding Curlew. It’s easy to understand why RSPB, BTO, GWCT and BirdWatch Ireland are focusing on this species. You can read about Ireland’s Curlew Crisis here. The Welsh decline is not as serious as the one in Ireland, where the number of breeding pairs has dropped from 3300 to 138 pairs, but you still have to ask: How long will it be until breeding Curlew are lost from Wales?
This blog summarises the threats to breeding Curlew across Great Britain: Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.
Research by RSPB in Wales has focused on specific issues relating to grazing: Sheep numbers and Welsh Curlews.
Predation is acknowledged as a major issue for Curlew but is this going to be a problem for Oystercatchers too? Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-tops reveals a significant decline of the species in Scotland, mediated to some extent by range expansion in three dimensions. There’s a specific mention of the Burry Inlet control programme of the 1970s.
The strangest Welsh wader has to be the Woodcock – probing about in winter fields and nesting in forestry plantations. Conserving British-breeding Woodcock focuses on worrying results from the latest GWCT/BTO survey and work to reduce losses during the shooting season.
Hopefully, this summary gives a flavour of some of the issues being faced by Welsh waders and the research to which they are contributing. There are already over 100 blogs in the WaderTales series, with one or two new blogs being produced each month. If you want to know more about wader migration or moult, how volcanoes affect breeding waders in Iceland, why Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings or if there are costs to carrying a geolocator have a look here.
Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland. He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.